Strong historical writing can be traced in part to effective note taking. Historians have to select from a wide array of different possible sources ranging from secondary literature to a variety of archival collections when creating a narrative. And unlike a finalized narrative, primary sources in the archives rarely have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Part of the goal in taking notes is to effectively and clearly organize primary source documents for later use in constructing a historical narrative. Traditionally, historians organized their notes around a card system. Many historians used note cards to record valuable pieces of information gained from secondary readings or primary source materials. A quotation from a letter, for instance, could be written on the front, with citation information recorded on the back of the card. A historian could then organize the notes in any way he or she saw fit, arranging and rearranging the ideas gleaned from their sources in a different order and eventually creating an outline for a narrative. The quotations or ideas from each card could then be copied into a manuscript draft as it was created. Notes might include a brief transcription of the evidence and brief description of its significance to the overall argument or historical question. This system had several advantages. Note cards could be physically arranged and rearranged based on the project and your findings. Unlike writing in a notebook, a single note or small group of notes could easily be transferred from one point to another if doing so made sense. Note cards also helped historians think visually and were, in some sense, a physical manifestation of the historian’s thoughts.
They also likely contributed to the honing of the mental recall ability of generations of historians. Note cards, however, also possessed numerous disadvantages. They could easily be lost or misplaced. They lacked any sort of search function unless typed into a cumbersome database. They were time-consuming to create. Finally, not all notes can be fitted onto a small card. New note-taking systems, such as Zotero and Endnote, attempt to mimicolder forms of note taking, while also making the notes both searchable and more compatible with the web (imagine writing down lengthy URLs on note cards!). However, a clear note taking system does not require a new piece of software.
Above that will be noted the folder and box numbers containing the primary source. While such a method can be useful, remember also to save a copy of these notes in the more permanent PDF format at the end of your visit. Later on, when you start to move these notes around as you construct a narrative, it can be easy to fail to transfer citation information if it is only listed at the top of a section of notes. Clearly define the contents of each source and note what words are original to the source, and what words are your own. One needs to simply use quotation marks to highlight the original words, and bullet points with no quotation marks to indicate the significance of the document and where it fit into your broader claims.
Notes for your project can be based on themes, keywords, or individuals. Your own notes can be based on the archival collections themselves. You can try to make your own collections of notes mirror the archival system, which, for you, can result in easy citations and easy recall. You can keep your notes for manuscripts where you organize and work through various ideas regarding your narrative in a separate document. When taking notes on your laptop, you can note at the top of each document the exact citation for the particular archival collection. Once you have created this document, you can begin to read the archival material. Selecting which documents to transcribe or photographs to take is a skill you can constantly work upon and get better at. As it might on occasion be difficult for you to return to some archives, you need to err on the side of gathering even material that might seems only marginally relevant to your work both in terms of gathering more archival materials and making bibliographic data as comprehensive as possible. Many historians recommend taking amore limited number of notes, as this will prevents you from becoming bogged down in your own materials later on. You need to ask yourself how each document fits into your existing narrative arc or how it might change the manner in which you tell your basic story. Does it add detail, depth, or texture to the existing narrative? Is this collection of documents replicated somewhere else, or is it unique to this archive? If the document represents something valuable for once research, one needs transcribe it or photograph it, and record once actions that person have taken (noting, for example, where digital images of archival materials have been stored on once computer).
When transcribing a document, you should ask yourself if the notes you have taken will make sense several weeks or months later, when you are mentally and physically removed from the collection. To ensure that your notes will continue to make sense, one can sometimes include an introductory sentence or two above the document recording your notes. The introductory sentence is not marked with quotation marks, so one knows the sentences are in your own language. Generally, this short introductory statement simply summarizes your thoughts on how this collection might relate to the overall project. These thoughts might be based partially on clues provided by the finding aid or a conversation with an archivist. Later on, when transcribing a document froma collection, a letter might be introduced with a brief sentence or two explaining that the previous set of letters revolved around a philosophical argument that this letter continued to address. You might suspect that a particular individual was the author of an anonymous memorandum, or speculate fromother evidence that an undated document was created at a specific time. Your introductory notes to that document could simply remind you of your initial suspicion. If you are lucky, collections of documents will reveal to you a basic story that you are hoping to tell in your narrative. Remind yourself throughout your notes of the pieces of a story as it comes together.