Research Management Tools

I’ve spent the last several days reading Denise Levenick’s new book, How to Archive Family Keepsakes. It’s full of many wonderful ideas, but it was the checklists and worksheets she has included that really caught my attention. There are worksheets for cataloguing both physical and digital items, source management forms, research logs and much more. As I’m looking at all these useful forms, I’m wondering how I can build a system to improve my rather slipshod research style.

Although a web-based solution could be built easy enough, I’m not comfortable keeping a lot of this information online yet, so my first thought was to use a database like Bento or Access. I dumped that idea quickly because it would be very time-consuming to build and not very flexible once it was built. Since flexibility is a priority, my next thought was one of the note-taking/journaling apps. These apps are very versatile and many have the added advantage of a portable option – with synching capabilities so those notes can go with me wherever I’m researching, yet still be protected.

In addition to MacJournal [Mac – $39.95], one of my favorite iPad note-taking apps, Notebooks, is developing a desktop cousin. Right now it’s available free as a public beta and from what I see so far, it won’t be long before it’s finished. Another interesting app – VoodooPad [Mac – $39.95] – is a desktop wiki that supports Markdown [see earlier article on Markdown] and includes an iPad app. Like MacJournal, it’s a bit pricey at $40. There’s no information yet on the price for Notebooks. On the Windows side, OneNote would be a great option for this purpose. It is included in the Home & Student edition of Microsoft Office [Win – $99.00] and there’s a free companion app for iOS devices.

All of these apps have impressive search capabilities which make them so handy for finding that note about Aunt Ginny’s . . .  Yes, I’m still looking for that one because, unfortunately, that note is still on paper – somewhere. Another very useful feature in each of these apps is the ability to link from one note to another within the app. So if you have a note page for your maternal grandmother that includes references about other members of her family, you could link her page to those individuals’ pages. And if you have an interesting research tidbit that relates to multiple people, you don’t have to copy it to multiple notes, you just link each person to the one tidbit note. This alone, could be worth the cost of the app!

But the notebook is just one part of the process, it’s the form itself that makes Denise’s checklists and worksheets so awesome. At first I was thinking templates, but then it hit me – PRANG! Forget templates and use a text replacement app instead. Since many of these apps  now support rich text and even scripting, it’s a great way to build a form on the fly. For those of you unfamiliar with text replacement, think of it as automatic spelling correction on steroids. When you have spelling correction turned on, it will automatically replace commonly misspelled words with the correct ones. Well, text replacement takes that even further and you can set up text snippets you type repeatedly in the text replacement app’s dictionary and then assign a short abbreviation to the snippet. Then, instead of typing the entire text, just type the abbreviation and the app instantly replaces it with the appropriate snippet. This is great for signature blocks, boilerplate text – and building forms! Unlike the spell-checker in your word-processing software, these text replacement apps work in just about any app on your desktop.

I’m using TextExpander [Mac – $34.95] but there’s also TypeIt4Me [Mac – currently on sale at $4.99]. Windows users can take advantage of the free Phrase Express app.

Notebooks for desktop (beta) showing a form template.

In the example you see here, I typed “rshlog” and TextExpander entered all you see here – including the formatting – for me. In less than two seconds, I have a form ready for me to complete. One of the very nice things about using something like TextExpander to manage research form templates is that I’m not restricted to one-size-fits-all forms. In the example above, the form can be used for both published and web-based sources. I could easily create additional TextExpander templates for specific types of sources – books, magazines, personal documents, etc. Then, all I need to do is type the appropriate abbreviation to build the form I need for a specific source.

Even though I’ve got years of research generated in older tools, I can still take advantage of these apps to build a more functional research management system. I don’t have to transcribe my existing stuff into the new app. Instead, I’ll include references and/or links to existing documents or items. In many cases, I can attach existing files to my notes. And, if all I do is reference an existing document in my notes app, the app’s search capabilities will insure that I will be able to find it again when I need it.



One thought on “Research Management Tools

  1. Denise Levenick

    Denise, your ideas for Text Expander are brilliant! A real game changer. I am already thinking of the possibilities…

    I’m so glad you liked the book charts, now I’m off to build a new one. 🙂

    And Thanks for the shout out,


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