the awkward straddle

Steve Losh’s excellent post on going paper-free (HT) came at a timely moment for me. I emerged from PhD completion in a somewhat annoying quandary. Despite a certain amount of initial awareness and investigation, which led me to embark on my thesis project with a virtual research structure and workflow in place, my four-year archive of research material, notes, photocopied articles &c. is strung awkwardly between the virtual and physical. My inclination is to work electronically, so I started right away. I set up a Devonthink database for primary material and my own notes, and Bookends, a bibliographic reference database, for secondary material. From the beginning I photographed and PDFd archive material, typed all my notes into Devonthink, and opted to collect articles by PDF wherever possible.

But the physical intruded inevitably: through force of circumstance, through laziness on my part to maintain consistency, or just through plain disutility–for example, scanning an article from which I knew I would only use a paragraph or sentence.

As a result, I have relatively few (just two!) boxes of physically filed journal articles, archive photographs and photocopies. But because I work mostly virtually, the contents of this physical archive are difficult to search, and I often found that I forgot what I had, or that I already owned something I was looking for two years later. (As they say: out of sight, out of mind). I also have books of notes taken in archives that won’t permit photography, only a few of which I typed up into my database; a series of untranscribed interview recordings; and recordings of relevant seminars, with handwritten notes. All this meshed uncomfortably with my Devonthink database stuffed with 100% searchable material and notes; a photos folder full of (I’m embarrassed to admit) unsorted, unfiled and unused JPGs from various archive hauls; and a Bookends attachments folder filled with journal article PDFs and library scans.

Now that I’m done, I am standing back and gazing over this dishevelled landscape of material with both resignation & resolution. I’m determined to start my next project with a much stronger and more consistent project structure, and I’m thinking about how to make that as fully and consistently virtual as I can. But I realize also that because of the nature of historical research, physical collection is hard to avoid. Archives, particularly in Asia, are slow to pick up on digital research practices, and good journals aren’t always available online. I think what I learned from trying to do my PhD virtually is that any future plan I make for paper-free research needs nonetheless to be able to accommodate the physical. I ended up doing this for my secondary sources in Bookends by manually indexing the contents of my physical article archive and using a tag ‘My Library’ to generate a list of articles that I physically owned. My next project needs to have some kind of master index like that for primary sources I own, or consulted.

In the next post I’ll put up some screenshots of my four-year-old Devonthink database, which is an interesting mess.


2 responses to “the awkward straddle

  • Gavin Robinson

    I still haven’t found the perfect system, but I keep telling myself that the perfect is the enemy of the good (and maybe one day I’ll believe it). Before I started my book I decided I was going to be super organised but it hasn’t happened. I mostly use Zotero and a private wiki but there are still lots of things that don’t quite fit, especially when it comes to programming and quantitative data. When I finish a project I usually find that I’ve collected much more than I actually needed. These days I can share it on the web fairly easily but that creates even more work to get behind with.

  • Rachel

    absolutely. I think it’s impossible to avoid collecting more (much, much more) than one needs for projects like this. I’ve virtual mountains of unused data! I also think that for every 1,000 words of thesis, I must’ve written in the region of 50,000+ words of non-thesis: research notes, thoughts, drafts etc. Writing & research are processes of distillation. Or as one of my dear friends so eloquently put it, “you historians drink an ocean and piss a teacup”.

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