Five Easy Tools to Digitize Your Workflow

On Friday, I’m joining a colleague, Tim Pasch, to give a short talk to help graduate students and advanced undergraduates in the humanities to digitize their research work flow. The talk is at 12 at the Digital and New Media Lab (O’Kelly 207).

Our goals will be to (1) encourage students to understand that incorporating digital tools into their research is not some kind of new hassle, but actually part of being a careful and systematic researcher. We also (2) hope to show the students that they don’t necessarily have to do learn new and complicated skills to digitize their workflow, but that there might be simple and better ways to do what they already do. Finally, (3) we want to introduce students to the idea that digital tools can help them make their work more transparent to the public and this can often facilitate the move from disorganized fragments of ideas to completed thoughts.

I’m going to introduce 5 simple tools that I feel can complement almost any workflow and can help us do what we do better.

1. NValt (or Notational Velocity) for note taking (in plain text!). I write almost exclusively in plain text these days and only work in a full blown word processors when I have to add citations, format for publication, or use track changes in a collaborative environment.  There are a ton of slick little, light weight text editor applications that are just too good not to use and use often (Omwriter is another favorite). As long as they save in plain text format, the documents can be read in any word processor and take up almost no disk space making them super portable. More importantly, many of these programs have features like full screen views designed to make writing more pleasurable and to cut out a bunch of the distractions that make using a full blown word processor such a chore.

2. Zotero for citation management. Most of us collect citations almost continuously, so it is important to have software that allows you organize and retrieve these citations. For the past 5 years, I’ve been absolutely dependent on Zotero to manage my academic citations. Developed by the Center for History and the New Media at George Mason University Zotero is free and was developed with the needs of researchers in the humanities in mind. Originally Zotero was a Firefox add on, but recent versions of it – including Zotero 3.0 Standalone – has made it compatible with the Chrome browser and Word for both PC and Windows. It is easily sync-ed across multiple computers, multiple platforms, and on the web, so you’re never far from your bibliography.

3. Evernote for various notes, images, documents, webpages, and other varia. As more and more of us get smartphones, applications are being developed to make them part of our research workflow. Evernote is perhaps the best of a group of applications for organizing notes, images, documents, and webpages both across computers and between your computer and your smart phone. With Evernote, I now use my smart phone for research all the time. I click an image of a page of a book, article, or document and upload it to Evernote where Evernote use OCR (optical character recognition) to make it searchable. I’ve recently started using Evernote to take voice memos and even to associate them with a particular document when I’m walking home (directly from my phone). I also use Evernote to clip whole webpages, organize them into folders, and look at them when I get a chance. With the various Evernote plug-ins available, it is possible to clip an entire webpage right from your browser with one click. Once the page is clipped, Evernote has a great search engine that makes it easy to find the page without having to venture out once again into the wilds of the web. It’s a nice piece of software.

4. Blogging and Mars Edit / Windows Live Writer. I want to encourage graduate students to include a public, digital component in their workflow. I love the recent emphasis in the UK on graduate students blogging as they work on their thesis. It makes their research public, helps them to develop their online presence (which is really important when they go on the job market), and helps them learn to write every day (or at least regularly). Two pieces of software MarsEdit for Mac and Windows Live Writer (for PC) make it easy to blog offline and to upload content to a blog. The interfaces are like a standard word processor and it makes it even easier to blog.

5. Embrace the Cloud. Most of us already rely on the cloud for email and maybe for our music files, but it has also becoming a simple way to sync documents between computers and to share files. Everyone (perhaps in the world) with a computer should have a Dropbox account. This application creates a folder on your computer that automatically syncs with the cloud making it available wherever you have an internet connection. While I wouldn’t put your credit card numbers in it, it is secure enough for everyday research documents.  Google Docs is a cloud based word processor that is getting better with every passing month. It’s a great platform for writing  and for collaborating.  And like any cloud based application, the documents that you produce or upload to Google docs are available anywhere you have a computer and an internet connection.


One Comment

  1. Check out SugarSync, too. I use it, and (as far as I can tell(, it’s the same as Dropbox but with more free space up front (5GB).


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