on DevonThink and history research (I)


If you’re dropping by from the mothership, hi! I’m Rachel. I write now and then about history, academia, research tech and bookporn. Hit the RSS if you’re into any of that, I’d probably like to know you — R. L. 01.09.2011


As some of you know, I am a loyal devotee of DevonThink, and was fortunate enough to have found out about it early on in my research. For four years, over the course of my PhD, I mucked about with it: exploring, optimizing, and adding to it–sometimes systematically, sometimes not. In consequence, it’s a gnarled, twisty and flawed little place (presumably, like the brain whence it sprung).

Nevertheless, I thought I’d offer a tour through my PhD database for several purposes: to allow those who are interested in finding out more about DT to get some specific insight into its uses for humanities research; to document for myself some of the things I did which worked and didn’t; to hear from anyone with more experience in research management systems; and perhaps offer something new or different to those who already use DT or something similar.

(For those who don’t know or use DT, it’s an amazing piece of research management software for Macs, consisting of a smart, flexibly structured database into which one can place all manner of files, web bookmarks, photos and notes. Some use one database for everything; I prefer to allocate one database per project. This post is about my PhD database).

Here’s my root file structure. In this post I’m primarily going to discuss the yellow folders, called “groups”: specifically, Archives, Chronologies, Images, Library, Notebooks and +Notes. (NB: For all images, click to expand).

I suppose I’m a little old-fashioned in my approach to groups. I don’t really exploit the full flexibility of DT — how it allows you, for instance, to “replicate” files in many different places such that changing something in one file will change all instances of that file no matter which group it’s in. Some people are happy, therefore, to have files floating freely across many different groups. To me (stodgy old historian that I am), a file needs to be anchored in one place: it must have a group which is its original container, no matter where else it might also appear. So I have a Research Library group which originally contains my notes on all the books, journal articles and dissertations I read:

and an Archives group which contains my notes from all the repositories I’ve consulted. Here are my groups from the National Archives (TNA) at Kew, London:

though as you can see, I don’t just have traditional archives in there, but also web resources and personal collections: in short, anything that’s a collection of some kind, grouped according to where I physically went and consulted them.

Together, those two basic groups contained the bulk of my research material (over 4000 individual items!), both primary and secondary. Each seminar, interview, book, journal and archive file has a group of its own; everything I know about or learn from that source, and often the source itself in PDF, JPG or DOC form, is in there. With the archives, I generally found it easiest to replicate the tree structure of each individual archive in my own database; so, for example, I’ve followed TNA’s own organizational logic: Cabinet Papers (CAB), Colonial Office (CO), Dominions Office (DO) etc., drilling down in the same way you would drill down in the archives themselves:

Nearly the whole database is, of course, searchable: a feature for which I was increasingly thankful the deeper I got into my research and writing. On the whole, these two groups worked extremely well for me: they made intuitive sense, and were apposite to my research needs. Structurally speaking, I don’t think I’d change this for my next project.

Of the remaining four groups, Chronologies was the most successful, and I’ll discuss it in the next post. Images was created before DT updated to version 2, which included an automatic Images group. Not that I ever did anything particularly clever with my own outdated version: as the subgroup’s name suggests, I used it as a dumping ground for a small, ragtag and totally unsorted collection of images I found interesting over the years:

some of which may find their way into future blog posts.

That leaves Notebooks and +Notes. Neither of these really worked out: in the case of the latter I found a better way to write notes to myself, and in the case of the former, I abandoned it altogether. Notebooks was intended to be a group in which I could collect thoughts and readings about various (rather esoteric) subjects not necessarily related to my PhD. My favourite part of it is the Homeless Quotes group, which grew into a nice collection of amusing, moving or thought-provoking scraps and bons mots I picked up over the years:

I still like the idea behind the Notebooks, but in practice it was too broad-ranging, and too loosely connected to my research, for it to make sense within this database. Its failure in this respect suggests that a DT database, at least for me, has to be bounded and specific to a project.

I’m still thinking, therefore, about the best way to capture and organize all the wider topical reading, thinking and notetaking I do (and want to continue doing) which isn’t necessarily bounded to a particular project. I want to read about European history, behavioural biology, Persian miniatures, Chinese etymology, deep sea marine life, genetics, porcelain trade, group theory and hurricanes. I love and worship Cosma Shalizi’s notebooks, but while the lack of an organizing principle turns his notebooks into a marvellous, sprawling maze of discovery and erudition, I suspect that for lesser mortals such as myself, something much more systematic is required for a lifetime of learning.

Next post: my DT database in meta-mode — after I get back from a holiday.


27 responses to “on DevonThink and history research (I)

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