When it comes to organizing research, the humanities scholar has any number of options. Most of us need to be able to organize a mix of notes, images, articles, and other kinds of documents in a way that allows us to group them in different ways. My academic friends all have different methods for doing this. For example, some use Zotero and others use Word Documents and search them via OS X’s spotlight. I have tried both of these and I eventually decided that DEVONthink Pro Office (available for OS X) makes the most sense to me to store the ten thousand or so items that make up my dissertation research.
While I spend quite a bit of time with this software every week, I am not an advanced user. However, its basic features allow me to organize my research in a way that lets me see big chunks of it at the same time from a variety of different groupings and view options. Once the sources are in DEVONthink Pro Office, it largely gets out of the way so that I can focus interpreting the sources. The application’s ability to group, tag, and search documents as well as convert documents to full text makes it useful to me and has made my writing process easier.
What is DEVONthink Pro Office?
DEVONthink Pro Office allows you to create a database for your research. You can drag and drop your files into it, takes notes on them, search the database, and organize your stuff without leaving the program. I do a lot of research in digital archives, which DEVONthink Pro Office handles well – you can save items directly to it without having to download the item first and then drag it into your database. If you take digital images at brick-and-mortar archives, you can also import those images into your database. Once they are in your database, you can combine multiple images in a single multi-page PDF, and if it is a typed document, have DEVONthink Pro Office create a full text version for you.
The basic structure of the Devonthink Pro Office database looks familiar – it is a series of folders that you create to hold different sources (mine includes typed notes, videos, photographs, scanned articles, etc.) Since my project relies on a historical narrative, the dates of the sources are important to me, so I put that information into the “Spotlight Comment” field, which allows me to sort my sources by date within a specific folder. After the date, I usually put the source’s bibliographic information into this field as well.
Tagging and Smart Groups
When trying to figure out which sources are compelling to group together, I find DEVONthink Pro Office’s Tags and Smart Groups helpful. As I read through a source, I tag it with relevant categories – like the date they were created and various topics that they engaged with. Then, using a Smart Group, I can ask the program to retrieve all the sources that meet various criteria. So, for example, if I want to see what material I had gathered that was created in 1963 and was about Buddhists in Vietnam (both tags I had used), I can see them all at the same time. Other times, if I am writing against a deadline, I will create a tag just for the chapter I was writing. As I tagged new items with that tag, they appear in the Smart Group and I can see how the chapter is developing at a glance.
I do the majority of my work from the “Smart Group” View. Once I use a source, I use a label (a slightly different categorization option from a tag) to mark it as “Used in Draft” or “Unimportant,” or I will remove the tag and kick it out of the Smart Group.
Searching and Full text OCR
Tagging items is made far easier by DEVONthink Pro Office’s excellent search function. (I originally had used Zotero for my research about four years ago, but its search wouldn’t pull up words from within my notes – that’s why I switched to DEVONthink. However, this might be fixed in a current version of Zotero.) DEVONthink Pro Office quickly searches everything you have, and then you can easily add tags to it. What makes this search better is DEVONthink Pro Office’s ability to convert digital documents to full text PDFs. Once the program converts them, you can search within them. While this conversion can take a long time if you are working with a lot of PDFs at once, I often just start it running before I go to bed and wake up to full text documents.
DEVONthink Pro Office does so much more than what I mention here, but for me, these basic features, plus the speed at which the application accomplishes them, keeps me from switching to a different option.
I am always looking to improve how I work with sources, so how do you organize your research? Feel free to leave a comment to get the discussion started.
If you’re interested in reading about organizing your research, you might find the following posts helpful: Comparing Research Managers — Zotero, Evernote, and DEVONthink Pro Office, Five Reasons to Use Evernote for Academic Research, and Doing Academic Research with Zotero.