Going Paperless (Tools We Use)

I’ve been trying to go paperless since graduate school, when I bought my first sheet-feed scanner. It was a slow, noisy, hulk of a machine which would jam half the time. But I’m not the kind of person to let reality get in the way when I know something is possible, even if that possibility is just over the horizon. 2010 is the year that going paperless became truly possible, and not just for those who dream of the future—for everyone. What’s amazing is that all of a sudden there are hundreds of choices depending on your own personal workflow, system preferences, etc. Here’s how I do it:

INPUT: If you aren’t starting with a digital document from JSTOR, you need to scan your paper. My school has a fancy photocopy machine which can chew up an article and spit out a nice small PDF file, but if you don’t have access to that you can get yourself a Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500 (or S1500M for the Mac) which can do the same thing. If you have a smartphone with a good camera you can also simply take a snapshot and use software like JotNot to convert those photos to something resembling a scanned document.

STORAGE: Once you’ve scanned something or downloaded it from the web, what do you do with it? Personally I am a big fan of Evernote which will do OCR on your (English) image and PDF files and which lets you do fulltext search on your entire library. It also can sync between your computer and mobile apps. But for academic texts I need structured metadata. I need to be able to pull out citations and insert them in my bibliography, etc. For that I use Sente. The iPad version of Sente pro finally came out and it is amazing. (See my review of the free version.) Unfortunately, Sente and Evernote still aren’t enough. I have some huge PDF files which aren’t handled well by either app so I also depend on Dropbox to sync those files across computers. And while all of these options have the ability to share with others, I find the easiest way to share files online is with Google Docs so I also use that, especially for teaching.

READING/ANNOTATING: Sente is pretty good for annotation, and I’m sure it will get better, but my favorite way to read PDFs right now is with iAnnotate for the iPad. I find the reading experience nicer than Sente which currently only shows one page at a time. For academic reading it is nice to be able to quickly scan whole paragraphs which cross page boundaries. And for documents where text is not “selectable” (such as docs I’ve scanned myself but not OCR’d) I like iAnnotate’s ability to add little “stamps” in the margins, such as a check mark, exclamation point, or question mark. When done both Sente and iAnnotate have the ability to export selected text and notes along with the marked up PDF. I email these to Evernote. (The fact that Sente syncs its annotations back to the desktop means you don’t have to do this step if you just use Sente.)

Not everything is on PDF. More and more academic texts are now available on Amazon’s Kindle and other ebook formats. (Although sometimes the pricing is ridiculously high. Academic books from UK publishers can cost over eighty dollars as an ebook!) What I like about Kindle is the ability to easily access one’s annotations online via the Amazon web interface. That and the fact that my annotations are synced between all my various devices. (I don’t have a Kindle, but I use the Kindle software on my iOS devices and my desktop.) I have not found anything as useful in other ebook software. One problem, however, is that Kindle books don’t give you proper page numbers. You can just cite it as an electronic text as the APA recommends, or you can do a full text search for the material on Google Books or Amazon book search to see the page number.

NOTE TAKING/PROOFREADING: One of the last redoubts for paper in my workflow has been those few places where pen on paper just seems to work best: taking notes during a talk or marking up text while proofreading. But recently I found something which makes it possible for me to do this on my iPad without printing out: Note Taker HD. The trick is that it lets you “write” in a special writing box. This allows you to write large letters with your finger, but have it appear small on the page. You can also switch to a standard writing mode where you can mark up the page directly. You can either write on a blank piece of paper or you can import a PDF, such as a PDF of the paper you are working on or a student’s paper you need to correct. It may not be quite as good as pen and paper, but it works well enough for me that I’ve stopped printing things out. I’ve tried several similar apps, but I find Note Taker HD to be the best. However, for taking notes at lectures or while interviewing people it is also worth mentioning SoundNote which can record audio as you type notes. Afterwards you can then lookup the relevant audio by clicking on the word you were typing when it was recorded—a little like how Livescribe works.

With these tools I’m able to avoid using paper nearly eighty percent of the time. The waste generated creating all these electronic devices may not be any better for the environment than cutting down trees, but keeping everything electronic means it is all searchable and I’m less likely to loose it. And now that so much data is stored on the cloud, it also means I can access my library and my notes from just about anywhere that has web access. As someone who travels between at least three countries every year, I like the idea of having most of my stuff stored in the cloud. I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready to join the Cult of Less but it is an idea that appeals to me. More importantly, in 2010 it is finally within the realm of the possible.

12 thoughts on “Going Paperless (Tools We Use)

  1. I have got to the point where I much prefer reading pdfs than paper, and it’s so much more easy to retrieve.

    I use Zotero for organising my library, and Foxit is a very useful free pdf reader that also allows annotations, highlighting and so on (though if you install it make sure not to agree to installing some annoying toolbar, it’s presented as if you need to agree to it, but you don’t)

    I’ve just realised I can scan chapters from books rather than photocopy them (duh), but the OCR is an issue. Will try out Evernote, but do you (or anyone) know of any reliable standalone, free, OCR programs that will allow me to run a scanned pdf through it?

  2. I am really interested in the iPad’s capacity to do what the Kindle couldn’t for me. I thought I could make it through a semester’s worth of coursework without printing anything out if I got a Kindle. Not so. When I first got my Kindle PDF support was so lousy; you couldn’t zoom in, and PDFs displayed too tiny to be legible. Now, you can zoom, but cannot make any annotations on the file.

    Converting the PDFs to Kindle format garbles them horridly, even if you go through a two-stage process, and you lose the tables and visuals… and the annotations were such a pain to insert using the Kindle’s keypad. Ugh. I gave the Kindle to my husband to use to read non-academic texts. (Although in a classical philosophy course a few of my were free downloads for the Kindle!)

    I am intrigued by the iPad solution, as I’ve wanted something digital I could write on, but I felt guilty as an iPhone user getting what appeared to me to be just a larger version. I’ll keep my eye on it as a future solution. I do hate the file folders stuffed with course PDFs in my closet. I mean to scan them all at some point.

    I actually got a Nintendo DS to use as a kanji dictionary for reading in Japanese and have been very happy with that. I may have to also buy a copy of Super Mario Brothers for old time’s sake now that I have the thing 😉

  3. I understand the practicality and pragmatic focus of this post but I find it hard to believe such a strategic and techno-savvy media anthropologist such as yourself would uncritically champion each of these platforms and technologies. Sentences like “I like the idea of having most of my stuff stored in the cloud” strike me as being oddly naive for such an early adopter. I invite you to read /2010/12/27/4691/ to get a little peek into the politics of ‘the cloud’ you so love.

    You can post your caveats below…

  4. Adam,

    To be fair, I do allude to the energy costs of the cloud in my final paragraph. But the services I use: Evernote, Sente, Dropbox, etc. all respect my privacy, all let me own my own data, and all allow me to migrate my data to another platform if I ever feel I wish to no longer use their services. Of course there is probably nothing that is completely “guilt free” when it comes to capitalism. If you want to be sure that you aren’t doing anything evil you might as well live on a commune. Oh, wait. You do, don’t you?

  5. Thank you, thank you! I teach high school, and I’ve been encouraging my students to share notes and document each other’s work. These are great tools. You wouldn’t happen to know of a less expensive but still effective scanner, would you? I’ve read a lot of reviews, but it’s hard to tell which will cover our needs in the classroom. Mostly it will scan in handwritten (a lot of pencil) notes and some annotated documents.

  6. You can get scanners pretty cheap now, but what makes it worth spending the extra money is having a sheet-feeder which won’t jam on you, which will let you scan double-sided documents, and software which will automatically straighten the document if it is fed into the scanner crooked. If you save money buying a scanner without these features, be prepared to spend a lot of time doing all of this by hand.

  7. This semester i got an ipad for my birthday. It is a great way to carry huge readers with me all thhe time. The proffesors assistants in Berlin scan all of the texts that we use each semester and make them available on blackboard (an IT service for universities), therefore we don’t have to individually scan the texts.

    I use Goodreader to store, manage, and actively read PDFs. It’s quite amazing. It’s possible to make anotations, which are saved on the PDF file, highlight (if text is recognized) or what i use the most underline and free draw on any kind of PDF.

    Evernote is very helpfull during a seminar. I record audio with this app, and write at the same time. Nevertheless, the sync could be beyter, somehow it wont sync when im logged in the local university network.

    Text editing is no forte of the ipad, it is not possible to write academic articles, but it is great to create drafts on the go, wich can later be easily edited on the computer.

    Before having the ipad i was an outspoken user of paper, now i dont want to go back to it (for academic papers) at all. My desk is clutter free, my closet wont get an extra box of paper at the end of the semester, and my back has never been as painfree as it is now.

  8. My daughter gave me a ZAGG/mate case for my iPad for Christmas. It comes with a built-in bluetooth keyboard on a similar scale to those used in small notebook computers. You might want to check it out.

  9. I use Evernote to store my annotated PDFs. I don’t think Sente yet functions as an “open in” destination for PDFs, so you would have to move them back to Sente on the desktop if you wanted to do that. But if you want to use Sente to store and search annotated PDFs I recommend using Sente’s built in PDF annotation tools, which also allow you to use Sente’s “notes” feature and are thus better integrated into the application than what iAnnotate would generate.

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