bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

How to Research in the Online-Only World, part VII

Posted in Academic Practices by bonaelitterae on 23 June, 2020

The previous tip, like the others so far in this series, was about how to make your searching as successful as possible. That, though, is not enough. The fuller your set of results and so the longer the bibliography, the more the challenge of ensuring you can refer back to specific items in what you have found. You need to be able with ease to gather together all relevant material on a particular element of your research. This means that Tip VII is: at an early stage in your research, work out how you are going to store your results.

Allow me to begin with a recollection of my young self’s odyssey through the bookshelves. When I began my undergraduate life, I took notes on lined pages of A4 (as many students still do). In my final year, I started to stumble across articles in a library or a seeing a volume in a bookshop when I did not have a notepad with me, and so wrote on any scrap of paper that was to hand. I assumed I would write up those scribbles but it never happened and I came to realise that these were not a preparation for more formal notes, they were my notes. So, I ordered them by date of writing in A5 ring-binders and, taking some discarded catalogue cards (this was the age when libraries were throwing them away as they computerised) I created an index for them. I have not added to them for many years now —nowadays, I am more likely to send myself an email or take a photograph — but I do still refer back to them.

I tell this tale to highlight several related points: your habits can and will develop organically but there is a time when you will have to develop a strategy for your research notes, and that strategy will need to consider both how to organise them and how to make sure you can refer back to the information you want, not just now but potentially much later.

Therefore, decide what is going to work best for you. You might be inclined to produce your notes long-hand and, as an old-style manuscript-over-print person, my instinct would be with you but I have to ask: is that wise? Will you have the time to convert your handwritten records into typed citations as you complete your project? Remember that the so-called Parkinson’s Law (work expands to fill the time available) is an exemplum of understatement: work gorges itself and becomes so blotted that even if time doubled, it would not be sufficient to accommodate it. If, then, you might be best advised to put your pen aside, there are three possible solutions:

  1. Word document — the simplest option but also a serviceable one. It requires you to be confident in how you cite a work, but that is a good skill to have. You can enhance its usefulness by using the link function (in the Insert menu) to associate an entry in your bibliography with a file in which you have taken notes from that article or book (just avoid later having a spring-clean in which you rename the files and so break the links!). You would need to think about searchability but that is a point we will discuss in a moment.
  2. Database — most people avoid using Microsoft’s Access which seems to be the most unloved of their Office suite, and few pay for and build their own database in something like Filemaker. Instead, there is a tendency to use Excel as if it were a database, and that can work. The problem with this solution is twofold. First, there is the issue of ensuring accurate and consistent formatting in a program which is not designed to be a word processing application. Second, there is the matter of converting the fields into flowing text if you want to download from it to create a bibliography or citations.
  3. Reference Management Software — to avoid the issues just mentioned, several pieces of software have been developed precisely to help with storing the information you gather. There is a long list of possibilities but I think it is fair to say that there are four which are best known (listed alphabetically):

You might already have your own preference for another, and feel free to declare that in the comments. Some might suggest, for instance, Paperpile, but that is designed to be used with Chrome as its browser, so if (like me) you are committed to Firefox, it is not the one for you. Between those mentioned above, there are two major differences: some are particularly designed for collaborative work as is common in the sciences (EndNote, Mendeley); and — here is a more fundamental consideration — the first two cost while the second two are freeware. It is true that many universities have an institutional subscription to one of the commercial programs (at Kent, it is RefWorks); you may, then, want to accept that option, but bear in mind the issue of how you would export your files when you leave the institution.

Of the ones listed, I have only used EndNote and Zotero. From my experience, they have similar strengths and also weaknesses but of the two I would always recommend the free option. That is not because I am a cheap-skate (not solely) or virulently anti-capitalist (though we all have a duty to tackle the injustices in the system) but because commercial software can disappear more easily and freeware has a greater chance of future compatibility.


The advantages that all these programs claim is that you can download references directly from the web and that you can then export the citations you want in one of a range of standard formats. Neither of these features should let the user imagine that they need do nothing: to make the most of them, your involvement is required. The bibliographical formats include MHRA, which tends to the basis of most humanities citation systems (despite its infelicities, like including both publisher and place of publication — a waste of space, in my view) but each institution can require slight variations, so this does not do away with the need to check through your bibliography. More significantly, the download feature is not a fail-safe. You will come across mentions of works you want to list which are embedded in a text and so cannot be identified by the application. You will need to type or cut-and-paste. On this point, one minor irritation is that none of the software I have used has short-cuts for accents, so if I say, I wanted to include a work by the early twentieth-century British medievalist, Charles Previté-Orton, I would need to type his name in Word and transfer it from there. A more important issue is the download can be wayward: it sometimes does not recognise a site as giving an information about a book and so will download it as a webpage, without publication details. Personal intervention is needed here and that is not the only place it is essential: publishers might provide their publications with a list of tags but they are usually generic and you will want to do better than that.

This brings us to a key piece of advice: recording what you have found in a consistent way is not enough; you need to ensure that the entries are as searchable as possible. This is why you need to think about keywords or tags. In Zotero, the software’s search function covers everything: the titles, names of authors, abstracts and any notes you add. You may think that is sufficient, but, if you are using such a form of reference management, do make use of its built-in facility for tags; if, instead, you are using a Word document, you will want to remember to add keywords to each entry. What is important is not simply to add them but to be consistent in how you do it. You do not want to find that information is unfindable because you have shifted in your spelling or in the conventions you use (do record ‘15th century’ or ‘15th C’ or ‘C15’ or ‘s. xv’?). You may even want to establish a file where you make a note of the conventions you are using — though that is a counsel of perfection which I myself have not achieved yet. What you may find useful is to think through how you have constructed search terms in Google, as discussed in Tip I, and use that process as a guide to how to create your own system of tags.

In summary, then, the advice is to develop early a programme of what program you will use, then commit to it and make it work for you by using all the features and the latitude that it allows you. There are further tips that follow on from this, which will be the subject of the next post.


4 Responses

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  1. Peter Kidd said, on 24 June, 2020 at 8:19 am

    The key thing about Zotero is not that it is freeware, but that it is Open Source. I have tried many bibliographical references packages over the decades (the DOS-based “Papyrus” — RIP — was by far the best!), and Zotero is the only one that “knows” which words to capitalise in foreign languages (though you have to enter the language as de / fr / it / es, etc., in the appropriate field).

  2. bonaelitterae said, on 24 June, 2020 at 8:23 am

    Thanks, Peter. Yes, I should have been more precise. And thank you for conjuring up a moment of nostalgia as evocative as any madeleine — I had forgotten about Papyrus.

  3. Peter Kidd said, on 24 June, 2020 at 8:27 am

    A tip for capturing info when you are e.g. in a bookshop: instead of writing a note or taking a photo of the title-page, use an app like Libib or LibraryThing to scan the barcode. For older books, without barcodes, but not too old for ISBN nos., ISBN Scan (made by Leontec) works well. (It uses Google Books as it lookup database). When you get home you can export the data, and import it into Zotero, or whatever.

  4. […] The previous tip was a reminder that searching is in itself not enough – as early modern governments knew, effective record-keeping is essential to success. We talked about the methods of organising those records, with special consideration of reference management systems. There are two further tips that follow on from this. […]

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