There are many ways of organizing one's research notes. For shorter
projects, taking notes in a spiral notebook as one reads may be adequate,
but for a high-quality research paper in history that method is not adequate.
One alternative is an electronic system, and there are several software
programs available for this task, e.g. ASKSAM, TextBase, NoteBook, the
recently discontinued Hypercard for the Mac, etc. However, the effectiveness
of these programs depends on the quality of the information they administer,
and how that information is organized. Thus the user (you!) must
still learn how to select information and organize it for later retrieval.
I strongly recommend learning a system of efficient and practical note-taking
on index cards before beginning to build up an electronic database.
Handwritten cards are adequate for most college-level research papers,
and the spatial possibilities of physical objects eases the learning process.
The following is a suggestion for the organization of an index card file.
[Another possibility works from a decimal system correlated to a subject
- BOOK (author, bibliography) cards (3x5" or 4x6"; choose one
color) These cards are:
- begun at a library catalog [CD-rom, journal index, etc.] or while
one is reading the bibliography/footnotes of another book;
continued in the stacks while one examines books and articles;
- completed when one reads and excerpts the book or article.
HIERARCHICAL Subject Cards (4x6" or 5½x8½"; choose another
color or colors)
- The card is headed by the author's name: Lastname, Firstname
[e.g.: Hoffmann, Peter - 1977]
On the lines below, you should have the title, with complete
bibliographic data (refer to a Manual of Style! - historians
use the Chicago Manual and Turabian), and the library and call
number, as well as remarks about circulation status or interlibrary
loans, are also helpful.
You may also want to include where you found the citation (e.g.
the melvyl search string), and citations of book reviews you found,
or opinions of authors of other books who mention this one.
If you have done an author search, you may also want to jot down other
titles by the same author which may not be of immediate interest.
- Then, when you have the book in your hands, jot down a brief
summary of the table of contents or the main topic or argument,
and your impression about that argument, the (scholarly or popular)
character of the book, its style, etc.
If you find some very important information in the book at this time
and jot it down on the author card, I would advise you to later make
a subject card which refers to the excerpt, or to copy the excerpt
onto a subject card. [smaller cards force one to excerpt "properly"
from the outset]
- Finally, when you sit down with the book to read it carefully, list
the headings of subject or keyword cards containing excerpts
from this book.
You write these cards while reading a book or article.
An important decision is whether to combine excerpts from several books
on one card (only advisable in cases where only a few lines of relevant
information are extracted, see 3, below), or to have several cards with
the same header.
In the latter case, the author's name (or a source date) might be appended
as the last item in a subject header string.
CHOOSING PROPER HEADINGS IS VERY IMPORTANT. You should have a
rough outline of your topic by this point; use it as a guideline for
KEYWORD (glossary, person, event) cards (4x6" usually sufficient;
again perhaps a new color)
- Header can be a keyword or a hierarchical subject listing
such as the Library of Congress listings (but tailored to your topic
and thus much more specific at the end).
- Next line contains brief bibliographic information (e.g.
the header of an author card, or: Author, ShortTitle) sufficient to
identify the source and find the Author card.
- Excerpts and quotations, WITH PAGE NUMBERS.
These cards will be headed by the names of persons (followed by their
vital dates), or salient events/concepts drawn from your topic area.
They will include references to author cards, short excerpts.
Often they will have references to multiple sources.