How do you take notes in the archives?

Report from the front line.

Over the past 1.5 weeks here at the BL I’ve surreptitiously spied on my fellow archive rats to see how they take notes. No surprise that most use a laptop, though of course there are still several old-schoolers using pencil and paper (haven’t seen any 3×5 notecards, oddly enough). And one guy that keeps shining a bright light through the paper, looking for who knows what. [The BL doesn’t allow any photography – the bastards.]

The vast majority of those using laptops are using some type of word processor software. Only a few, including myself, use some kind of database program – the only one I could identify was Evernote.

I did just notice an interesting variation, however: someone using an iPad for notetaking. I brought one for the trip, but haven’t been bringing it to the archives because of my tiny portfolio case [note to self: bring a bigger bookbag]. I was particularly intrigued, however, by *how* he used his detachable wireless keyboard. I have one for the iPad but chose not to take it on the trip, for space reasons and because my laptop has an even better keyboard. But this means that I have two objects with large footprints that I have to fit within 1-2 feet of the edge of the desk (to reach the keyboard and to easily read the ms). Thus both the book stand and keyboard are angled at a 120 degree (or so) angle to each other. This means having your body facing the laptop and craning your neck off to the side to read the book. As it is, after transcribing for several hours my back/neck/shoulders get sore and I need to switch the laptop from one side to another (and the angle of the chair as well). Ironically, I had thought I’d have more soreness in the first part of the trip from bending over mss to photograph them. Ah, the occupational hazards of the life of the mind.

What I didn’t appreciate (and he has) is that with a small, portable, detachable keyboard you decrease the footprint by separating the keyboard from the screen (i.e. iPad), which means you can put the small, ‘short’ keyboard right in front of the book stand, have the screen off to one side, sit straight, and have the book lined up with the keyboard and close enough to see easily, just a foot or so away [Did I mention the BL Mss room has horrible lighting, and most of the mss handwriting is tiny? And I probably need bifocals?] This would seem to provide a much better sitting posture since your shoulders and head/neck are in proper alignment. Plus, it encourages you to stop looking at the screen, which makes for faster touch typing (even if there may be a few more typos).

Of course one other way to mitigate this would be to not transcribe so many sources, but personally I find it more time consuming (or at least mentally taxing) to read through a source and then paraphrase/summarize it than just transcribe it. And transcription provides you with the ability to refer back to their exact language in a way that summarizing doesn’t. Of course it also helps to use various abbreviations (qq for quelque is one of my faves since my fingers always trip up on that word for some reason, and don’t even get me started on aujourd’hui), maybe even use AutoCorrect for common ones.




8 responses to “How do you take notes in the archives?”

  1. Gavin Robinson says :

    I hate working at the BL because of the no photography rule and having the MS and laptop at right angles (and staying in central London is more expensive than Kew, so I get even less material for my money). My preferred solution is to define research projects that can mostly be done at the PRO, but obviously there are limits to that. For my book I found that I was mostly cherry picking BL MSS for good quotes whereas I photographed huge amounts of PRO documents and did quantitative analysis of them. It’s partly down to the different kinds of records that they hold, but ease of working also has an influence.

    I used to use autocorrect to expand abbreviations in the late 90s but I’ve gone off that because now I’d rather have an exact transcript with original spellings. Looking at my old notes I always wonder how accurate my paraphrases and summaries are, and these days I’m much more sensitive to language. I also sometimes see mistyped abbreviations that never got expanded.

    • jostwald says :

      I only spent a couple days in the PRO a decade ago, although I did download dozens of volumes from the State Papers Online – of course there are 100s (1000s?) more not digitized, but it’s a good start. It’s a good thing I took advantage of that trial subscription in the US, because it turns out neither Oxford nor the BL (nor I think Cambridge) subscribe to the SPO Stuart foreign papers (vol 4 I think). Lesson: Don’t assume universities in your target country have everything. And the BL rules state users are not to download any of their database materials, so you can’t even necessarily assume that you will get unlimited access to them.

      I tend to try to stick with the contemporary abbreviations, but occasionally I’ll forget and my fingers will type “the” because it’s quicker than “ye”. Has anyone done any studies on whether specific spelling variations/abbreviations have any particular meaning? Other than telling us that orthography was far from standardized (or at least education), does it tell us anything else?

    • jostwald says :

      Should’ve clarified that I AutoCorrect to more quickly type full words in the original (just like ‘WSS.’ turns into ‘War of the Spanish Succession’ for me), not expand abbreviations in the original.

      • Gavin Robinson says :

        That’s what I did too, usually when I was paraphrasing in modern spelling, so hh turned into horse, fx turned into Fairfax etc.

        The main reason why I try to get the exact spelling is if I want to quote it directly, and I might not know what I want to quote in future when I’m researching. Sometimes spelling can be very significant. I remember a conference where Steve Hindle was debating with someone whether a strangely spelt word meant ‘poor’ or ‘power’.

      • jostwald says :

        Fair enough. I’d suggest a hierarchy though: nouns (proper and abstract esp.) need to be noted verbatim, whereas with less semantically-important words (stop words and the like) it’s fine to not record every variation. Unless you’re doing linguistic analysis, in which case, via con dios.
        When I get back I’ll try to post up an example I wrestled with just the other day.

      • jostwald says :

        I forgot to mention that I get annoyed when history books/authors modernize spelling and grammar in their quotes – as far too many do. What is the point of that? Is your average reader of an academic monograph really going to freak out if they see ‘seige’ or ‘battallion’, much less ‘Marlboro’…? If it’s truly incomprehensible, that’s why God created brackets [ ], or the lowly footnote. For that matter, I don’t understand why everyone gets bent out of shape seeing a variation such as Rijswijk for Ryswick, or Ouwerkerk for Auverquerque. Personally I like to see the spelling variations.

        Perhaps it even tells us a bit about their educational background? Why is it, for example, that some Englishmen c. 1700 spell quite well (in a modern sense) and consistently, while others don’t even spell consistently from paragraph to paragraph? Obviously we have to take the use of secretaries into account here and the development of dictionaries, which are becoming more common by the late 17C. In general I like seeing the visual reminders that they were slightly different back then. It’s probably more of a problem the further back you go, e.g. early 17C English is much more difficult for my students than late 17C English is.

  2. Patricia R. Perrella says :

    Most archives I’ve used will allow digital photography without a flash. You can just pop the little SDHC card in your computer and uses the files this way. It’s usually easier to read them also as you can magnify on your screen and also use these images in your manuscripts as you already have the citations! You can fly through a group of documents this way and leave feeling like you have really accomplished something !!! You can also print them out if need be. I just use a small Canon PowerShot A1000IS 10.0 mega pixels that also has ISO adjustments. It’s great for travel but you just need to bring enough AA batteries.
    I think the gadget that shines the light through the paper is one of those hand-held scanners that also saves to a small card. A lot of archives don’t like this much handling of the documents though as it’s got to contact the surface to do the scan.

  3. brucecastleman says :

    I am just finishing up one of those quick research trips. The NARA New York branch allowed photography, and the one other researcher had a laptop and a Panasonic digital camera. She seemed to be finding and copying many more things than I did.

    I used the camera in my iPhone 4S and it worked well on documents and also on projected microfilm reader screens. I downloaded the images into my computer, with a separate folder for each one so I don’t mix them up. They are all perfectly legible.

    I did get through everything that I wanted there and found that I had budgeted much more time than I actually needed. Things went much faster than in Mexico City, Lima, or Sevilla. I did do my homework before I got to New York, using the online ARC catalog to identify what I wanted, and then writing them in advance to confirm that they indeed had the things that ARC said they did.

    I still take handwritten notes and then transcribe them later. I don’t think that I compose well at the keyboard and so I remain a Luddite on this one. If I want more than a small note, then I just take the picture. Obviously that won’t work in a place that doesn’t allow photography.

    My whole idea is only to collect source material on site in the archives and libraries and then process and analyze it at home. It doesn’t always work out that way, but it does seem an efficient use of time and money. I once bought ten rolls of microfilm in Mexico City, which for all intents and purposes, turned a couple of weeks into three months of archives research. There were many pages on those rolls that did not figure into my manuscript, but it was faster and cheaper than staying. My family then came down, and we went “touristing” for a couple of weeks.

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