Sunday, January 27, 2008

Note-taking versus Information-gathering

Note taking is a fundamental skill. While it is possible to learn simple things without taking notes, any kind of more sophisticated learning, research, thinking, or writing is impossible without taking notes. Richard Altick's The Art of Literary Research (third edition, 1981), chapter 7, gives an interesting account of note-taking in scholarly contexts. While it was definitely written before computers became wide-spread, some of his advice is just as valid as it was when he wrote it. Thus he finds that
  • Verbatim quotations should be kept to an absolute minimum. "If you are simply extracting facts or ideas from your source, reproduce them in as small a compass as accuracy permits; it is substance, not wordage, that you want for your slips." paraphrase the point or argument in your own words, making sure you attribute source correctly.

  • Make different entries for bibliographical information and factual or substantial information.

  • If "you take a phrase or a sentence directly from your source, enclose it in quotation marks, to remind you, infallibly, that you have borrowed it and thus must retain the quotation marks if it appears, intact, in your finished product."

  • "When occasion requires you to transcribe verbatim, do so with clear head, patience, and devotion to absolute accuracy: not a comma omitted, not a phrase accidentally skipped." In fact, he gives the advice that you should make an explicit mark on the note itself, when you have checked the text; something like "'Text ?ed'—which will bear eternal, unequivocal witness to the fact that the passage as copied is, is, IS accurate."

  • Quotes, should, of course be made from the original text; and if it is not accessible and you have to quote from someone else, you should note that you quote in accordance with some other text.

  • Use a different entry (he advises that one should use slips) for every idea or fact, advice that goes back to Beatrice Webb's "one fact, one card" method, and is good advice that also holds for the computer age. You should use a database program that allows you to store small snippets or chunks of text that can easily be searched, connected, ordered, etc.

  • In addition to notes taken from other sources, such a program also provides a way of storing your own ideas. But "make plain to your future self that these are genuinely your own by initialing them."

  • Order and re-order your notes to get clearer on what they mean. Think and re-think about the material you have gathered and the ideas you have formulated as a result.

There is other advice that is less useful, unless you decide to use a paper-based method, which I will ignore here.

Note that this description of note-taking makes clear that it is active work. It is not a process that takes place largely independently of your engagement, but it is representative of your engagement with the material. Contrast this with the way that such programs as "Surfulator" approach note-taking: We need "better ways to collect and manage the worthwhile information we find." This means that we should "permanently save anything you find on the web." But simply "collecting," "managing" and "saving" what one has "found" is rather less than note-taking. There are many such applications that allow you to do just that, and I do not want to say that "Surfulator" is a bad application or does not do what it promises to do. All I want to say is that, by definition, it keeps primarily "verbatim" transcriptions, which keep your engagement with the material and the assimilation of the information to a minimum. It, and the host of other applications that follow this "paradigm," seem to lead in a direction rather different from that of traditional note-taking -- and this is not necessarily a good thing. At the very least, we should think some more about the differences between note-taking and information-gathering.

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