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Taking Better Notes in Zotero

note cardI’ve used Zotero for four years or so, and it’s extraordinarily useful software for research. I’m not the only one at ProfHacker who likes Zotero. Alex recently wrote about Scanner for Zotero, Mark wrote about Zotero and Android, and Brian wrote a comparison of Zotero and Endnote. There are a great many more posts about Zotero in our archives.

But there is one thing about Zotero that has bothered me. The problem is that the most intuitive way to take notes on a source is to attach the note to the source. For example, see the screenshot below, where I have a summary and a few topical notes about one book.

Zotero attached notes

This is all well and good for certain types of notes, such as summaries of books that I read for exams. It’s kind of like scribbling marginalia in a book. But this method is not so good for other types of notes, such as pieces of evidence or quotations. The problem is that attaching notes to the source forces you to think about the source first and then the idea encapsulated in the note, rather than the other way round.

I first learned how to take scholarly notes on index cards: one thought per card, with carefully marked keys to subjects and sources. I still think that index cards have some virtues that digital note-taking can’t beat. What I wanted from Zotero was a way to think about notes that was more like the model of index cards and less like the model of marginalia.

Lo and behold, Zotero had the necessary functionality for years. The problem was not the capabilities of the software, but the way I was thinking about taking notes.

What I do now is make a standalone note for each thought or piece of evidence. But I also make the note a related item of the source from which I got the idea. You can see in the screenshot below that this standalone note is related to a book.

Zotero standalone note

Now I have a note that can be shuffled around and which I can find without thinking about the specific book or manuscript from which it came. But once I have the note, I can move from there to the source very easily. And I could instead go to the source first, and find a list of all the notes I took from it, since they are all marked as related items. It’s a simple switch from attaching notes, but for me at least the way I think about my notes is much more flexible and usable.

So I’m trying to make two points. First, here is a hack that might help you take better notes in Zotero. But second, you have to be critical about the way your technology, whether Zotero or index cards, is shaping your thinking. Your mind and your preferred way of working should shape the technology, rather than the opposite. Thinking critically in this way can lead you to hacking the way you work in productive ways.

How do you take digital notes? How can your notes be made more useful?

Note card image courtesy of Flickr user kafka4prez / Creative Commons licensed.

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