Ask our readers: How do you take reading notes?

The erudition of our readers (and my fellow bloggers) often astounds me. Some people may simply have good memories, but I don’t. I rely on my notes. So I’m curious: how do you take notes?

Over the years I’ve come up with my own system of taking reading notes which works for me, but it is very labor intensive: When reading a book I use small removable stickies to mark sections of text I think are important, then, after I’m done reading, I go back and type the relevant sections into my computer. Sometimes I copy verbatim, other times I just write the page number and make parenthetical comments, and sometimes I do a mix of the two.

This system works because I’m a fast typer, although when writing my dissertation at the New York Public Library I noticed a man who used the same system using the hunt-and-peck method of typing, one finger at a time …

But the real secret to this system is putting all my notes inside software that lets me do full-text search of my own notes. Some people use very structured data, and prefer software that lets them code each note with keywords, etc. but, personally, I’ve found that full-text is better, allowing me to make connections I might not otherwise have noticed.

Since I started teaching, however, my system has been hard to keep up. For one thing, I simply don’t have the time to review my readings so carefully and type them up. Also, I am trying hard to read more Chinese language texts, but the difficulty I face in taking notes often prevents me from getting very far. So I just ordered the IRISPen scanner with Chinese OCR support. It hasn’t come yet, but I hope that when it does it will help me overcome both problems, and return to using the note-taking system I’m comfortable with. I’ve long ago learned that new gadgets rarely live up to the hype, but as I prepare my lecture notes for class tomorrow I find myself wishing I’d ordered it much earlier!

(NOTE: IRIS offers an IRISPen Express with Chinese OCR support via their online store, even though their web page only lists the much more expensive “Executive” version as offering Chinese OCR support. Since I haven’t used the product yet, I can’t vouch for it, although I’ve heard good things from other users.)

UPDATE: Fifty ways to take notes online.

UPDATE: My IRISPen came. I posted my initial reactions here.

22 thoughts on “Ask our readers: How do you take reading notes?

  1. I try to get full-text electronic versions of most things.. It is amazing what is out there if you look. if i can’t find them, then i type things in just like you. i store whole documents in devonthink pro, and i store my notes in bookends. the search tools of full text in both those tools are great, and bookends adds keywords, which i use to make simple categories like ‘cosmopolitanism’ or ‘deleuze’. fast typing helps, full page scanning of the book is better if you have a scanner, scan page into adobe acrobat pro, do native ocr, cut and past it to your notes. the only benefit of the ocr method is if you can only type so much.

  2. I know people who’ve had very good results with that pen software, Kerim — good luck with it.

    As for me,this may sound a little strange, but I don’t actually take notes.

  3. My note taking schemes evolve pretty rapidly and I haven’t stuck with just one. I can’t do anything electronically. I’m one of those people with a lot of strategies to cope with ADD tendencies, and one of them is never put myself in front of a computer when I need to think about something specific (brainstorming or just learning in general is fine, and I require wikipedia.) So I have dozens of those single subject spiral notebooks. I take notes as I read or if I’m working on a specific train of thought, like developing an argument. I’ve been working on ways of indexing them. Typically in the upper right corner of each page I write a general keyword synopsis of the subject of notes contained, so I can flip through them. Also, I have post-it notes of various colors cut into little strips to attatch to pages to mark them for different purposes. Right now I have “unresolved question”, “topic for further thought”, “read x in light of this”, “potential problem” colors as well as a few others. As my collection of noted readings grows more complete I can stack them up and visually make an appraisal of my loose ends by looking at thin strips of colored paper poking out of the sides.

  4. Kerim – I used to do exactly what you do – and also chose this method because I’m an extremely fast typist. And I’m also finding that, no matter how fast I type, I simply don’t have the time to do this any more… I also have a terrible problem in that I do have a decent memory for content, but an abysmal memory for source, so I’m constantly hunting around for the exact source of something I remember reading somewhere, somewhen… It’s a massive pain when it comes to pinning down citations for what I write…

    I’m currently using a rather shabby and eclectic mix of strategies – full-text electronic sources where available, synthetical abstracts + brief outlines where not… I miss my detailed notes, though – without them, I feel like I’m just skimming the surfaces of what I read… I’m currently considering experimenting with some of the software designed for qualitative research, seeing if this gives me a better purchase, at least on materials I already have in electronic form…

  5. P.S. I should note that I used a pen scanner at one point, and found it neither as accurate nor as fast as my typing… But this was some time ago – I’d assume the technology has improved…

  6. You people are all way more efficient than me. I just write down main ideas and any interesting minor ones in a spiral notebook, then later go back and type the notes into a basic word-processing document.

  7. I’m very old fashioned. I take notes on loose leaf paper that I organize into binders by topic or course. I prefer to use color pens: I take notes on content in one color (blue, say) and then I add my commentary on content in another color (red). Re-reading texts, I add notes in a further color. This makes my notebooks little palimpsests that record the evolution of my response to particular texts over the years.

    I might add that copious note-taking is arduous but ultimately reall, really pays off. As when, for example, one finds oneself lecturing for the first time. Rex, you wouldn’t believe, or perhaps you would, just how unbelievably helpful I have found the notes from our Advanced Social Anthropology seminar: from the dozens of pages on Durkheim, through Evans-Pritchard et al.

    I do worry that digitization in the domain of note-takes might have leveling effects that we worry about in other domains. I’m amazed that I am still carrying arround my notes on Tuhami from Introduction to Anthropology in 1990. They have an archival quality that makes them kind of special.

  8. This is really interesting — as I get more and more drowned in information, I find myself wondering how “they all” do it too. Like Rex, I don’t really take notes; I used to take pretty good ones, but somewhere around the middle of my MA I just kinda stopped. I put the occasional reminder in the margins of a book I’m reading (only after agonizing over it for a while — I’m a bibliophile and normally like my books to be in as pristine condition as possible) but other than that, I don’t have any real system, and it’s starting to catch up with me. The flip side of Kerim and others getting too busy to take notes is that I’ve become too busy *not to have* notes — most of my reading these days is “on the fly” and so I’m starting to have real trouble remembering much in the way of details; on top of that, I don’t have the time to go back through my wall o’ books and find the one passage where what’s-his-name talks about the thing.

    For my dissertation, after setting up an Access database that syncs with my Palm, which I used for my archival notes when I was in the archives (but since then have mostly added notes in margins) I’ve largely lost any standard — some work is highlighted, some have notes and even full-text in my database, some have sticky notes interlaced with their pages, etc. For the chapter I’m working on now, I had to get a couple of books from the library, so I made a rather thorough set of 5×8 index cards with quotes written out in full and references. So I have no system whatsoever, is what I’m saying.

    It strikes me that there really isn’t software for this (at least on Windows — that DevonThink sounds pretty nice). I’d like to have a single note framework where a) I could import, organize, and search all my PDFs (like a Picasa for text files), b) I could import, organize, and search saved material from the web, c) I could add reading notes and link them to, say, Amazon or Google Books, and d) I could integrate RSS feeds and searches from online databases (like EndNote’s online lookup, but with sites like AnthroSource and J-Stor). I’d settle for something that would let me compile and organize my PDFs alongside with my notes.

    Oh, and a Grad Asst to keep all the stuff up to date…

  9. I’m in the midst of assembling research for my prelims and proposal defense, and I’m using an online citation program called RefWorks available through the university. Years from now, when I head to some other institution, I’ll need to migrate the data into a bibliographic program on my computer, but for now the process looks something like this:

    As I’m reading, I take notes in whatever notebook is handy or – more often – I type them directly into a word file on my laptop. If I take notes long-hand, I eventually type these up, but they tend to be keyword-and-comment notes, while typed notes tend to include full text quotations. In any event, after it’s all typed up (in a separate file for each book or article), I add the reference info into RefWorks, and paste the notes I took into the “Notes” section of the reference. This is time-consuming, but the result is that 1) I can create fast, complete, formatted bibilographies, which RefWorks is intended for AND 2) I can search all my references for a keyword or phrase that I’ve written in my notes. The trade-off between RefWorks and other bibliographic software like EndNote is that it’s only available where you have internet access. Conversely, programs like EndNote are only available where you have your own hard drive. Personally, I find the former more convenient. If I don’t have my computer, I can type the word file on another computer, add the info to RefWorks, and email myself the file to download later. In any event, I’d recommend looking into RefWorks if it’s available to you. The interface is a little clunky at first, but it’s a great tool once you get the hang of it.

  10. I do sometimes wish that I took notes in classes or when reading — I’m sure my memory of Durkheim would profit, for instance. But on the whole I find that just really paying attention to what people are saying (or what they’ve written) works for me. Although, to be sure, I do have a baroque system of underlining that I use when reading stuff.

  11. One thing that’s been useful for me is to setup a private, personal wiki. This allows me to edit wherever I have web access, create pages on the fly or as needed, etc. There are many options; I’m a moinmoin user myself, with a special plugin for ToDo lists. While I set my wiki up myself, there are free managed options, such as PBwiki.

    This is in combination with using bibdesk to manage my bibliography, as well as an ever-changing hand-written note system (some of which I’m modifying after reading these comments and post, thanks!).

  12. I’ve recently started taking all my notes on my laptop, using this free online service called mynoteIT. It works really well for organizing all my class notes, and the developer is very open to suggestions. As I’m reading, I’ll often jot notes in the margins, then return after I’m finished and briefly run through, jotting the notes online.

  13. Kerim: Does it? I guess in that case I take notes _in_ my books but I don’t actually create ‘notes’ in the sense of ‘pieces of paper.’

    In terms of productivity, I second RML’s mention of mind-mapping. After playing with this software for years and finding it unhelpful I recently gave Free Mind a try and it’s been useful in helping me make syllabi.

  14. Like N. Pepperell, my recall ability is great when it comes to content (even mentally filtering down to just a single line of text or a particularly important phrase.) Yet because of the large amount of material that I am continually covering, I often become confused when trying to pin down exactly where a certain bit of content came from. Interestingly, I’ve found that even if I can’t remember the source, I usually can remember where or when I read the particular content that I happen to be looking for. To link the ‘what’ to the ‘when’, I fastidiuously log every piece of text (excepting all but the most enlightening of general readership news articles) into an EndNote file with documentation on exactly when I read it.

    As far as note taking goes, my method would seem to be a combination of some of those outlined above. With journal articles, I take notes in the margins, highlight direct quotational material, and underline problematic text. Books represent a bigger challenge because most of mine are of the checked-out variety. I usually stickynote key elements of the text and then later go back and type in the material, word for word, into a MSWord document. (I may look into some of the software suggestions above for this step.) When a particular chapter or book section contains a critical mass of note-worthy material (more than I feel like typing), I will photocopy it and follow the same procedure I do with the periodicals. (Though truthfully I buy more books than I otherwise would were it not for the desire to take notes without photocopying first.) Also, storing all the hard copies is not really desirable, so some of the marginal pieces get eliminated after collecting dust for an unspecified/arbitrary amount of time.

  15. I take notes in Filemaker Pro (currently 8.5), which continues to delight me with all the different things I find easy to do. Increasingly, though, such erudition as I command comes from the Net, where Google and Wikipedia have become indispensable tools. Increasingly it strikes me as irresponsible to assert facts that I have not checked first, since in a majority of cases it is now so simple to do so.

  16. For things that I read on paper, I either leave my notes in the margins or, if it’s something that I think I’ll be using a lot in my writing, type them into Word. For all important electronic stuff lately (and I try to read as much as possible electronically), I’ve been reading stuff as PDF in the full version of Adobe, with which I can underline, highlight and leave notes in the margins. I have been searching it all with Google desktop (which doesn’t search comments in Adobe). None of this is working very well and when I have some time (probably in December) I’m planning to revamp the whole system. So let me ask another question of you all: what do you use to read on the computer and to keep the things that you read organized, underlined, commented on in the body of the text (I much prefer to have my notes in the context of the text), and very searchable? Is there something like this that can be used for Doc, Html, and PDF? Thanks in advance.

  17. Hi Kerim, I am wondering if the IRIS Express Asian supports multiple line scanning. Their website says that feature is exclusive to the Executive version. Their representative told me on the phone that Express version also has that function. Since you own the Express version, could you please let me know? Thanks.

  18. I’m not sure what this refers to; however, my Express version has the ability to detect when a line ends in a hyphen and to automatically remove the hyphen when the word continues on the next line.

    I should add that the Mac OS X software is very unstable and tends to crash a lot, but has not been updated once since I bought it.

  19. It refers to: the sensor could scan more than one line (depends on the font and space) at once (with one slide) and store them in the buffer for a few seconds before each line is inserted into a computer file.And the hyphens will be deleted automatically. Since the sensor is only 1/2 inch wide, I guess one can only scan two lines at most normally. Is there a mode for that function on the Express version?

  20. Well, it sounds like the feature I described above … I do know however, that if I go too fast (scanning the next line before the computer is done with the previous one) the software crashes.

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