In the midst of writing my dissertation prospectus, I sat down for lunch with my friend and historian colleague Jackie. Jackie is three years ahead of me in graduate school and by that point was several chapters into her dissertation. After chatting about the state of our respective work, I asked for an experienced researcher's advice. "What," I asked Jackie, "do you wish you had known at the outset?"
With hardly any hesitation, she replied, "start a document database early!" I must admit that I didn't really know what that meant. I was familiar with bibliographic databases like EndNote, RefWorks, and Zotero, which allow you to store the citation information for every work that you reference in a project (so you can easily generate a Works Cited page at the end). I had already started a Zotero bibliography database for the secondary studies I planned to use in my dissertation. What else did I need?
Like any good academic, Jackie proceeded to school me on the value of database software for a large-scale research project like a dissertation. By the middle of a project, she warned, the sheer volume of documents that a historian collects can become unmanageable if there is no system for organizing and manipulating the files. I asked, "can't you just keep very organized folders on your hard drive?" Jackie was emphatic that creating a database not only maintained order--it also offered a multitude of other advantages and efficiencies.
Six months into the dissertation, I can now say that she was totally right.
As this screenshot of my database clearly shows, I have hundreds of documents from a wide variety of archives and collections. I'm able to sort them neatly by subseries or by box or by folder so that I always know where they came from. More valuable, however, is that my database allows me to create links between individual files (including different kinds of files, like between PDF documents and text files containing notes). This can be accomplished in a variety of ways depending on the database, but creating tags, hyperlinks, or specialized "folders" or "notebooks" are common methods.
The greatest advantage of the database, to me, is portability. By digitizing the documents and storing them all in one application, I can take my laptop with me and work on my project from anywhere. I do not need to constantly bounce between "My Documents," Microsoft Word, and an image viewer, which can become a slow and annoying process. When I really need to get work done, I shut down all of the other (distracting) programs on my computer. I can focus solely on reading through my documents, taking note of the authorship, the topic, the relevant issues, and relating each document back to the bigger story I'm trying to tell.
Tomorrow I will offer a more detailed review of DEVONthink Pro Office, the database software I use, and explain how and why I chose it. For those who are interested, two other options that I know my colleagues frequently use are Evernote (which is free!) and File Maker Pro.