Learning to use database software has been a slow process, but I've come to really love the tools and the interface for DEVONthink Pro Office. I chose this database over File Maker Pro after reading several reviews for each option. I think I would have done fine with either, but DEVONthink had the advantage of being used by fellow historians, and I liked knowing that I could turn to them when I had questions.
Researchers and project managers love DEVONthink Pro Office because of its flexibility--there are many, many, many different ways to use it. The problem with this flexibility is the same as flexibility in yoga--you have to learn to work with it or you will probably get hurt. Luckily, with a database, you only risk confusion.
To be extra sure that this was the software I wanted to commit to, I downloaded the application for a free, 30-day trial period. Immediately I found the process for importing files to be quite intuitive, but unsure of what to do next I began watching the tutorials posted on the DEVONthink website. These showed me the basic functions I would need to get my database organized, and I skipped over the more business-y applications. What I wanted to know was how I could create visual shortcuts and link information across documents and groups.
My three favorite things about my database are the ability 1) to create nesting groups, 2) to tag documents and search by tag, and 3) to link documents together. On the recommendation of my friend Jackie, I decided to create a group for every archive I use. Since that's how I organize the collections mentally it made sense to emulate this in the database, but I could see the advantages of making collections or research trip dates be the "top" layer. Within each archival group, I nested a group for individual collections, and within those collection I nested folders for every box. This top-down organization prevents me from feeling overwhelmed by all of the documents I have to read through and work with. With 382 PDFs in one of my collections alone, it's better for my mental health to scale down and only see 2 or 12 or 26 at a time.
Tags allow me to reorganize documents by topic, actor, or event. A lot of my materials relate to the urban crisis, so anytime I come across a record that discusses responses to riots or racial tension I will tag the document with "urban crisis." I also tag every single document with the year it was written or published, so I can search for everything written in, say, 1968.
As you can see in the screenshot above, I also love the ability to create linked annotations for every PDF. This keeps my notes together with my documents, and means I don't have to dig through an 80-page .doc file of archival notes every time I need to remember if the "Rabbinical Assembly Resolutions Regarding JCCs" were interesting or important. It's amazing how quickly you forget information... I often have to look back at notes I wrote the day before because I can no longer recall what I read. In writing a dissertation you take in such a large volume of information that inevitably you end up mentally dumping most of it. That's why your notes have to be excellent!
Finally, I really like that I can put little labels--colored dots, in this case--after the name of each document. If I see a green dot, it means I'm done taking notes on that one! Red is a bummer, though. It means go back and re-do. Luckily I have more greens than reds right now.
Overall, I highly recommend DEVONthink Pro Office. I continue to find new ways to use the application in order to make my workflow more efficient. It's not the most intuitive software I have ever used, but it's not the least either. Mostly, I just cannot imagine tackling a project of this size without the organizing and searching capabilities of specialized database software, and I'm regularly impressed with how adept DEVONthink is at leading me to exactly that thing I'm looking for.