My previous installment was about database meta-structures, in the context of which I discussed using labels for GTD. This post is about using labels for content-management. Over the course of my PhD research, I made two improvements (read: hacks) to my labels which turned out to be very useful to me. The first hack concerns timelines; the second became a substantial aid to writing up my thesis.
Hack #1: Chronologies
Somewhere along the line, I decided that I needed a system of chronological organization, and came up with a folder I called Chronologies.
This is basically a collection of smart groups, each of which contains all source documents and notes pertaining to a single year. As I worked on the period from roughly 1920 until 1965, I made one smart group for each year according to the following parameters:
The most important tweak which made this work was that I started and stuck to a system of naming my files. Every time I wrote or imported a time-sensitive document into my database, I would name it according to a strict YYYY.MM.DD format. So for example, in the screenshot above, the file highlighted green is a letter to the colonial office dated 14 May 1948. This file was automatically included in my 1948 smart group because it met one of the boolean criteria (its name matches the string “1948”). And because all files are named according to the same format, with the date first, I can sort them alphabetically and get a list of documents in ascending chronological order over the course of a single year (see Fig. 2).
Much later — almost too much later — I made a second improvement to my Chronologies group which I also found helpful and wished I’d started earlier. This was my Events group: a collection of text files whose file names detailed major, time-sensitive events.
Most of the text files were empty: the important information was always in their titles, though occasionally I would add explanatory notes in the body of the text file. All events were labelled, and thus highlighted orange. Because their name format was the same as other time-sensitive documents, they show up in my Chronologies group, thus giving me a timeline of source documents which was punctuated by important contemporary events highlighted in orange (see Fig. 2). I found this really useful when revisiting and analyzing documents, and wish I’d started it earlier.
For my next database, however, I’d like to implement some method of streamlining my chronologies file (probably with tags) according to theme, biography, country or some other variable. This way, I’d have a series of fine-tuned chronologies rather than working with one gigantic all-encompassing timeline.
Hack #2: Bridges
My second hack used another label to generate a smart group I called, for want of a better name, ‘Bridges’.
This was basically an aid to writing. I started this group during my fieldwork year. Every so often, after some weeks in the archive, I tried to step back from the sources I’d been looking at in order to write and think thematically about them: in other words, to create prose ‘bridges’ between my sources. I used DevonThink’s internal hyperlinking to draft chunks of thematic prose which linked directly to the source files from which I got my ideas and information. In the example above (Fig. 5), I’d just gone through a whole clutch of booklists from the 1930s, and that paragraph was an early and roughshod attempt to think through some of the trends I’d noticed from the archive. A lot of this prose ended up directly in the thesis: what you see remaining in the Bridges group above is detritus, the stuff which didn’t make it in.
The reason I used labels and smart groups, rather than creating an ordinary group for these ‘bridge’ notes, is because they’re located all over my database. I tended to write them directly into the folders which contained the sources on which they drew; or they might reside in a folder containing articles which had stimulated those thoughts. Labelling them and collecting them into a smart group simply made them easier to find and manage.
I found this practice extremely helpful in keeping me mindful of larger themes even as I was mired in archival minutiae — why exactly I was looking at a particular run of sources, what sort of questions I should be asking of them, what I was getting out of looking at them. Hyperlinking to the notes I’d made kept their contents and insights fresh and readily accessible, rather than sinking out of sight, and out of mind, into the deep recesses of my database.
So that concludes my three-part series on DevonThink for history research. I learned an enormous amount from doing this on the fly over the course of my PhD. For my next project, which I am just about to start, I’ll undoubtedly dream up even more improvements, and generate still more shortfalls, on this most circuitous road towards a more perfect research system.