Reinventing the note-taking wheel, part 12,434,437

Things I’ve discovered (or re-learned) as I’m working on a broad yet brief narrative of the Spanish Succession:

  • Tables of contents are really important. They are particularly important for that one genre of publication that is least likely to have them: encyclopedia-type reference works. Take the example of Frey and Frey’s The Treaties of the War of the Spanish Succession: An historical and critical dictionary (1995). It’s a great resource for the WSS, but its use is severely limited by its ToC. To illustrate:
    Table of Contents for Frey & Frey encyclopedia

    Table of Contents for Frey & Frey encyclopedia

    The problem, you ask? Where is the list of all the entries in those 500 pages? An Index helps, but it is not a replacement, since it is far more detailed, requiring much more effort just to find the main entries. Admittedly, Greenwood included a compromise design, with the index entries indicating the location of the main entries by listing those pages in boldface. Not a bad idea, but since many index entries don’t have a separate heading, there is still too much mental overhead to scan through 30-pages of small-print, multi-column layout to find the main entries – you could easily include a list of main entries in just a few pages. Indices (and full-text searches) are perfect for finding proper nouns; finding concepts is often more important yet more problematic, especially without a standard, controlled vocabulary à la Library of Congress Subject headings. If the book is a reference work, a genre intended for people who are not experts in the subject, the reader may not know which individuals or events even relate to a broad topic, which means they might have to read through all the index detail to find which applies to a broad topic. Even if you are an expert, you may not know which proper noun or synonym to search under.
    My solution? Since I already have an OCRed PDF of the text in addition to the book itself, I’m creating my own ToC that I will print (to tape inside the cover of the book) as well as include at the beginning of the PDF. Different levels of generalization require different types of finding aids. And if the publisher doesn’t provide what you need, consider whether it’s worth your effort to make it yourself.

  • There really is something to serendipity, but it’s fleeting. Although I hate tables of contents that consist of vaguely-literary chapter titles (“Glorious Endeavours”), sometimes it does force one to dip into a work randomly. And occasionally you’ll find something unexpected, once-read-but-now-forgotten or possibly never-read-at-all. These can be intriguing nuggets, but just as often they are annoying, because they usually occur when you’re looking for something else at the moment, and you just know you’ll likely forget it later on if you don’t write it down right now, but to make a note of it requires you to interrupt your flow.
    I don’t have a solution for how to avoid interrupting your workflow, but one general strategy is to only rely on serendipity once. When you find that unexpected encounter, put it somewhere where you will more easily find it next time, preferably some place where you go and look for everything else. With hundreds of books and journal articles, you can almost be guaranteed that several years from now you won’t remember that anecdote or discussion, much less the work it was found in, nor even the specific terminology that author used to describe it. Heck, you might not even think to look in that particular book, which makes marginal notes of marginal utility later on.

    Bluche Index note

    I have no recollection of that note, Senator. Not only that, but I wouldn’t even think to look for info on the princes’ military commands under the ‘Louis XIV’ heading. Each index has its own logic, structure, and terminology, which makes it difficult to reproduce a consistent organization for your own marginalia across books.

The best index is the one you’ve created, translating the author’s vocabulary into your own, and adding terms that are important to you. With so much overhead needed to categorize and locate others’ ideas, it’s no wonder we are constantly reinventing the historiographical wheel, and relying on the same five authors all the time. It’s too hard to find all that disparate info.

So what is my new can’t-fail plan?

  1. Scan in as many tables of contents and indices for as many of my secondary sources as possible. Keep reminding myself that full-text, tables of contents, and indices have different uses, just like transcripts, paraphrases, summaries and keywords. Particularly now that the web has tons of discrete factual historical information readily available (I’m looking at you Wikipedia and Google Books), the next level is to focus on concepts and arguments, things still found in books and articles, poorly indexed to boot. Unfortunately scanning in tables of contents and indices doesn’t help with journal articles and most book chapters, but you have to start somewhere. I should probably also paste in Google Book’s handy “Common terms and phrases” too:
  2. Figure out the one ‘place’ (i.e. application or process) where I want to store my notes, both primary and secondary and USE IT. Currently I have: my primary source transcripts, notes and keywords in my Access database (mostly), my bibliographic database (metadata and keywords only) in another section of the Access database, the PDFs and images of the original primary and secondary sources on my hard drive (viewable through Windows Explorer), and thoughts on various topics (including primary source quotes) in Evernote. I don’t really have a place to systematically store and retrieve my notes on secondary sources, which probably tells you what I think about the historiography in my period. I need to figure out a way to include this info though, probably in my Notes database (linked to the bibliography records).
  3. Once you get all your notes in one place, it’s important to not just rely on a brute force full-text search. That’s the easiest technique (because taking actual notes is time-consuming), but it’s also the least effective, because any search will take a long time (given the prevalence of common terms like names, places, events…) with lots of false hits (and further possibilities of even more of that damned serendipity leading you in yet more directions).
  4. For note-taking on secondary sources specifically, I need to figure a system out. One thing I do know is that I need a more disaggregated set of keywords for different types of events. Right now I have Event Type (e.g. ‘battle’, ‘siege’, ‘surprisal’…) and EventID (a specific battle such as ‘Ramillies1706wss1’…), in addition to all the who, what, when, and where fields. This essentially replicates the proper noun search ability of full-text and indices (but standardized and faster), yet it doesn’t really allow for more the conceptual categories you find in secondary sources. So I’m starting to think I also need other types of broader keywords, e.g. contemporary and historiographical debates (the Military Revolution, the Standing Army debate…), as well as a broader ‘events’ (the Glorious Revolution, the 1698 partition treaty, the 1688-1689 devastation of the Palatinate…). Specifying these explicitly would provide higher-level categories, and make searching easier and more precise than combining together generic keywords searches, such as Level=Diplomacy and Year=1698. As usual, choosing one of these broader event keywords would automatically assign values to the other fields, e.g. ‘Glorious Revolution’ will add ‘1688’ to the Year field, ’17C’ to the Century field, ‘England’ to the Country field, and so on. If only historians had a standardized terminology for such matters, it would make my life easier. Students could certainly afford to be reminded that the ‘fact’ of the Glorious Revolution is rather different than the ‘fact’ that William landed at Torbay in 1688. And what’s the different between a ‘subject’ and a ‘topic’? What exactly does ‘type of history’ mean? ….


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