Research tools: what I use

Time for a new series – this one on keeping track of reference materials. In this post, I’m going to talk about a couple of different aspects. Then, in future posts, I’ll be looking at some specific tools to keep track of references, like Zotero (one of the citation management programs.)

Research tools: an astronomical device opens up like a pocket watch with many tools

Why have a system to keep track of things?

If you’re only managing a few references, or a few sites (for values of ‘few’ that go up to about 50), you probably don’t need a big system – you can keep track of a few dozen things in a word processing or text file pretty easily.

But once you get over a few dozen, it gets harder to keep things organised. Our brains have a harder time processing a long list: it’s easier to miss something, or duplicate entries, or otherwise have housekeeping errors. Different people will have different length limits, but somewhere between 20 and 40, you’ll probably hit your personal ‘this is too long’ .

The same thing goes if the items you’re keeping track of fit into multiple categories. It’s one thing to have a list of items you need to read – but what happens when you want to list things as “to read” and then by the type of content. How do you file things? Do you list it every possible place? That makes for a much longer list.

Either way, if you want to keep track of lots of things, you need a system.

What kinds of options are out there?

For many people, the system that works best will depend on what you’re trying to keep track of. You may need a different approach for websites than for print books, or a different way to handle ebooks.

I suggest that you think about the difference between what you own, and what you use as reference material. You may want to own a book (and keep track of the fact you own it), but not care about it as reference material. You might have a system for keeping track of books, and a different one for tracking reference material. Having multiple systems can be annoying (and potentially confusing) but not if you’re clear about why you’re using a specific tool.

Here’s what I use:

What books I have copies of: LibraryThing

I use LibraryThing to keep track of everything I own – print and ebooks. Items get entered in the catalog. I have a collection of print books (so I can just search things I have in print), or ebooks (just things that live on my phone.)

Everything also gets content-specific tags like genre, or when it’s set if it’s historical, or topic. I keep my tags edited, so that I can search them easily, and I refine them regularly so that I don’t have tags with only a couple of items unless it’s really necessary. (I am not a fan of lists overwhelming for me.)

You can add books with a simple form or by importing a spreadsheet if you’ve been using a different tool, or by scanning the back of books in many cases with a tool in the mobile app.

If they’re print books, they also get assigned a tag that indicates where they’re shelved (so I can find them again.) The shelving tags are really simple – I have the IKEA cube bookshelves, so I do A1, A2, A3, A4, B1, B2, B3, B4, etc. Each cube only has about 12-15 books, so it’s easy to spot once I’m looking in the right place.

The actual ebook files are managed through Calibre. This means I can search or tag and manage files much more easily, or save files to a different place if needed.

Costs: LibraryThing has a fee for over 200 books in an account. The fee is $10 for a year, or $25 for a lifetime account. (Obviously, one of these is a much better buy if you expect to keep using the site.) Calibre is free, but they appreciate donations!

Websites I want to share: Pinboard

Pinboard describes itself as “a bookmarking website for introverted people in a hurry.” (It’s also been described as anti-social bookmarking, in contrast to social bookmarking.)

I have a personal account, and one for coven links. My personal account is private and where I put things I want to find later, the coven site is public. You can set tags, group tags, and do some additional things.

I use Instapaper as an interim tool to keep track of things I want to save, read later, or think about reading.

Costs: There’s a yearly fee for new Pinboard accounts ($11 a year right now) and it’s well worth it if you want to share bookmarks, keep track of more items than your web browser’s bookmark tools will handle easily, or access bookmarks from multiple browsers or devices.

Instapaper is free, and there are other similar services (Pocket is the other big one)

References (books, websites, PDFs): Zotero

Zotero is one of a handful of widely used citation management programs, and the one I’d recommend for most people – it’s free, has an add-on for Chrome, and has other benefits. It will help you keep track of references, and you can produce a formatted bibliography with a few clicks (though you probably still need some human review. Citation styles are tricky!)

If you’re in academia, you may have access to other options through your school. Your library (or the library website) probably has more information. (There are certain advantages to using the same system other people in your institution are, and if you’re working in a research lab or closely with a professor or researcher, you may not have a lot of choice about which tool is used.)

Costs: Depends on the tool, but Zotero is free. If you want to store PDFs on their site, you’ll likely need to pay for additional storage if you have more than a few.

Notes and writing: Ulysses, 4theWords, Scrivener

My briefer writing is sometimes a little tricky, because Ulysses is a Mac only app, and I can’t access it at work. You can have lots of folders, tag items, create smart folders, and much more. There’s even a publishing option for putting things into WordPress (and a few other tools).

I’m also using a site called 4thewords which is exploring a gamification approach to writing. You battle various monsters and win by writing a certain number of words in a span of time. As you do quests, you can earn items for your avatar or other game objects. As I wrote this sentence, I won a battle of 500 words.

It also keeps some stats I’m finding more useful than I expected about how long I was actively writing a given piece. (And I’ve found the battles a certain incentive for doing just another hundred or two hundred words, several times.)

Scrivener is where my long-form writing lives, and it is amazing for being able to move things around, save a piece you cut but want to keep just in case, and has a lot of tagging and drafting tools to help.

Costs: Ulysses is a subscription (it’s also currently part of the SetApp subscription option, if you’re interested in other apps they offer, which includes Aeon Timeline, a popular timeline app) and 4theWords has a month free trial and then is $4 a month.

There are obviously lots of free options in this space: I use Google Docs for sharing word processing with other people, and especially for editing that we’re looking at together. It’s also my go-to for things I may want to add to during lunch at work.

Come back next week.

Join me next week for part 2, things to think about when choosing tools.

If you use other tools you think I should look at, I’d love to hear from you – the contact form is probably the best way.

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