Monthly Archives: August 2016

How Evernote changed the way I work in archives

Okay, forgive me the borderline clickbait title.[1] I’m writing this blog post not because I think I’ve found the answer, but because I’ve said to people things like ‘Oh yeah I started using Evernote and it’s brilliant’ without ever fully explaining why. It’s good for me, but it won’t be good for everyone. Similarly, I feel compelled to say that there are a bunch of options available, and Evernote is just the most obvious one.[2] With those caveats in mind, I’m going to try and briefly outline how I use the program, and how it has impacted the way that I go about doing research as an historian.

What is Evernote?

It’s a program that you can download on your computer, tablet, phone, and probably even microwaves with a smart chip in them now. It’s everywhere. It has two levels: free and premium, and there’s probably a free trial of the latter (and that’s the one you’re gonna want). It offers you ways to organise files and information, and basically provides an easily navigable GUI for your documents. One of the things that attracted me to it the most is that it allowed me to seamlessly move between documents in folders without losing sight of the original directory – this is especially handy if you’re looking for something that you know exists but don’t know exactly where you put it or what you called the file. Everything is classified in to ‘Notes’, which are best thought of as a catch-all term for a file. A note can be just text, it can be images, it can be a PDF, it can be a sound file. All of these can be sorted and accessed as notes. These notes are stored in Notebooks, which are basically folders. You can see my interface below.[3]

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 23.12.23This should all be pretty clear, but if clarifications are required I’m happy to (try) to help. Is this customisable? Probably. I’ve never been unhappy with the standard system so haven’t tried. As you can see, the main folders are on the left, the list of the notes is in the next column, and the note itself is in the right. In this case, it’s my master list of files and descriptions, all of which I have boxes next to and tick once I have received and viewed the document. All of those correspond to a file on the left, where I can view the original.

Why is it good for archival work?

This in itself isn’t very impressive, and you’re probably pretty happy with how things are laid out in your own peculiar archive note system. That’s fine. What Evernote does do very, very well, however, is make collecting material much more simple. For this to happen, you do need to have a smartphone, and it does need to be capable of taking the photos at a decent enough quality for you to use the source. Given that mine did this in 2008 without problems, this should be fine for most people. Download the app. If you’re really clever, put the widget on your phone’s desktop. Now it’s possible to take the photos directly, in sync, and save them to the place they’re supposed to go. I’m not in the archive so I can’t do this with a primary source, but let’s pretend that Adrian Gregory’s ‘The Silence of Memory’ is actually one of my documents from the Mitchell Library, and I want to quickly photograph it in full.[4] It’s quite late when I’m doing this, and Balliol College Library is a dark place, so you can expect the photos would be better otherwise.

First, go to the place on the phone where the widget is and click the camera button. It will bring up the below interface. Opening the app, clicking the ‘+’, and choosing ‘Camera’ will work too. Both will bring up the document capture interface, shown below.

 

Once you’ve done that, I personally recommend clicking the top right and putting it in ‘Manual’ mode. Automatic is a function where it will try to be fancy and make the document seem like it’s been scanned in – it gets confused by lines and our weird archival documents though, and can create problems. Stick to manual. Take as many photos as you like, and watch the timeline in the bottom get populated. How many you can take depends on the capacity of your phone’s memory – if you do TOO many it’ll crash. If your document is really big I split it up in to parts every 70 or 80 pages or so. If you think the image was blurry or missed out something, simply take another – it’s very easy to delete them from the document later.

Screenshot_20160819-210803

Once you’re done, click on the green tick and it’ll create your note ready for you. Write the name, and choose the notebook to save it to. It will then save the document there and, if you have internet on your phone, upload it to Evernote. Automatically backed up – hurray!

Screenshot_20160819-210843

Let’s go back to the interface now and see if it’s appeared. A quick scan and a refresh, and it’s on my computer in case I need it. You can double click the files and they will maximise to full screen, and even put it in a slideshow mode if you’re incredibly easily distracted.

Screen Shot 2016-08-19 at 21.10.55

It doesn’t simply mean that it’s much faster to capture and accurately save documents, however. In addition, it will do its best to make all text automatically searchable (using the top right box), and for typed sources it is pretty good at this. It does this in the background so it won’t be instantly searchable, but give it a short while and it will. You can add tags to the document in case it’s less clear, e.g., ‘really useful account of flytipping’, but this isn’t essential. This searchable-ness (this is an ironic example of me searching for the right word unsuccessfully) is a premium feature but worth it, I think.

Can I use it for other things?

That’s how I use it for archives. It’s changed how I capture data – instead of spending longer arranging images in to PDF files than I spent in the archive, by the time I get home it’s already done and easy to view – and it’s changed how I can access that data. The search functions aren’t infallible and you still need to read things, but it’s incredibly helpful for finding quotations in a hurry, or finding that reference you forgot to footnote.

I’ve also used it as my primary PDF viewer, uploading every journal article I have to another folder and viewing it there. These are also searchable, and with premium you can annotate the files on your laptop or tablet and the annotations will sync, and also it will place any notes you’ve made on the files at the top of the document in an ‘annotation summary’ (see below).

Screen Shot 2016-08-19 at 21.19.50

I clip and send things to it from the web all the time. For browsers you can download a plugin that will do this. For anything on your phone, simply click ‘Share’ and ‘Send to Evernote’ and it will store the entire page for you automatically to sort through later. If I’m walking around and see a CfP on Twitter, I’ll send it to Evernote and find it later.

Similarly if there’s a conversation with someone about work and they have a name or a reference or two, I’ll quickly open up the document on my widget and write it down and look it up later. This has helped me to keep all those things I otherwise wrote on scraps of paper or the backs of envelopes in one place (and again, searchable).

For those of you who take notes in seminars, a decision can easily be made. I experimented with typing my notes down directly in to Evernote, but I felt conscious at the noise the laptop made tapping away, and also tend to think about things differently when using a pen and paper. However, once I’ve been to a seminar or written a plan, I very quickly take a picture of it and send it to Evernote, and this gives me all the benefits of being able to find it again quickly, pick up things in searches, and back it all up instantly. (Here’s the plan of this post below, for example). You can even record audio at a low storage level, either on laptops or phones, but this is only of use for self reference and should never be relied on for anyone working with oral histories. (and don’t record people without them knowing, it’s rude).

Screen Shot 2016-08-19 at 21.36.12

Is it for you?

If you don’t know by now, then I can’t help you any more. The primary goals are that it makes data capture and management in an archive easier, and that if you become more accustomed to the system it can streamline some other things too. If you’ve already worked for hours and hours in archives and have folders full of pdf files of documents already, that’s fine – I did too. Simply upload them to Evernote and make them searchable.

If you’re already happy with how you work and manage archives, then… well, why would you want to change?

I hope this has helped at least a few people (or at the bare minimum the couple of people who asked me to write this), and if you have questions don’t hesitate to get in touch – although I would stress I’m a consumer not a producer here, and I can’t help too much with anything technical.
Thanks for the longer than anticipated read.

 

Calum

 

[1] It was this or ‘So I started using Evernote, and you’ll never guess what happened next!’

[2] No, I don’t work for the BBC, but other options really are available.

[3] Please, don’t judge me for anything you see. Sharing this feels more intimate to me than being naked in front of you all.

[4] And I would want to, because it’s an excellent book. (What? What do you mean I’m only saying that because Adrian’s my supervisor and I’m sucking up as best as I can? How dare you?!)

Twitter’s Echo Chamber and Academia

Sometimes, in an absent-minded moment of unexpected positivity, I think about the advice I’ll give doctoral students I’m supervising in the future. It seems inevitable that part of that advice – indeed, part of the expectation of the terms of supervision – will be about creating a brand or identity for themselves, and the key role that social media plays in that. ‘Well back in my day, we used Twitter!’, I’ll say, puffing on my vape-pipe. They’ll probably blink, only vaguely able to comprehend a world that existed before ThoughtSpeak existed.[1]

I signed up for Twitter just before I started my M.St., loudly and grumpily declaring I was getting it ‘because I had to.’ This is probably not true. I am the sort of person who deletes Facebook, loudly declaring it the death of humanity, but then reactivates it three months later and surreptitiously checks it far more regularly than I’d ever care to admit. I suspect Twitter would be the same, and using it is certainly my own choice and not a requirement. Despite this, there does seem to me to be a growing emphasis on using social media in academia. My experience of using Twitter as an academic has mostly been very positive, and whatever I say should not detract from that fact. However, at times I have also found it to be a negative space, and it’s that negativity I want to briefly address.

Networks and opportunities

If one posed the simple question, ‘Is using Twitter as an academic a good thing?’, the short answer for many would be yes. They have a point. For me, one of the best things Twitter does is make some sort of preliminary contact which stops conferences and events being so bloody foreboding. Before attending a conference I can get very nervous, and this is never more the case than the first time I ever did so. I was anxious about interacting with a number of people I’d never met, and almost all of whom were senior to me in experience. After tweeting about it, I found others who were attending. Suddenly there were familiar, humanised names and faces to latch on to in the crowd, and armed with that information, I was less anxious.

I’ve discovered calls for papers, conferences, research networks, libraries, and many researchers at other institutions that I almost certainly would have missed if it were not for Twitter. I’ve even met and made friends with researchers at my OWN institution through coming across them on Twitter. This is incredibly helpful, and a powerful tool when used correctly (which I would think is somewhere not quite at the level of procrastinatory nonsense I employ it for).

Similarly, I think the overwhelming goal for academics on Twitter (at least, the ones I follow) is to be helpful. A few days ago whilst working in the archives, I absent-mindedly tweeted wondering if anyone had worked on something that was interesting me but I was unfamiliar with – within an hour I had a flood of replies offering sources, or putting me in contact with others who had knowledge. This is wonderful, and creates a positive environment of reciprocity which is central to a healthy working environment and culture.

The echo chamber

All of the above being many elements of the great positivity I get from Twitter, at the same time, sometimes my experiences on Twitter have left me feeling very demotivated and unhappy, for a variety of reasons. I think this is partly because of the echo chamber that it provides. When I was following the recent campaigns for the referendum on membership of the European Union,[2] it was peculiar to watch the country vote the way it did when everyone I seemed to know or follow was strongly, strongly against it. I couldn’t understand how more than 50 per cent of voters had chosen to leave when it seemed that everyone wanted to stay. Certainly it wasn’t Twitter that made me unhappy that day, but at times it can perpetuate the feeling that everything is shit by creating an echo chamber where the views and sentiments of a group of people who follow each other because they are similar bounce off each other, gaining in noise each time.[3]

This is particularly the case in academia where I think the majority of doctoral researchers with aspirations to an academic career work with a quiet anxiety about the job market which awaits their completion. Whilst I appreciate those who are brave enough to share their experiences of struggling to get a job after the doctorate, I’m also frequently very demoralised by it.

In part, this is due to the respect I hold for the people who are struggling, and which comprises another element of the negatives of the echo chamber: the idea that everyone else is doing more than you are. I think for myself, as is the case for many, my expectations of the productivity I can extract from myself are frequently unrealistic. This is exacerbated at times by fellow students I follow on Twitter seeming to be doing so much more than I am. If they can’t get jobs after, what hope do I have?

This problem is not created by, or confined to, Twitter. During my undergrad, before Twitter, there were always other students who seemed to be doing so much work than I was, even if I felt like I was doing as much as I could. They’d done 12 hours in the library yesterday, and been there since 9 this morning, they’d say. I’d be demoralised, even if I’m sceptical they ever did work this hard. I think we all naturally want to emphasise the positives; it perhaps doesn’t make much sense to tweet out ‘Had a slightly less productive morning than expected and paper wasn’t accepted to a conference I applied to #phdchat’.

A good example of the echo chamber in practice happened only recently, as news of the #sternreview was published. The guidelines outlined are unquestionably rubbish. We understandably rushed to complain to our peers who understand and empathise, noting that change will likely result in even more pressure on ECRs to publish more, to do that faster, and to do it constantly. Checking Twitter whilst eating my sandwich at lunch after a long stint reading minutes in the archive, I wondered why I was flogging myself to do something which seemed difficult, simply to present myself with the opportunity to compete for a job I won’t get, the pay of which is going to be awful, and the expectations and conditions of which are going to be even worse. By the end of the day, I was fairly despondent.

Of course, there is a catharsis in this complaining. The Stern Review really does appear to be pretty bad, and pretending it isn’t so won’t prevent that. Conditions for ECRs are often poor and there’s frequently a culture which needs to be addressed. The REF… well, let’s not get started. Certainly I don’t think that Twitter would be a better place if these complaints were curtailed, because instead I’d be sitting wondering if I was taking crazy pills and the only one able to see how bad things were.[4] The echo chamber is good here. It lets you know you’re not the only one angry. Nor would I ever wish to cut out the highs or the excitement our research can bring; most of us do what we do because, at its best, it’s a joy. That is certainly better when it’s shared.

Yet, I think for me, I need reminders that the middle ground is a place that’s occupied too. We perhaps need to emphasise that it’s ok to not be working non-stop all the time. We need to emphasise that it’s ok to sometimes not love your thesis, or not be excited about doing history, and that watching trash TV doesn’t make one a less capable academic. Faced with the constant nagging feeling that there’s a lot of work to do, and I’m already not doing enough, it doesn’t help to flick open my phone and see colleagues talking about being in the library on a Saturday. The positive benefits of a weekend off don’t receive much attention on my Twitter timeline; the importance of dropping the PhD for a few days and that being a normal and healthy thing to do don’t seem to come up much.[5]

Some academics on the other side of the doctorate are particularly good at doing this already: Daniel Grey (@drjgrey), Matt Houlbrook (@tricksterprince), and Rachel Moss (@menysnoweballes) are names who immediately spring to mind for me, although I’m sure I’ve missed others. I’m very thankful to them.

So… what?

So if Twitter is bad or upsetting, why not just turn it off? Delete your account and get rid of the app, why don’t you? To do so would somewhat miss the point I’m clumsily making in a hastily written blog. Twitter is good. I would advise my mythical students of the future to get it, or whatever its future equivalent is. I’ve learned so much, and met so many great people through it. But at times, I wish we thought about the echo chamber a little more, and were brave enough to admit that the PhD isn’t quite what we want it to be right now, or that we’re taking a few days or a week off because we’re tired and it’ll still be there when we’re back after binge-watching The Wire back-to-back whilst eating ice-cream directly from the tub. Without that sort of candid sharing too, we’re left with huge highs (I’m delighted my friend is writing an article for publication but terrified I’m not!), or huge lows (if they can’t get a job what hope do I have, and what’s the point of me even doing this?).

I think we need to be more ready to recognise the way in which sharing social networks with our colleagues begins to blend the work and private space even more, and that academics at all levels – but perhaps particularly doctoral students who have to set their own hours entirely – can suffer from this bleeding of boundaries. Perhaps for me the answer lies in deleting Twitter from my phone, but I’d rather think of an answer that’s less drastic than that.

So if I tweet that I’m not working today, you’ll know why. I’m not lazy, I’m just trying to be honest about the experience I’m having.[6] I’m going to try and admit when I’m not working hard, and admit when I’m taking time off. Because I think there’s a chance it’s not just me who’ll benefit, but others too, who might find some reassurance in the knowledge that they don’t have to work all the time; don’t have to be brilliant all the time; don’t have to pursue lofty intellectual goals all the time. In fact, it’s important not to.

I don’t use Twitter because I have to, but because I want to. But if it really is a requirement for the modern academic, I can at least say I once wrote a blog post about using social media, and what more could you possibly want?

Thanks for reading. I’m off to eat ice-cream from the tub and watch Harry Potter.

 

Calum

[1] ThoughtSpeak is a future social network. It assumed the combined roles of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram by allowing everyone to broadcast literally everything they think constantly, whilst also automatically posting a picture of every meal consumed to every follower. If you think about it, it was inevitable.

[2] I bloody refuse to say Brexit because it’s a disgusting word.

[3] This is notwithstanding the fact that, the day after the Referendum, pretty much everything really was shit.

[4] Did you wonder if that was a Zoolander reference? It was. Because this is a blog, and that’s allowed here.

[5] Incidentally, and perhaps ironically, one of the academics who made me realise this point the most was Selina Todd, who uses Twitter but rarely to tweet about academia and probably isn’t using it at weekends. To me, this does rather emphasise the point that the Twitter experience isn’t representative of the whole, but can often seem to be.

[6] Right, now I’ve said that I really ought to get back to work.