A Virtual Paper Chase: Organizing a scholarly life with ebooks and an iPad

The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes: After the advent of “paperless” offices, the consulting detective found a lucrative second career…

I always laugh my butt off at those television commercials for scanners that promise to empty your file cabinets, clean out your receipt shoe boxes and otherwise banish home office clutter.  The reason is simple: for most folks scanning paper documents into electronic ones only succeeds in transferring a real mess into a virtual one.

I think electronic housekeeping is actually worse than physically tidying up.  I have several thousand books stored on four external hard drives, documents created both on my laptop (which hangs out on my desk top) and on my iPad (which takes the place of my laptop), and a myriad of .pdf files that I get through U of C’s Chalk site and email. To further complicate matters, at any given point I have books in various stages of being scanned, processed, and corrected and art projects either starting as scanned photos, digital working files, or finalized TIFs. I’m not writing this to complain though.  If these things were sitting in piles near my desk I might risk them falling over and crushing me or an apartment wildfire that would rage through my collection of Edgar Rice Burroughs books.  However, while paper documents are far less portable, they are far more likely to get permanently lost or destroyed.  Virtual documents are easy to lose and easy to delete.  Now, I’d never go back to hauling all my course books, toting mountains of notes, and having to scale up drawings the old-fashioned way, but after reading about a friend’s electronic filing system, I thought I’d share my own strategies to keep my virtual library in check.

There are three varieties of documents that I commonly have to manage.

1. Archived documents – I’ve already discussed the process of turning books into .pdf files here and here, so I’ll assume that everyone understands the bit in the last paragraph about scanning, processing, and correcting.  We’ll call documents that somebody else published to paper and I recreated virtually “Archived” documents.

2. Digital documents – These documents are html websites that have been used for course readings, .pdf files that Professors have given me by email/ Chalk, and video or audio embedded files that can’t be easily converted into some other form.

3. User-created documents – This category includes class notes, class work drafts and final papers, photographs, and art files.

An organization system could be keyed to anyone of these document types.  For example, I could lump my course books (archived) and websites (digital) in with my course notes (user-created) using a program like Circus Ponie’s NoteBooks.  I’ve tried NoteBooks before and found that, while it works fine to collect documents for a particular class or according to the needs of a paper, in the long-term, keying items to my user-created documents tends cause me to “lose” documents because I forget which project I was working on when I found them.  Instead, I prefer to group my user-created and digital docs with my archived books.

So how does it work in practice?

My books are scanned to .pdf files which are archived to a pair of hard drives and saved on my iPad in iAnnotate.  Within iAnnotate I have a series of folders that hold all the books for a single course or a particular project.  The Library view screen also allows me to duplicate, e-mail, and tag books for global searching.

My course notes are taken in two ways.  Notes that are very close to the text (i.e. specific to a passage) are written in the book they refer to.  So, for example, here I have some comments on Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit that are linked to particular high lighted passages.

These notes stay with the book as I move it from the iPad to the computer after I have finished with the particular course the book used to be associated with, but can also be stripped out to provide a fresh copy if I want to read the book without my former prejudices getting in the way.  Notes that are not closely related to a particular text are taken in a paper notebook that I can later scanned creating a new archive document (for example “Notes from 20th Century Science Fiction Literature”).

Digital documents that I receive from my Professors or other students are copied into a text editor (like Open Office’s NeoOffice or Microsoft’s Word and turned into .pdfs with the original html address at the top.  In this way I can be assured that I can locate the document on the web if changes are made AND I have a permanent copy in case the link disappears.  These files are grouped with the books they refer to or the physical notebooks that I will later scan depending on their character.

The “spotlight” function in my Macbook, iPad, or the search function in iAnnotate can turn up searched terms in the filename, text itself, or in the annotations or bookmarks in the case of iAnnotate.  By keeping the organizational scheme at the level of files and folders rather than integrating the files into another program (like Notebooks, EverNote, or Zetero) I know that I will continue to be able to access my documents even if programs change formats, operating systems aren’t backwards compatible with now-defunct programs, or I change operating systems.  On the downside, topic level schemes are faster because they are more narrowly defined.  To illustrate, a search for “phenomenology” in my library turns up several thousand hits because it counts every file name, every instance of the word in a text, and every annotation that includes the word.  If I simply had a notebook named “phenomenology” with links to books, embedded digital docs, and course notes the resulting body of knowledge would be much more manageable.

So, there you have it.  My system is not nearly as advanced or user-friendly as some other software based systems, but I’m betting that it will be less likely to fall prey to technological changes than those other approaches.  I would love to hear how the rest of you organize the flotsam and jetsam of your scholarly lives–especially those who resist the “paperless” revolution–so leave a note in the comments section.

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7 comments on “A Virtual Paper Chase: Organizing a scholarly life with ebooks and an iPad

  1. Robert Minto says:

    Wow, this is crazy lightweight. I like it. You’ve given me food for thought — especially re: keeping my electronic files in a non-ephemeral format. Fortunately Scrivener has an export-as-.txt function, so I’ll have to periodically have to do so and save the result…

    Are the pictures of book covers in your screenshot the scanned images of the covers? Also, if you don’t mind my asking, how do you find that your spiral bound post-scanned books resell? Fairly quickly? Or do they only trickle away? I’m not saying I’m going to jump up and imitate your methods; but I’m strongly tempted to borrow some of your space- and time- saving techniques, perhaps by devoting the next summer to going paperless, or something like that…

  2. maphman says:

    Yeah, its pretty lightweight–when I used Circus Ponies’ NoteBooks I spent more time organizing my notes than making them and I rebelled against being tied to the program’s peculiar organizational system. My understanding is that Scrivener has a much larger latitude than NoteBooks.

    The pictures of the book’s covers are the scanned first pages of the .pdfs. My goal for ebooks is to recreate the experience of the original book as much as is possible within the limits of a .pdf so I scan the covers–and dust jacket blurbs on hardcovers.

    I’ve had mixed luck with reselling spiral bound post-scanned books. Typically the “required course” sort of books sell pretty quickly, but more specialized books might get passed up in favor of pristine copies. That being said, I actually have had two hardcover books that are in absolutely new condition on eBay and they aren’t even getting a look–presumably because they are too specialized and too expensive even at half of Amazon’s price for a new copy. So… I still lose money buying books and certainly I lose a bit more when I sell a spiraled copy because I had to pay to have it cut ($1 or $1.50) and had to pay to have it rebound ($2 or $3). The real payoff comes with the ability to move books more easily–both to and from class in my iPad and when I have to rent a uHaul).

    I think there is still a place for a program based approach–I just haven’t found the program yet. However, I do also fear putting too much effort into creating content that will become unretrievable through a fluke of planned obsolescence. If we were a bit closer together I would actually love to see your Scrivener setup in action–but that doesn’t seem likely. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Robert Minto says:

    Scrivener mainly appeals to me because of its GUI, which may be shallow or something, but I just find it obnoxious to keep plain old documents in plain old files. I find myself avoiding any content-preserving system that doesn’t delight me with its mechanics and appearance — hence, for example, my pathological resistance to ugly pens or paper, and the weird release I feel when writing with a fountain pen on nice paper… I think Scrivener, for me, is an indulgence of the same need to fetishize the instruments of my writing.

    One more question re: the whole scanning books thing. Do you ever scan in library books? Obviously you can’t cut them up, so maybe it’s too much work to scan them; but it occurred to me that that might be a good way to get oneself permanent copies of hard to find / ridiculously expensive works.

  4. maphman says:

    You know I can certainly commiserate on your appreciation of fine fountains and special papers–so I can understand the appeal of Scrivener’s GUI. However, what is its central organizational metaphor–a notebook, a bulletin board, or a filmstrip/powerpoint? It isn’t obvious from the info page as all these metaphors seem to be behind certain parts of sample images.

    I have scanned library books–although that was in my non-destructive book scanning phase. There are a couple books I plan to get from U of C’s library and scan over Christmas break. Both a over $200 each on Amazon and simply can’t afford them. As long as your sheet fed scanner also has a flat bed option you can always scan a book without removing the spine–it just takes much longer. In my experience a two-hundred page hardcover takes about eight hours in total to get TIFs into the computer and another couple hours of post processing. If you scan a book over a period of days while watching seasons of Mythbusters or Stuck with Hackett it’s not so bad.

  5. Robert Minto says:

    I think the organizational appeal of Scrivener is that identical sets of files can be viewed as parts of a notebook or as cards on a bulletin board. Every document or folder doubles — in corkboard view — as a 3×5 card that can be dragged around, resized, and typed upon. I find this extremely helpful as a more versatile tool for constructing an outline from initially disconnected thoughts. All the documents within a given file can be viewed individually — and edited in a “zenware” word processor that completely eliminates the distractions of borders, taskbars, and tool icons, leaving just oneself and the text on a field of color of one’s own choosing — or spliced together in the order assigned in the corkboard view as one long document. Finally, the program automatically carries out really frequent but unintrusive saves, so I never have to worry about losing content and I also never have to think about saving, even when I exit the program…

    So all in all, I think Scrivener is rather a mixed metaphor…

  6. Robert Minto says:

    I know you’re busy and all, but I was just quietly wondering to myself how the organization of your scholarly life has changed during your time in the Maph program. If you ever feel like writing about it, I for one would be fascinated to read.

  7. […] Sadly, I pretty much gave up on Scrivener. Something about it began to annoy me, and I began to worry about the permanence of the content I was creating in it. (In re: to which, see the prescient observations of the Maphman in the comments on this post.) […]

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