Wednesday, June 6, 2007

The System, or Why I Need To Get a Life

Today, among other things, I took notes on a book that I have been reading for the last couple of days. This may seem simple, but I've managed to make it quite complicated. You see, I have a System.

When I was in grad school, I observed that a couple of my professors had, in their offices, boxes upon boxes of file cards, presumably filled with notes on books and articles they had read while researching (I'm assuming here; for all I know, they could have been boxes of recipe cards). They kept the cards, for handy reference on later projects.

Now, I had been trained in the old-school method of taking notes on index cards, so I was familiar with the process. I wrote my M.A. thesis using 4 x 6 cards. But it struck me how time-consuming it would be to go through all those boxes. What if you needed a reference, and had a vague memory that you might have read something on the topic 18 months ago? How would you know which box to begin in? And what about all the cards that you forgot existed, but that contained valuable references that might be just what you need, if only you could remember them?

So, as I started on my doctoral dissertation research, I invested a whole bunch of time teaching myself to use FilemakerPro. And even more time developing templates -- one for abstracts of books and articles, another for more detailed notes on each. And now, everything worthwhile that I read has its own little searchable file on my computer, cross-referenced with the searchable "abstracts" file. My grad school friends laughed at how anal-retentive this all was, especially for someone whose desk pretty consistently looked like it had been hit by a small, incredibly localized tornado. I laughed, too. It seemed ridiculous. Yet, almost a decade later, I'm still doing it. Sometimes, I even have fantasies of teaching myself a fancy computer language, and making a real database (I almost surely won't). But for now, I'm fine. It takes a lot of time, and I still marvel at how sick it is. But dammit, it works for me, so I'm sticking with it.

Now, I just have to pray that I never need to switch software...


Anonymous said...

I, too, have a System. The key difference between my system and yours lies in the fact that I'm a physicist. I shall let you guess just how (needlessly?) complex and full of supposedly 'neat' features my system is as a consequence. :-)

You have the best blog title I've seen for ages, by the way. Mo' manuscripts, mo' problems?

Dance said...

FMP is a real database. Don't shortchange yourself. :)

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Yes, anon -- I'm sure that more technical expertise would only get me into trouble.

Dance -- thank you! But I also work on a real online database (only related to my research), and know how cool a really well-constructed, truly cross-linked database can be. And what a pain in the ass it can be to maintain.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

have you looked at Scribe? It's at the George Mason history site and is free. It's based on Filemaker Pro. I keep wanting to use it, and wimp out, because I jus don't seem to get it. But I do keep thinking that it's got to be better than massive documents in Word with keywords at the end of each entry.