Bibliographies, Indices, Card Catalogues, oh my!; or, The Well-Organized Life: A Cry for Help

I have always been interested in the meticulous organization of my thoughts and scribblings. Back in my childhood bedroom, my notebooks are shelved in chronological order; my high-school math notes are in a three-ring binder with tabs for “geometry” and “intermediate algebra” and “pre-calculus” and “calculus”; the boxes of schoolwork are indexed by academic year and subject; the hard drives are the same, with nests of folders backed up in three places all cross-indexed by date and subject.

But if my work has always been organized, my thoughts have not. My notebooks may march on, all neatly dated in the top right-hand corner of each page, but if I don’t know when I scribbled down a certain quotation or an idea for a new line of research or the title of an article to read, how am I ever going to find it again? In all my efforts to reorganize—blogs, varying folder trees, the occasional catch-all manila envelope—I never seem to have broken out of a chronological approach. It is all very well to scribble a date on something and consider it filed, to post it to a WordPress CMS and see it “archived,” but that’s not much of a card catalogue at all. Even if I started using tags on my blogged collections of pensĂ©es, that wouldn’t solve the problem of my handwritten notes, my scribblings in the margins of books, my books themselves. It’s been a long time since I had so few books that I could keep track of them all in a database without constant management—and now that I’ve taken to writing notes about everything in them, that’s become even more true. It’s begun to seem like an insurmountable question of organization—and given that I have officially started background-reading for The Big Research Project, this is a terrible time for me to realize that my research methods are simply inadequate.

I was put in mind of this problem when reading Keith Thomas’s fantastically engaging meditations on scholars’ research methods in this week’s London Review of Books. Thomas talks about moving beyond scribbles in the margins of books (I give a nervous glance in the direction of my weighty used hardcover edition of the Ellmann Wilde biography, which is becoming covered in pencil as I haul it up and down the northeast corridor); he goes on to catalogue catalogues—and commonplace books, card indices, slips of paper in pigeonholes, eventually arriving at cursory (and dismissive) references to the various methods of electronically managing lots of little bits of information. And as I read the article, it slowly dawned on me that: 1) Thomas was speaking from the experience of having written his own long works of history; 2) I will before too long be writing my own long works of history, commencing with The Big Research Project (okay, I mean my senior thesis, but I’m too embarrassed-slash-pretentious-slash-I-read-too-many-real-academics’-blogs to actually call it what it is); 3) I will need more than half a dozen books with attendant scribblings to do this; 4) A year or more from now when I actually start writing the damn thing, I will probably not remember to the letter everything I was thinking when I first read the first sources back in the summer of 2010. Radical revisionism, I concluded, would be required.

And then, of course, two days went by, and I made another hundred pages’ worth of notes in my Wilde books, bookmarked another half-dozen journal articles and book reviews suggesting further avenues of research, and made a couple new entries in my journal trying out some language for thesis statements—all according to the old chronological, scribblings-in-margins method, and all very difficult to recoup without doing all the work I’m doing now over again.

My background reading is going well; I’m in high spirits and I feel as if I’m getting somewhere. Last night I began to get a sense of just where this project might slot between the work that real historians have done, and found myself overcome by the heady enthusiasm that I find invariably greets the all-too-rare sense that I am Having Original Thoughts. Of course, in the background there is always the fear that tomorrow I am going to notice the article which has said everything I could ever possibly want to say, put forth all the primary sources I could ever hope to discover, and in every way trampled over the ground onto which I dream of stepping far better than any half-baked undergrad who took a few seminars at Princeton and now thinks she knows everything could manage. But right now I am scribbling down titles to order the minute I have a permanent address and lying in bed at night dreaming up chapter titles as blithely as can be—only hoping that, as my mental database grows larger, I don’t forget the pieces of my argument which I’m holding mentally—I’m sure, after all, to misplace the bits of paper.

Dear reader, I think it’s time for a Cry of Help: what methods do you propose for keeping together thoughts both in direct response to texts and removed from them; citations; potential avenues of inquiry; and other such necessary trappings of my scary first big project? I prefer analog methods to digital ones, but if there’s a particular computer notetaking/filing strategy you swear by, let me know that too. There is nothing I want more in my life right now than to pull off this project and feel myself worthy of graduate study… but right now it feels very large, and I feel very small indeed, and all those little bits of paper covered in pencil seem like a Red Sea in need of parting.

7 thoughts on “Bibliographies, Indices, Card Catalogues, oh my!; or, The Well-Organized Life: A Cry for Help

  1. Hire a secretary?

    Computer methods are handy, because you can pull the data out in different ways: by date, by “tag”, by keyword, etc. But pen and paper is very handy: you can scribble, sketch, underline, and work practically anywhere.

    I’d offer to build you a database, tailored to your needs, but it would never get done.


  2. I don’t have much to offer by way of analog methods, but I am a big fan of Evernote ( – it’s an awesome note-taking tool that lets you tag and sort things and its searchable, so you can find whatever you’re looking for and when you wrote it.

  3. I am a big fan of Microsoft’s OneNote software – automatically tells you where you pasted anything from (be it file or URL), lets you organize in something that looks superficially like a binder (pages/sections/notebooks), reasonably easy to tag/highlight, and has a “search” function that can handle just about anything. I used it for 10-20 page papers and for comprehensive exams – don’t know about for a senior thesis, but it might work!

  4. Evernote…

    You can scan in hand-written notes and it will recognize text in them and make it searchable. Ditto with pictures (i.e. of signs, receipts, doodles). Also does voice notes, etc.

    I’m a big fan of analog methods, and I think Evernote can be the bridge that connects them to the digital world.

  5. Oh man, I had no idea! That’s the best. I started using Evernote on Stilesienne’s recommendation, and it’s totally helping me stay organized… I think Rajiv’s tip might make me a complete convert, especially given that I still prefer to do a lot of notetaking and outlining by hand.

  6. Wow. I’ve actually had this question before, both in terms of research and just life in general. Evernote sounds like it’s pretty awesome.

    It’s amazing that you’re so excited about your thesis and research. It’s inspiring. I’ve felt similarly about ideas in regards to things I want to make happen, especially in relation to activism and yoga (connected and separately). I feel like if it felt possible, I would also feel that way about academics. But at this point I feel like it’s practically a lost cause for me to hope to really achieve anything. Hm, didn’t realize that I was so pessimistic about that until writing this. Maybe this is something I should work on. Anyway, thanks for this post!

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