M. Hickey  42. 398 (Research and Writing Skills)

Some ideas about note taking, note-organizing, and note-retrieval:


The more sources you read, the more important it is that you follow a rational system of note-taking.  Everyone finds a system that fits their needs and temperament...  but it you assume that you can approach your 398 paper as a “typical” term paper, you will get yourself into hot water very quickly.


Here my suggestions regarding the most basic issues that you face:


1)      ALWAYS record notes with COMPLETE bibliographic references, and ALWAYS have page citations for all quotations, paraphrases and summaries. 


2)      Provide COMPLETE identification of the origins of all of your documents (etc).  EVERY page of your notes MUST have some sort of citation to the source material—that includes on any photocopies you make--so that you never forget what the notes are from!


3)      Notes must make a CLEAR distinction between what you have quoted, paraphrased and summarized.  Mess this up and you’re in for  misery!


4)      Take notes on the argument of secondary sources as well as notes on any factual information (etc) that you want to use from those sources.  If not, you’re at that author’s mercy!


5)      You MUST find a way to record notes that makes it as easy as possible for you to USE those notes.  Your notes should help you remember WHY you took them in the first place! Did you want information for background, or is it detailed evidence that will be described or explained in the body of your paper, etc.?  Try linking the notes to a specific question or problem!


6)      Make sure that you write down or photocopy anything that you even suspect will prove to be necessary factual information from your sources.  Who wrote what to whom, where, when (etc)?  If you do the notes right the first time, then you can limit how many times you have to go back and reread the sources.  And rereading gets mighty hard if you have already returned the book to Interlibrary Loan!


7)      Making your notes useful requires that they be READABLE and LOGICAL.  A long rambling scribble on a page of paper might be quicker and make sense to you today, but will it make sense in four weeks?  You need to think about how you want to organize the notes “on the page.”


8)      Develop a way to store your notes so that you can find them quickly and easily, review them, compare them, etc.  For this reason, let me warn you: 


9)      NEVER keep notes on more than one source on the same paper or same file.  Be it note cards, note paper, note books, file folders, notes on your computer or photocopies—ALWAYS keep notes on the same source together, and ALWAYS keep it in a way that is distinct from notes on other sources.


10)   Consider keeping a research diary to track what you have ordered  from interlibrary loan and what you read each day.   Use it to pose questions that you might want to think about as you do more research, etc.


A special note on reading secondary sources:

When you read secondary sources, you should think about how each author's interpretation fits into "groups" or "schools" of interpretations.

Historians often are explicit about how their conclusions relate to the historiography, but that is not always the case.  Sometimes differences in interpretation are based upon the kinds of sources that historians have examined, but that is not always the case. 

As you read, you must give a great deal of thought to the differences as well as similarities between different books and articles.  What questions does each historian ask, what does each argue, what kind of sources does each use?

Be sure that you keep good notes (see above) that include very specific summaries of each author's thesis, the types of sources each author used, and the the relationship of each book or article to other historical interpretations.

Periodically review these notes and compare and contrast that arguments of each author.  What patterns emerge?

Think about how your questions relate to what other authors have argued.  Does the evidence that you’re finding seem to support or refute other historical interpretations on the topic (or related topics)?


A special note on reading primary sources:

When you read primary sources, you need to ask yourself the same kinds of questions that we kept discussing in the primary source analysis papers. 

If you are diligent in your source criticism (and in being aware of your own biases, so that these do not skew your analysis), then you will be doing the real work of a historian!

Keep in mind what I said above about taking notes.  Messy, disorganized notes can sink your project!

Also (again!) it is REALLY good idea to keep a research journal, so that you can jot down questions, observations, ideas (etc) about your work as you read the primary sources.  (You don't want to get a great idea, write it on a note card for one of  your less-important primary sources, and then forget abut it!  Write down big ideas, big questions, things to remember, etc., in your research journal.)