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Building a Research Database with DEVONthink Pro Office
October 1, 2013 - 9:15pm

gh - databaseEmily VanBuren is a PhD student in History at Northwestern University. You can find her on Twitter at @emilydvb or at her blog, dighistorienne.

My name is Emily, and I’m an evidence hoarder. Really. I’m an historian by trade, and like many other researchers, I have a tendency to accumulate messy piles of primary source documents until I forget what I have or can’t locate the proper item when I need it most. My habit of stashing secondary source literature is almost as bad. Over the past couple of years, I’ve toyed around with different software programs in a half-hearted attempt to get organized. To date, I’ve flirted with ZoteroEndNote, and RefWorks, but none of them quite worked for me. (If you’re interested in trying Zotero, check out this post by GradHacker writer Alex Galarza.) Heading into the early stages of dissertation research, I knew I needed to get serious about selecting a tool and sticking with it. I needed something dynamic and user-friendly to help me store and organize my ever-swelling cache of files. So when a colleague suggested I check out DEVONthink Pro Office, I figured it was worth a shot.

I use this software religiously now. It isn’t perfect, but it’s by far the best fit I’ve found for my purposes. I’ve been using it to build research databases, to construct a bibliography and notes for qualifying exam preparation, and to help me organize potential archives as I begin to craft my dissertation prospectus. Given my finicky relationship with other bibliographic management and database software, I thought it might be worth sharing a bit about my experience with DEVONthink Pro Office, for other graduate students who find themselves in search of the proper tool.

Here are the features I like best:

1. Groups: I like that I can quickly sort my documents into groups, which I basically use as folders. In my main research database, for example, I group my primary source documents by type. I work on a lot of theatre and performance history, so my categories include labels like “Correspondence” (a larger group containing individual folders for each person), “Periodicals” (for corralling my thousands of newspaper and magazine clippings), “Production Photos,” “Playbills,” “Set Designs,” “Lighting Plots,” “Account Ledgers,” and “Souvenirs and Ephemera.” I just drag-and-drop my photos from archival research directly into the appropriate folders.

2. Tagging: This feature is the primary reason I purchased DEVONthink Pro Office. I find its tagging capabilities a bit more streamlined than other software (like Zotero, for instance). I use it mostly to help me call up appropriate sources when I am organizing my thoughts during my writing. I have a lot of different tags, and when I am outlining my projects, it makes it easy for me to quickly locate the best evidence for the points I’m making. I use this, after groups, as a secondary categorization system. My tags include basic labels like the names of actors, producers, agents, or playwrights, as well as different theatres, cities, and plays. I also use tags to flag sources for points I know I’ll be making in my argument. The trick is to be consistent and create labels I’ll be able to easily understand and remember, like “soundscape,” “lighting effects,” “playwright interview,” and so on.

3. Dropbox syncing: I like that it’s easy for me to sync and store my databases via my Dropbox account, so I don’t have to worry about losing anything in the event of a computer crash.

4. ABBYY FineReader: I am very new to the glories of OCR, or optical character recognition — that lovely innovation that allows me to quickly convert digital photos of documents (like newspaper clippings or typewritten correspondence) into text files. I used to transcribe each document manually, and I cannot believe I didn’t start using OCR sooner. I opted for the DEVONthink Pro Office license over other (cheaper) versions because it came with ABBYY, and I have zero regrets. But it’s important to remember that ABBYY requires moderately clean photos of a decent resolution in order to read and convert them properly. (I’ve found two posts by Shane Landrum and Miriam Posner that are really helpful here.) For me, this is the feature that really sets DEVONthink Pro Office apart from other software.

5. Tutorials and support: I’m not the most tech-savvy person. Besides finding the interface relatively user-friendly and easy to learn, I also like that DEVONthink has many video tutorials available via their website and blog, and a pretty comprehensive forum for addressing common questions and problems.

6. Generous trial period: Since I was a commitment-phobe with other software, I liked that the company offered a free 150-hour test drive before I decided to make my purchase.

But there are a few downsides, as with any tool. For me, the three most obvious are:

1. Exportability: DEVONthink Pro Office is not the most convenient when it comes to exporting data. This isn’t a problem for me, but at least two of my colleagues (both collecting large amounts of data for quantitative research) have found this challenging when trying to harvest their findings, so it’s something to be aware of.

2. Price point: At $149.95, this software isn’t exactly cheap for those operating on a grad student stipend. DEVONtechnologies does frequently offer promotional discounts for educational users, so keep an eye out for those. Or you can opt for a cheaper license (like DEVONthink Personal, at $49.95), sans features like ABBYY FineReader.

3. Sorry, Windows & Linux users: Right now, DEVONthink Pro Office is still only available for iOS/Mac users.

Despite its minor shortcomings, I’m satisfied with my software choice. It has expedited my writing process immeasurably. Now if I could only find a tool to get my secondary source literature from my screen into my brain, I’d be set.

What software have you tried to manage your research documents? How did it work for you? What tips can you offer to other readers?

[Image by Emily VanBuren, used with permission of the author.]

 

 

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