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Kelly Hanson is a PhD candidate in English at Indiana University, Bloomington. You can find her on Twitter @krh121910.


Most of us in graduate school are familiar with databases. They store troves of information and articles, and we search them on a pretty regular basis when researching our topics. What fewer of us think about, however, is that our work does not only rely on databases. In fact, most of us produce our very own database every time we perform research. The more we read and research, the more information we have. When we store and organize this information in notes, computers, or notebooks, we are creating databases. On the scale of databases, they are small and specialized, to be sure, but they are nevertheless databases of information. The question is: do we treat our research notes as a personal database?

The sheer volume of information we store for our research can be overwhelming— especially when we try to figure out what is important to our main argument for an article or dissertation chapter. Often, this feeling is a result of poor organization. Rather than a clearly organized system, our information is often stored in unlabeled stacks of notebooks, hundreds of individual Word documents, or a single file with all of our notes arranged in no particular order.

In other words, we don’t usually treat our research notes and files as information in a database. But we should. Treating our research and notes like a personal database allows for easier access to our information. It helps us find and store information in an organized manner and it helps us be more efficient when analyzing our data and evidence.

Database Tools

The most effective way to organize your research into a personal database is to use a single program to centralize and organize your notes. Use database or note-taking software to store notes and research data, and put everything in that one place. Using a notebook, database, or citation program allows you to store and organize your information rather than hoarding everything in a single MS Word file. Zotero, DevonTHINK Pro (Mac), and Evernote are all powerful options for creating your own personal research database. These programs make your information searchable and organize information by type. Tagging capabilities allow you to use the software to make connections between documents in addition to filing them in an organized manner. To help centralize your sources, you can scan handwritten notes or images, or sync notes from other programs with these databases, eliminating unorganized notes spread across many notebooks or files.

DevonTHINK Pro is my personal choice, and its accompanying app DevonTHINK To Go allows me to access my files on my iPhone or iPad wherever I go. While DevonTHINK requires a significant (for a graduate student) investment, I found that money to be the one of the best software investments I have ever made (second only to Scrivener). When I switched from Evernote to DevonTHINK, I was able to import all of my previous notes.

Evernote likewise has iPad and iPhone syncing capabilities, and does not charge for its software (though you can upgrade to a premium version for $45 a year). While the free version does not have the folder organization capabilities of DevonTHINK, this program still works as a personal research database and offers tagging and multimodal documents. With both DevonTHINK and Evernote, I can save everything from text to PDFs to photographs to websites in a single location.

If using a database software or program isn’t your thing, find other ways to organize your information. For non-digital libraries, develop your own filing system, either on the computer or in your filing cabinet. Organize your bookshelf by type, or use software to help you tag and make connections between your library books. Create an organized folder/subfolder structure and develop a file naming system. For computer files, tag and name your files and notes with topical, searchable keywords in order to make your information searchable. You can also use a file naming system that will help you put your sources in a specific order. Use a consistent file naming system so that your files tell you what they are immediately, and then use Spotlight (Mac) or Explore (Windows) to quickly search for files.

These options may not work for you, and there are many programs to choose from. Some, like Hazel, perform organizing tasks for you. If you think you need to purchase database software, see if your institution offers a discounted or free database software package.

Thoughts on using databases to store and organize research? Chime in below!

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user Eirik Stavelin and used under a Creative Commons license]