Notetaking

Have a system

1. Rule No. 1: When doing research, assume you have no memory and therefore must write down everything because you won't recall a single thing the next day. Keep accurate records of your research, both secondary and primary sources, maintaining a bibliographic list of sources you have checked (if you found nothing useful, make a note that you found nothing useful in that source--it will save you from checking the source again and finding nothing useful).

2. Carefully write down all citation material from your source.

**For secondary sources, be sure to collect all names (authors, editors), titles, publishers, dates of publication, edition, volume and issue if relevant, and page numbers.

**For primary sources, particularly more complicated records in archives, be sure to get all of the information, whether the record group, name of the collection, box number and name, date of a letter, location of archives, etc. Another researcher should be able to find the document (or other source) by looking at your citation. In addition to consulting the Chicago Manual of Style, it's worth asking the archivists about citations for the particular materials in their collection--they can help make sure you have all the necessary information (and may even have preferences about how you cite their material).

3. Notes. There's just no getting around that you'll need to experiment and find a system that works for you. It might be that taking notes in a word processing program works best for you: the documents are searchable, they can be printed if you like old-fashioned notecards, and they can be plugged into bibliographic software (described below). You might prefer the software below.

In any case, your system should have these characteristics:
you should always know where your notes came from.
your notes should be absolutely clear about which words are your own and which words belong to the source's author. This is the most important step to avoid inadvertent plagiarism.
your notes should be organizable: you should be able to group them in different ways (and maybe that just means you can print them out and physically cut & paste without losing track of the source). The notetaking software listed below will also allow you to assign keywords.

Software

There are different kinds of software that will ease your record-keeping. They can help you keep a bibliography of your sources; Endnote and Zotero will also keep your notes on those sources.

Refworks. The easiest bibliographic software to use is RefWorks, and the Drexel library and many others have a subscription to it; once you have an account, you can access RefWorks from other libraries, too. The first time you export to it, you will need to register and create a password, but it is a relatively simple program and does not require much time to master it. Notice that you can set up different folders for different projects. From RefWorks, you can then export to other programs, including to a word processing program. You can also export citations from many library catalogues as well as from the subscription databases. See the library website for details.

Endnote. Endnote is a note-taking and bibliographic software that Drexel provides to students. This program takes a larger investment of time to learn than Refworks, but it is a commonly-used program and worth knowing about and perhaps trying. See the IRT website for software downloads.

Zotero. Like Endnote, Zotero also takes a larger investment of time to learn, but, because Zotero is open source and free, it is probably the platform worth learning (you won't need to continue purchasing Endnote after you graduate to access your notes). Zotero is based on the Mozilla Firefox web browser, and it's therefore integrated pretty well with the web and regularly gets enhanced. Zotero was also specifically designed with historians in mind (a project of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University). See Zotero.org.



  • Drexel University College of Arts & Sciences History & Politics Prof. Steen

  • Department of History & Politics, Drexel University, 3141 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-2875 steen@drexel.edu