As students in the lab we are told constantly to record everything we do… just in case we need to go back and check. “You never know what might end up being important.” We save data sheets from reagents, email correspondences, journal articles that give us ideas, notes hastily written on a paper towel, protocols inherited from from former lab members, etc. Often, these end up “filed” in a box on a shelf or in a jumbled pile in a drawer. Finding things back can be a nightmare.
Available for almost any digital device you can think of, Evernote is, in its essence, a digital filing cabinet. But with its fantastic search function, you can toss things in it like a digital junk drawer, and find them back with a couple of keystrokes. Anything you import into Evernote is saved as a “note.” You can import photos, documents, emails, text, screenshots, zip files… anything. You can make each file a separate note, or group files together in one note. You can also add text in a note along with any files you import. Think of it like stapling something in your lab book and writing a note underneath. Notes are grouped into “Notebooks,” and notebooks themselves can be grouped into “Stacks.” The metaphor is easy enough to understand. Evernote lets you search within a specific notebook, or through all your notes. The search features looks at the name of the note and the text within the note. A powerful feature of Evernote is the ability to have the search function look at text within files such as Word documents, PDFs, and even photos if you have the premium version ($6/month or $50/year).
I keep all my lab stuff in a stack called “Lab,” divided into a few notebooks. I only separate things into notebooks when I would want to search specifically within those notes. I try to keep my notebooks as discrete as possible so that I never have to wonder which notebook I put something in. If I find two notebooks are serving too similar a function, I merge them.
Right now, the vast majority of my stuff goes into a notebook called “Daily Notes.” In here I keep copies of emails about decisions or plans I’m making for my experiments, notes from meetings and lectures, feedback I’ve received and found useful, web pages that are great references, photos of experimental set-ups, general code for statistical analysis, and designs for experiments. I also have a notebook called “Papers” where I specifically keep notes I make on each journal article I read. This notebook is separate because sometimes I only want to search for notes I’ve made about actual published data. I keep useful tables and figures from papers in a separate notebook, so that I can scroll through the images to find what I’m looking for quickly, when I can’t remember exactly what paper it was in. I have a “Protocol and Reagents” notebook where I store details of optimized experimental protocols, as well as protocols I’ve been given by other people. For every reagent I use, I keep a copy of the datasheet and download any manuals from the manufacturer’s website and store them here. I probably should also keep the MSDS organized in a notebook, but I haven’t done that (yet!). I have one notebook where I keep copies of scholarship applications that I’ve submitted. I also keep a notebook for all the administrative things related to my degree, like animal handling certificates, and documentation from evaluations. Travel expenses go in a separate notebook, too.
Importing Your Stuff
Drag and Drop - The easiest way to put files into Evernote is simply drag and drop them in. They automatically become their own note. If you have the premium version of Evernote, you can even search inside many of these files.
Skitch - This piece of software, now owned by Evernote, allows you to capture the whole screen or a section of the screen (like a specific figure), and to annotate it. Skitch will automatically import these into Evernote.
Web Clipper - Evernote has a web clipper for most browsers where you can capture an entire webpage, just the article (text and figures), save a PDF from the web directly to Evernote, capture a selection, etc.
Email Import - If you have Evernote Plus or Premium, you can forward email to Evernote. This is great for keeping track of correspondence, since you can BCC Evernote on important emails. Often I’ll use this to send a copy to Evernote when I email ideas or plans to my colleagues or supervisor.
Photo Import/Scanning - With the phone or tablet Evernote apps, you can take a photo and have it saved as a note. I use this for remembering how to set up experiments, or taking a picture of a bunch of labeled tubes in case the marker rubs off later. The phone and tablet apps also have a document scanning function. Evernote will perform optical character recognition (OCR) on photos and documents in order to make text within the photos searchable. The crazy thing is that it can read handwriting (even mine!). I scan in handwritten notes from meetings with my supervisor, any calculations I’ve done by hand, diagrams I’ve drawn, etc. And these are all searchable. It’s not perfect, but it’s scary good!
What I Don’t Keep In Evernote
I still keep my day-to-day experimental notes in a hardcover lab notebook. I do this for a few reasons. First of all, it’s still the standard practice to keep a physical lab notebook (though this is changing, as Erin discusses here). I would strongly recommend talking with your supervisor before moving to a digital lab notebook. Secondly, I have no desire to take my laptop or tablet into the lab. I don’t want lab chemicals or biohazards on devices that I take home and set on my kitchen table. Furthermore, dropping a hardcover book on the lab floor is much less upsetting than dropping a digital device. I do, however, make a brief note digitally of what I did each day, so that I can search for that experiment, see the date of the note, and then look up that date in my physical lab notebook.
I don’t keep raw experimental data in Evernote. Instead I keep these organized by Objective and Experiment in hierarchical folders in Dropbox. Evernote functions great as an archive, but it’s not as good for working on files in multiple programs and saving multiple versions.
Getting Started and Alternative Options
If you are not already using Evernote, I recommend giving it a try. It’s easy to drag and drop lots of files in at once, and quickly drag them into notebooks to sort them out. While the free version doesn’t give you all the functionality I’ve described here, it will give you a good sense of whether the software’s note/notebook/stack metaphor is intuitive for you. Other programs that can be used in a similar fashion are Microsoft OneNote, DevonThink, Circus Ponies Notebook, or Curio.
Do you manage your clutter digitally? What’s your favorite use for Evernote in the lab?
[Photo courtesy of Flickr user Karl Sinfield and used under a Creative Commons license.]