15.163 annotation

From: by way of Willard McCarty (willard@lists.village.Virginia.EDU)
Date: Mon Aug 06 2001 - 04:16:13 EDT

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 15, No. 163.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

       [1] From: "Jamel Ostwald" <ostwald.1@osu.edu> (107)
             Subject: RE: 15.161 annotation

       [2] From: John Lavagnino <John.Lavagnino@kcl.ac.uk> (20)
             Subject: Re: 15.161 annotation

       [3] From: "Patrik Svensson" (80)
             Subject: RE: 15.161 annotation

             Date: Mon, 06 Aug 2001 08:40:58 +0100
             From: "Jamel Ostwald" <ostwald.1@osu.edu>
             Subject: RE: 15.161 annotation

    I recently joined the Humanist listserv in the hope of finding just such
    a topic on note-taking ideas as mentioned in Humanist 15.161, and I'm
    glad to see I've been so quickly accommodated!
    Personal intro: I'm finishing up my Ph.D. in Early Modern European
    History at Ohio State University, and am using computers for a
    note-taking database, my website with an infant Early Modern Military
    History Website for scholarly collaboration, Minitab for my quantitative
    research on 17th-18th century siege warfare, AutoCAD for maps (hoping to
    get ArcView when I'm rich), and in the future Flash for animated maps.

    Over the past several years I have developed my own note-taking database
    (based in MS Access) and I thought I would comment on a few of the
    issues raised thus far, from my neophyte perspective (new both to
    humanities computing and the academic world). For a longer exposition of
    my database, its design and features, see Research at
    www.ostwald.hispeed.com . It falls on the "most detailed" end of the

    I was never raised on notecards (although I did do 3 years of high
    school debate with notecards, when I could never find exactly what I
    needed), but from what I understand of it, a well-designed computerized
    database system is much better in many respects. The focus of my
    database thus far has been for note-taking on primary sources (original
    docs) rather than on secondary sources, which are a slightly different
    animal, but I have found my system quite flexible thus far. In fact I'm
    convinced that a well-designed system is much more flexible than any
    notecard system could ever be.

    -Data entry: I have 50+ volumes of published primary sources which I am
    slowly OCRing (an hour a day over several years...), then I have to edit
    the recognized text (using Abbyy's FineReader, averaging perhaps a
    couple errors per page) and then transfer them into Access. Editing and
    transferring requires the largest amount of time, but it's still much
    faster than trying to enter in 1000's of pages manually or the other
    option of summarizing documents and missing things. I'm hoping to get
    other like-minded scholars to submit their digitized sources on early
    modern European military history up on my EMWWeb website. And when we
    exchange sources with our colleagues, I can give them full quotes while
    I'm stuck with vague paraphrases.

    -My "research space" is either archives, rare book collections or the
    home/office, so I personally don't use a Palm but portability is
    definitely critical. My laptop allows me to use the rather large Access
    db I have: 17,000 records or primary documents, 6,000 secondary records
    slowly being transferred in from EndNote, several lookup tables with
    hundreds of personalities, towns, etc. The laptop allows me to consult
    all these wherever I am (less conveniently in mass transit it must be
    admitted), making all of my notes available wherever I go - conference,
    work, class, library, etc.

    -On the matter of transcribing vs. summarizing, when time allows I'd
    think it would always be preferable to copy docs verbatim rather than
    just summarize. I'm fortunate to have lots of sources already published
    and therefore easily OCRed; in contrast, the context from my earliest
    archive notes (paraphrases only) are woefully vague now that I'm trying
    to write up my chapters. The choice between transcribing and summarizing
    doesn't have to be made however, since you can easily create a field in
    a note-taking database where you can transcribe the source verbatim,
    make another field which allows you to summarize the contents of the
    transcription field as briefly or exhaustively as you wish, and have a
    third field to jot down your impressions/comments on the doc as well.
    Then of course you can make as many (abstract) keyword fields as you

    -Searchability: It's almost impossible that even the best notecard
    system could be more flexible or powerful than a well-designed database.
    With my database setup, I can sort by any combination of a dozen
    topical/keyword fields and a couple dozen bibliographic (meta-data)
    fields, using wildcards, mathematical operators (<,>) and even Boolean
    operators when needed, with searches taking a matter of seconds. I can't
    imagine how you could even fit that many fields onto a 3x5 (or even
    8x12) notecard, much less sort by multiple fields, not to mention doing
    searches for text strings within the text of documents. For example, I
    found all the documents (50 or so, out of 15,000) with the town
    "Maubeuge" anywhere in the text and sorted them by date and then author
    in less than 30 seconds - how in the world can you do that with

    -Flexibility: With a database that you can design and modify yourself
    (rather than most commercially packaged ones), you can also create new
    entry forms as the need arises - a semi-structured source type can be
    turned into a form of just a few fields very quickly, with lookup tables
    to further speed up data entry.

    -As for digital vs. paper, the choice is a false dichotomy, since you
    can always print off your digital docs as often as you want, in far more
    formats far more easily than recopying notecards. I've made a dozen or
    more reports that will search through all the records and pull all the
    records meeting my specific criteria and then print on paper only the
    fields I choose. This is simple to do if you have created the system
    yourself, so the toughest thing about printing off 3x5 slips of paper
    for me would be limiting myself to the few fields that would fit in a
    3x5 area. You can also paste your transcriptions or summaries over to a
    Word document when you want to quote it, as well as pasting the
    bibliographic info into the corresponding footnote.
    I have multiple copies of my digital database in several various
    locations, including several versions at different stages of the design
    process, whereas the paper photocopies from the archives not yet entered
    in are still sitting in my filing cabinets. I need to work out a
    priority system in case there's a fire for my paper notes.
    As for the paper-wielding scholar's advantage when the lights out,
    unless you've got a flashlight, nobody's going to get any work done, and
    that's what batteries in the laptop/Palm are for - or you could always
    carry around a few copies of a blank form from your database printed
    off. At worst, an out-of-service computer means you're back at the same
    level as the other papyrus-users, you'll miss the machine pretty

    I'd appreciate any recommendations or comments anybody might have on my
    database, particularly if there are important features that are missing.

    Jamel Ostwald
    EMWWeb: A new website for scholarly collaboration in all topics on Early
    Modern military history, at

             Date: Mon, 06 Aug 2001 08:41:25 +0100
             From: John Lavagnino <John.Lavagnino@kcl.ac.uk>
             Subject: Re: 15.161 annotation

    Oh, I think our culture's greatest invention is the Post-It: when I
    was a graduate student my supervisor made a casual comment to me about
    how useful they were for noting passages of interest when you're
    reading a book, and since then I have made sure I always have some
    about me. They can mark exactly what passage you wanted to note, not
    just the page, and there's space for a word or two on them if
    necessary; they don't slow down your reading much, either.

    A subsequent pass for transcription is necessary, of course (these
    things aren't good for the book if you leave them in too long), but I
    find that useful anyway, despite the labor involved; the brains of
    other people may work differently, but I find that a second pass
    through to think about the material and organize my thoughts is
    important anyway. Otherwise I just forget about it all...

    I'm dubious about the Palm for myself because I find that a great deal
    of my note-taking involves adding to existing sets of notes, rather
    than creating entirely independent new material; I've tried making
    notes about changes to make to other notes, but it's a trial. When
    these devices can store a few dozen megabytes of files then they start
    to become practical for this.

    John Lavagnino
    Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

             Date: Mon, 06 Aug 2001 08:41:59 +0100
             From: "Patrik Svensson" <patrik.svensson@engelska.umu.se>
             Subject: RE: 15.161 annotation

    Dear Willard,

    You are definitely right about annotation/note-taking being a stimulating
    subject. Thanks for bringing this subject up (in Humanist 15.161) and for
    giving us an interesting starting-point for a discussion.

    I am particularly interested in how technology changes ways we do things. I
    guess the topic of annotation brings in word processing as well as
    note-taking programs, reference managers etc. I think one major risk here is
    doing the same things as before - only electronically. We might like our 3x5
    cards but computer archiving systems that are rely too much on the card
    metaphor might not be very innovative and might not make creative use of new
    technology. It's quite interesting to study what happened when electronic
    word processing was introduced and how word processing software has
    developed over the years.

    My interest in word processors, mind-mapping software, visualization has led
    me to purchase quite a few programs and devices. I don't know if they have
    actually made me more efficent at note-taking or more organized but at this
    point, I am quite sure that I need some kind of electronic system to help
    me. I tend to scribble down important notes just about everywhere and I am
    sure I lose quite a few important ones. Also, more and more information can
    be found in the computer anyway and computers are also much better at
    finding (certain things) than I am. One problem that I have encountered is
    keeping track of electronic material of different kinds. For instance, when
    out traveling I might use my IPAQ computer (taking notes), a laptop (writing
    longer pieces) and a digital camera (taking both still shots and videoclips)
    and after having come back after a week or two it's quite difficult and
    time-consuming to get everything together in an organized fashion.

    I found a program by accident a couple of weeks ago that is interesting (it
    does not solve the above problem, though). It's called egems collector
    (www.egems.com) and it lets you grab and store information that you find on
    the Internet (or elsewhere). It stores material in a database and keeps
    track of when a piece of information was retrieved and where it was found
    (web page for instance). Quite nice but not perfect (bad export facility

    And as you say we have very individual note-taking styles - a program would
    have to accomodate for both very textual note-taking and for note-taking
    with images, sound and maybe mind mapping. One important goal would be to
    create a piece of software that would not be an obstacle for your creativity
    (maybe the contrary - software that enhanced creativity and stimulated us to
    take notes in new ways:). When I use my IPAQ I quite often feel a need to
    break out of the linear, text-only paradigm (at least that's how I use it).

    Another thing about small handheld computers is that you tend to lose the
    overview perspective (because of the size of the display) and context (if
    you get a printed handout for a lecture or whatever it makes sense to write
    on that but if you use your IPAQ that's not really possible).

    My wishlist for a good note-taking program includes:

    Versatility and convergence: A program that was inherently multimedial and
    integrative (no problem mixing media, text, graphics, mind maps etc.) that
    could handle many different kinds of note-taking styles and materials. This
    is the most important point of course.

    Integration: Good integration with other tools such as reference managers.

    Context: Easy to link to other kinds of electronic material and also
    analogue material - maybe it would be possible to take a digital photo of
    that handout and use it as an electronic sheet for note-taking. Or why not
    have electronic tags on documents, books etc. and somehow create a link
    between the electronic note and the physical artefact (or maybe an
    electronic version if there is one). In my lab, we're running a project
    about the real-virtual office (Magic Touch:
    http://www.cs.umu.se/~top/Magic_Touch/). One of things they do is to create
    links between physical entities (books, papers etc.) and digital entities
    (documents, files etc.). If you take a tagged document and put it in a bin
    on your desk, the appropriate document, web page etc. will come up on your
    screen. Maybe such a setup could be useful (or maybe not)... Or why not a
    virtual environment where your notes were organized in a 3D informational
    space of some kind? Or a digital note-pen that keeps track of everything you
    write, stores it digitally and uploads it to a computer of your choice.

    Management and overview: It should be possible to manage a great number of
    notes in an intelligent way and structure and visualize them in clever ways
    (according to ideas, projects, media, physical artefacts, a specific day,
    type of image etc.). Also, the search facility would have to be excellent.

    Mobility and synchronization: It should be possible to run the software on
    small devices as well as standard computers and it should be easy to
    synchronize notes on many computers (not only a handheld computer and a
    desktop computer) - preferably wirelessly.

    Just a number of unorganized thoughts... I'm quite sure, however, that
    implementing such a program is a formidable task. Or maybe there is software
    out there?



    Patrik Svensson
    HUMlab, Umea University, Sweden
    http://www.eng.umu.se/patrik/ (old, new English page in Sept)

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