Listen to Ben Franklin

My goal for this week was to transition towards a workflow that more equitably balances research and writing. More specifically, I had hoped to draft at least a page or two of my first dissertation chapter, which will be on the 1946-47 Jewish Welfare Board survey conducted by Prof. Oscar I. Janowsky. Yet somehow it is now Friday, and I have yet to write a single sentence. The past few days were spent getting organized, and I find myself with at least another few hours worth of prep work to do before I can feasibly begin writing.

I did not expect that this process would require so much preparation. As I have written about before, I'm pretty meticulous with my database, my notes, and how I organize sources. When I sat down to draft the chapter outline, however, I became overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of sources that I have on the JWB Survey. Over the past few months of research, I tagged all of the documents in my database that are related to this topic with "JWB Survey," and so I can quickly and easily call them forward and view them in isolation. Furthermore, I can organize all of the documents tagged "JWB Survey" by the year they were authored, because "19XX" was the other consistent tag I applied. That still leaves me, however, with hundreds of documents from 1946 alone! I now realize that I need to review all of these documents (briefly, quickly, expeditiously, stat!) and add more specific tags such as "Survey Committee Minutes," or "Field Visits to Centers," or "Progress Reports." My chapter will progress chronologically, and so by adding these tags I will be able to quickly isolate only those documents that were written at the moment I'm writing about--for example, in the lead-up to the survey, or later while conducting the survey, or  from after the survey was completed, etc.

I'm trying not to get frustrated or anxious, and to instead focus on the adage from the ever pithy Ben Franklin: 

By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.

I'm telling myself that this is not productive procrastination, but rather a foundational step that will yield exponential benefits when I actually begin writing. Hopefully next week.

A Checklist for Historians?

I've been having an obsessive week. In my working hours, I have delightfully obsessed over an amazing report written in 1968 by Irving Brodsky on how JCCs were reacting to the urban crisis. I spent five days poring over each page. In my non-working hours, I could not tear myself away from my SimCity. I played for hours each evening, erecting skyscrapers and stocking cargo ships on a little grid illustrated within my iPad. The final rabbit hole that I fell down was a book I devoured in two days, Atul Gawande's The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right (2009). 

In this book, Gawande argues that a well designed checklist can help trained experts reduce the potential for failure by highlighting some of the most easily missed steps in a complex procedure. This emphasis on the obvious or routine steps then frees more mental space for experts to consider subtlety, variance, or emergent factors in the given situation. I was familiar with many of the hospital/healthcare systems improvements that Gawande described because of my internship at the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, where I observed firsthand how the implementation of checklists improved patient outcomes in hospitals, clinics, and long-term care facilities throughout Western Pennsylvania. From The Checklist Manifesto, however, I learned about the origins of checklists in aviation and how industries like construction and finance have adapted them throughout the years to improve outcomes, mitigate risk, and increase efficiency. 

All of that was interesting in itself, but the central question that kept me obsessively reading was: could a historian benefit from a checklist? And if so, how? Archival research is incredibly low-risk, for ourselves and others, and most of our work is done solo. We don't have people relying on us for their safety, nor do we often engage in collaborative endeavors that require leadership, team work, and communication. Yet, historical research is a complex, multi-step process that can be incredibly inefficient. 

One essential characteristic of modern life is that we all depend on systems--on assemblages of people or technologies or both--and among our most profound difficulties is making them work.

My system--which I have written about extensively--must surely have flaws and failures. I may not see them now, but what about when I start writing? Will I find that my notes are inadequate or inaccessible? In what ways? I've decided to spend the next week breaking down my system into all of its essential tasks and outcomes, to see if it will be possible to take Gawande's advice and create a checklist that increases my weekly reading input and writing output.


Chronologies and Indices

Even with all of the clarity a pristinely organized database bestows upon a researcher, the soul-crushing volume of information necessitates additional strategies to help move the most important knowledge into the foreground. Two methods that I have used to help me keep track of details are making a chronology and making an index.

A chronology is a glorified timeline, a visual representation of change. It highlights patterns (economic growth!) and major disruptions (coup d'etat!). A well-done chronology is a valuable reference when you want to contextualize an event or debate within the larger history of what you're studying. For example, I created a chronology of the YM-YWHA of Washington Heights from its founding in 1917 up until 1980, the final year for which I have records. Since I want it to be a simplification of my notes, I do not record every detail I know about what happened in each year. I choose special events, like changes in leadership or the inauguration of a program, or notable debates, like whether to establish draft counseling and condemn the Vietnam War. That way, when I read a document about New York City's fiscal crisis in 1975 I can quickly turn to my chronology and see how the Y reacted to the threat of budget cuts for their municipally funded programs. 

In some unknown future, when I invent a machine to add hours to the day, I plan to create chronologies for other institutions I study in the dissertation (like the Jewish Welfare Board). I'll also write one for the history of New York City. Luckily my doctoral exams taught me the broad sweep of American history during the postwar decades, so I don't have make a macro-level timeline. I could imagine that a researcher could also benefit from creating chronologies for historical actors important to their study.  A "master" chronology of all the actors and organizations in a given project would be quite an undertaking, but could prove valuable. 

What I refer to as an index is my own personal encyclopedia of the historical actors and debates that appear in my work. It's hard to keep track of all the leaders in all of the major Jewish institutions in New York City (plus all the national organizations!) and so I like to have a handy document with the basic details on the most important people. I list whatever "vitals" about them that I can find: their birth and death dates, occupation, marital status and children (if relevant), and where they lived. I also note the organizations with which they were affiliated, especially if they served on a Board of Directors. If they were involved in a major debate, I write down what position they took (for example: X was in favor of opening the JCC on Saturdays). Basically, I commit to the index any information I think I will need if I have to jog my memory about an individual's identity. I try to make entries for most of my historical actors, even when I think to myself, "how could I forget this person!" Many of the individuals I study have similar sounding names, and it's possible that I could mix them up. Or, I could mistakenly associate someone with an organization that they didn't belong to. Keeping track of basic information in an index saves me from having to look through pages and pages of notes to verify small details like that. 

Again, these are tedious extra steps that often cause me to shake my head and wonder if it's worth it... the last thing I want to do is waste my time! From experience, however, chronologies and indices become valuable reference tools that I rely on throughout the duration of a project. 



DEVONthink Pro Office

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.

I do not make (data)baseless claims...

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.