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On Organizing Data


This is a largely self-serving post, but it’s Friday night and I could use the help of people smarter than me.

I am not a particularly technology-oriented guy. I am about 3 years too old for computers to be intuitive for me and so it’s a chore to really understand new software and the like. Given that I have a lot of things on my plate plus a lot of weird hobbies like visiting graves, it’s easy for me to just not worry about it. Mostly that works fine.

But there are whole categories of new technologies to help researchers and writers like myself and now is a good time to figure them out. Right now, with my third book in the editing process, I have one scholarly book I am sort of working on, one scholarship-based public book I hope makes a big splash that I just spent 5 months researching, and a couple of book projects like Out of Sight and the strikes book that are popular-facing understandings of the economy, history, environment, and/or politics that you are used to here. The point is that none of these projects are very far along in terms of writing or organizing data. Given this plus that I am on sabbatical, this seems like the now or never time to pause and figure out what new technological options I have open to me to make all of this easier. That’s what I need help with. And since so many of you are professionals in various manners, I figured you might have advice. In my graduate program, there was an older professor who was a very active researcher and writer. But he never figured out any technology at all. He would write his books on stacks of yellow notebook paper and hire graduate students to type it all up for him. I don’t want to end up that way in 20 years, even if it worked well enough for him and I suppose would for me.

To my mind, there are 3 categories of things to ask. First, notetaking systems. I have just downloaded Zotero and am playing around with it. It seems useful in some ways. What experience have you all had with it? What should I know? What don’t you like? Are there alternative ways of organizing data? Given the pathetic Word documents I used for all my material that went into Empire of Timber, there has to be a better way.

Second, I have thousands of images I took of documents. They are sitting on my computer right now and sort of on Dropbox. I need to get them off my computer because of the space they are taking up but for whatever reason I don’t have a Dropbox icon on my computer and so I can’t easily move them over there. Did I mention I was an idiot? This is exactly the thing that will take me hours to deal with. Anyway, have you found programs that help scan or organize images with tiny text on them that will take me a lifetime to go through. Seriously, this is biggest challenge with writing a scholarly book. It takes forever. What programs have you used to help handle primary sources?

Third, there is whatever I don’t even know. What should I know? What other types of data assistance is there that you might recommend? Anything is useful.

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