My first experience with serious research was in high school. Here I learned that research management was best done with the help of index cards. Each fact I discovered would be documented on its own card which would also include the source citation for that fact. As my research progressed, those cards could be arranged and re-arranged on the dining room table to show me both what I had discovered and what questions still needed to be answered. Later, when I was ready to begin writing my paper, those cards could once again be arranged to help me build the outline and later the narrative.
This system has served me well in business and in my family research. It also migrated fairly smoothly as my analog world moved more and more into the digital world. But, in the last few years, a growing number of developers have been thinking outside of the analog box and began building apps that fully take advantage of the opportunities the digital world can offer. My first experience with this was iPhoto.
At that time iPhoto was the photo-management app that came with my first Mac computer. It was my first real experience with digital’s virtual world. In iPhoto, one photo file could be in any number of places at the same time. Once a photo file was imported into iPhoto, it could be included in any number of albums without having to make copies of the actual file. Yes, this was magic – just more in the sleight-of-hand category. In actuality, iPhoto was adding metadata to the photo file so the app’s internal search function could keep track of everything. At the time, the term “metadata” was not part of my vocabulary, but it didn’t take me long to realize that iPhoto’s keywords feature was my new best friend.
My next digital milestone was also an iPhoto feature – “smart” albums. While I had to physically drag photos into a regular iPhoto album, the smart album was populated using a search of the metadata included in the photo files. Now, all I had to do was create smart albums for each of my families, their localities and any other topic I wanted. I added the appropriate keywords to the photos as I added them to iPhoto and now one family photo magically appears in my Barrett album, my Olson album and my Moultrie Creek album.
It didn’t take long before I was seeing keywords – also called “tags” – showing up everywhere. Blogs have them, Flickr has them, Evernote has them, my Day One journal has them. Keywords and other metadata can be embedded in word-processing documents, spreadsheets and many other user-created files. And now Mac systems includes tags in their file management app, Finder. Wooohooo!
These tools have made organizing and managing my stuff a whole lot easier, but it’s taken longer to break some of my old analog habits. When I first started working with Evernote, for example, I was building notebooks for each of my surnames. At one point I felt like I had more notebooks than notes. Just wading through the list of notebooks to find the one where I wanted to save a note was taking forever. It wasn’t until I adapted my iPhoto experience to Evernote that I really saw its advantages. Now I have one notebook – Family Research – and a simple tag schema along with Evernote’s amazing search capabilities take care of the rest. iPhoto’s smart albums are called saved searches in Evernote but they put everything I ask for on my desktop in the blink of an eye.
Currently I’m working through my photo archive on Flickr – reducing the number of albums in my collection and adding more tags to make organization and discovery much easier. With something like 17,000+ photos, this will take a while. Fortunately, both the online tools and the mobile apps are quite helpful.
How about digital documents? I used Yep! [Mac – $24] to organize my household records. It manages documents in much the same way iPhoto did for photos. I’m keeping my household paperwork and my research files in separate “libraries” and let the app keep things organized so I can easily find them when I need them.
And, there are more organizational projects waiting to be tackled . . .
Although many of the organization and management systems I learned in my analog days have become more cumbersome than useful, there’s one thing that hasn’t changed. One note should only contain one fact – and its source. That’s true now for a digital note as it has been for an index card note.