I’ve spent the last two years in library school, but somehow it still never occurred to me to use note-taking and information management software for my own purposes until I took this class. I’ve used the same system for note-taking and information storage since my freshman year of college. Though for the most part it has served me well, I have noticed that as projects got larger, I tended to spend much more time skimming frantically through multiple documents searching for one thing I vaguely remembered reading somewhere. Evernote’s full-text indexing and searching, as well as its tagging feature, have helped me synthesize my research and complete my assignments more efficiently.
I typically take notes in an outline format using word processing software. It’s not a very sophisticated system, and it transferred almost seamlessly into Evernote. The one incredibly small issue I had with it is that when taking notes, I tend to have the active document on the left side of the screen, and other documents (for reference, etc.) to the right side of the screen. I think this is a holdover from when I took notes on paper: since I’m left handed, my paper was always on the left, and my book was always on the right. Evernote’s layout (as far as I know) can’t be switched around, so it took a little practice to get used to referring to the right side of my screen for the active document. I wonder if Ned Flanders’ Leftorium has expanded into software yet….
Tagging was probably the feature of Evernote that I enjoyed the most. (Full-text searching across the entirety of the documents in the database was a close second, but it doesn’t save that much more time than searching OCR-ed PDFs individually.) Being able to supply my own more detailed and granular metadata made it much easier and faster to retrieve information. My previous storage system used hierarchies of folders to mimic a very rough tagging system, but it doesn’t allow me to associate multiple tags with the same object, and tends to involve a lot of clicking. It also requires me to remember where in the multi-folder hierarchy I saved a document: since I couldn’t associate multiple categories with objects, if an object applied to more than one folder category, I would save it on the same level as both folder categories. I thought this was ingenious when I “invented” it in college, but now I realize that it was NOT the best way to do things. Rather than relying on the OS X directory structure to organize my research, I should have investigated third party software sooner. It would have made my senior thesis much less frustrating.
I wish that the tagging functionality in Evernote did allow for some hierarchical organization, if only for the sake of having a neater-looking and more navigable tag page. I can imagine that for projects longer and larger than this one, the tag page in Evernote gets very messy, very fast. I also wish that I had spent a little more time developing my tagging system. Some tags ended up referring to too many notes to be of much use, and I wasn’t always consistent about applying both subject- and format-related tags to notes. (This is another example of how hierarchical tagging in Evernote would be useful: I could tag notes related to people or places as “visual” or “non-visual,” depending upon whether they included illustrations that I could use in my archive or exhibit.) I’ll keep that lesson in mind when I begin organizing my capstone research.
I did not end up using Evernote to draft my blog posts or exhibit text. I need a visually “quiet” desktop environment for writing, and Evernote just has too many things going on that catch my attention and distract me. I also did not use Evernote to store most of the items I used in my digital archive, since the free version only permits a ludicrously small amount of data to be imported every month, and I’m pretty sure a single TIFF would exceed that allowance. Even the relatively low resolution JPEG photographs of archival materials that I took on my phone were too large to import in a single month. At least the Web Clipper can download PDFs directly into Evernote without using the imported data allowance! I would probably have stopped using Evernote if that function didn’t exist.
One other slight roadblock to using Evernote as the one database to rule them all was the fact that I ended up needing to use several books in my research. It would be really great if Evernote had a mobile application similar to the Web Clipper, which provided document scanning and OCR functionality through smartphone cameras. The fact that this doesn’t exist yet makes me think that it’s because of (everyone’s favorite!) copyright law. The Web Clipper can download PDFs exported by academic publishers’ databases, but it doesn’t work even for single (full) pages of books in ebrary or other access platforms for e-books which are still under copyright. Evernote’s Web Clipper is only one of many content-scraping web tools which have various legitimate and nefarious applications, and which publishers’ digital rights management software is built to block. Print books don’t have the same DRM software built in, but Evernote’s developers could still be sued by publishers for facilitating users’ copyright infringement if they did provide a document-scanning app like the one I described above.
Evernote is not a perfect solution, but no software ever is. Furthermore, most of my frustration with the software was the result of my being too cheap to upgrade to a paid version, and I recognize that it’s not entirely fair to blame the product itself for the business model which supports it. It would be nice to have a free, open-source platform with similar functionality to Evernote. After my experience using Evernote for this class, I plan to investigate those options further before I begin the research for my capstone project next semester. However, if that search is unsuccessful, I’ll probably pony up the $50 for a yearlong Evernote subscription.