So much has changed in the last few decades, particularly in terms of digitization, in the ways historians access materials, the level and ease of access to those materials, and the methods of delivery for the work that comes from that access. But access is not the only thing that has changed. Working in the digital realm offers historians new tools with which to approach their task, the core of which remains unaffected by these developments. On that theme, I thought I would talk a little bit about my workflow and the tools that I use which allow the work to flow (sorry, couldn’t help myself).
Most historians use a word processor and many use some kind of citation management software. For years, it seems that EndNote was the most widely used for this purpose. I used it as well until about three years ago when I switched from PC to Mac. That move was done primarily because I wanted to use two pieces of software which were not then available for PC, though both are now.
The first is Mekentosj’s Papers. Think of Papers as an iTunes for your PDFs (but better). I don’t know about most people but I am an obsessive collector of PDFs. I download articles from JSTOR if I think I might ever need them sometime in the distant future. I also regularly scan book chapters. I currently have over 3,500 PDFs on my hard drive. Papers allows me to keep them all organized, sorted into thematic “collections,” and, for most journal articles, it can automatically fill-in the citation information (click on pictures for larger view). You can take notes on your PDFs, comment on them, and highlight them (and the quotes you highlight appear in your Notes tab). It also creates an OCR text file that is kept separate from the actual PDF but is used when you run full-text searches. You can also search JSTOR and a number of databases for journal articles and import them into your library right from within the application.
Papers also recently added the citation management features of EndNote. So you can also search Google Books and the Library of Congress and import entries for books right from within. You can add citations to your papers either through a shortcut-enabled search window or simply by dragging the entry from your library onto your Word document. For each of my projects, I create a collection on the left sidebar and when I need to create a bibliography I simply highlight all the entries in the collection and drag them onto my document and the bibliography is done. For me, the process is much quicker and more intuitive than EndNote, which still looks like a late-1990s Windows program. It also has an iPhone/iPad app that allows for syncing your entire library or just specific collections so you can have your PDFs available on your device as well.
The second application that I use, and the most important, is a writing app called Scrivener. It would take a series of posts to fully describe everything this application can do. Originally conceived for novelists and scriptwriters, I have customized it to be used for historical research and writing. As you can see from the pictures, on the left side of the screen is your “Binder.” Here is where you keep all your documents. Into the “Research” folder, I import all my relevant PDFs and sort them into two large folders, Primary and Secondary, and then into subfolders for each theme or topic in the paper. Each document gets its own “legal pad-esque” Notes section and each can be tagged and labeled in numerous ways. You can even import web pages and view them within the application.
In the “Essay” folder at the top are the text documents in which I am writing the actual paper. Scrivener’s split-screen means I can have a document in one window while writing in the other. Or I can use it to easily compare two documents, instead of opening up two Preview windows. In my Essay folder, I create documents and subdocuments for each part of the paper that acts as an outline and also lets me focus on just the section on which I am working. Scrivener also has a feature called “Collections” in which you can place documents from your Binder. As you can see in the picture, for this project, I put all my primary sources into one collection and then ordered them chronologically, which allowed me to follow the newspaper/pamphlet debates as they would have appeared to an interested reader but also includes PDF scans of chronologically-ordered correspondence.
For those not ready to completely give up old tried-and-true methods, Scrivener also has an index card feature. Every document—PDF or text—gets its own index card which shows up in the inspector pane on the right. But you can also see your index cards on a corkboard and order them as you like. Scrivener also allows you to import picture and audio files, so you can import all the JPGs you take on an archives trip. I also create folders in which I keep random notes and ideas as well as previous drafts of the paper. Essentially, Scrivener allows me to have almost all of my research easily and instantly accessible in the same app in which I am writing. The best part is that it is highly customizable so each user can tailor to their own needs or workflow.
Once I am done writing, Scrivener exports my paper, formatted in Chicago style, as a Word file. However, about a year ago, I abandoned Microsoft Word for Apple’s Pages. I just found Word to be too bloated with too many quirks. Pages is less cluttered and just much simpler, especially the way it handles footnotes/endnotes. In Pages, I take care of any minor formatting changes if necessary and run the spell-checker and Proofreader. Then I export the final paper to PDF and the process is complete.
Of course, this is my own personal workflow and I am not suggesting that it is a model for other historians. However, I have obviously found the tools useful in the context of historical research and writing. If you are looking for a way to manage large numbers of documents for a large writing project or simply want to try to shake up your workflow, they provide excellent possibilities. What applications and tools are you currently using for research and writing?
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Both Papers and Scrivener are available for 30-day free trials. Both are available for both Mac and PC.
ADDENDUM: I mentioned in the comments section that I was willing to share my Preferences file, my Chicago Style Compile preset, and my customized project template. I’ve had more than a few persons take me up on that offer. You can email me (see Contributor page) or the blog for instructions and a link to download the files from Dropbox.