Tech Tools for Scholars - The Sequel

As I mentioned in a post late last week, I have been thinking about which technical tools are ones that are particularly helpful for students, ones that I should include in library sessions for advanced students and in a seminar course that I teach every spring.

February 15, 2011

As I mentioned in a post late last week, I have been thinking about which technical tools are ones that are particularly helpful for students, ones that I should include in library sessions for advanced students and in a seminar course that I teach every spring. Naturally, I have always addressed library databases, hints for searching catalogs effectively, tracing citations (not a search technique as obvious to students as one might think) and whatever specialized library and Internet resources seem appropriate to the task. But this spring I thought I'd put a little more effort into making students familiar with tools I use everyday to manage information--or ones that I should be using.

Thanks to all the suggestions made here and by members of the Library Society of the World, here's a roundup of some of the ideas I heard.

Zotero - I used to show students RefWorks and allude to EndNote (which we don't have campus-wide, but which many faculty swear by, when they're not swearing at the fact that we don't have it campus-wide). But RefWorks just doesn't seem to suit my research style very well and is (it seems to me) has an interface that is devilishly difficult to explain except when using it in conjunction with a RefWorks compliant database - that is, one produced by the same company that sells RefWorks and has handy RefWorks buttons built in. But here's the rub: so much of the time I don't find sources that I want to save by searching in a database; I find them while I'm blundering around online. Zotero seemed promising, except that I have too many computers in my life. I need my personal database of files to be accessible on the go. The newest version of Zotero is a movable feast that syncs automatically among computers. It lives in the corner of my browser, prompts me to save references with little icons in the navigation bar, and is so incredibly simple it took me a while to figure it out because I couldn't believe it was really that easy. Sure, you have to install a Firefox plug-in, but it's fast and painless. And storing, sorting, and adding notes to cited works is a breeze. Better yet, dragging and dropping citations into a paper using whatever style I want - that's pure magic. Zotero is free, so students can take it with them wherever they go next. Unless they decide to go with Mendeley instead, which seems to be particularly popular with the science crowd.

Dropbox - when a colleague demoed Dropbox at a faculty brown bag lunch, I though "huh, that might be useful." Useful?!? Now I have to stop myself from dropping to my knees and kissing the feet of the colleague who introduced me to it. Remembering where I stored that last version of a document (on my computer at work? On my laptop at home?) was always a pain, and remembering to save files on a flash drive or e-mail them to myself didn't always work when I was downing my last cup of morning coffee while hunting for my shoes or realizing at home that I had to finish preparing a handout for an 8 am class. Now my current files live on both my home and work computers, synced automatically and accessible from any computer with an Internet connection. Life is so much simpler now.

Google Reader - for the longest time I resisted using an RSS feed aggregator, worried that I would get greedy and subscribe to too many sources of current news. (In case you haven't become an addict, RSS stands for "really simple syndication" and is a way of telling visitors to a frequently updated Website such as a newspaper site or a blog that something new has been posted.) Instead I made a deal with myself: I would put an RSS feed on a toolbar in my browser. When I ran out of room, I had to make space by deleting a feed. I also gave them really, really short names to save space. But that meant I had different feeds on different computers, and I found myself itchy to visit them too often. (Temptation was always right there, at the top of my browser!) So finally I migrated to Google Reader. I have feeds sorted into files by topic and am able to scan through them fairly quickly. Now when I want to procrastinate, I have to resort to Facebook instead.

Diigo - I recently signed up for this social bookmarking platform that also lets you highlight and take notes on Webpages. I was a Delicious user, until the Great Delicious Scare of 2010. I have to admit, I'm fairly anti-social with my bookmarks. I don't hunt down other people's saved links. No, I like this tool because I can instantly stash away a link for later, tag it, annotate it, and find it again. As Facebook friends know (probably all too well) that any saved link that I don't mark private is automatically routed to my Facebook wall. That's because I find lots of intriguing links posted by the people I hang out with at Facebook, and those often end up in my Diigo stash because they'll come in handy one day, just like all those rubber bands and bits of string in the kitchen drawer.

These are all the tools I plan to use in my seminar because they seem so darned useful for so many everyday research tasks. But here are others that have come recommended:

Evernote was mentioned more than once. Like Dropbox, it's a program for keeping stuff of all sorts in one accessible place, but it's also good for organizing notes, keeping lists, and stashing photos. I haven't yet found it an awesomely life-changing experience, but maybe it will grow on me.

Steven Bell and others recommended that students be clued into the customization available in many databases: you can store citations, stash searches, and create alerts to inform you of new publications on a topic of interest. I have to admit I'm not too patient myself with setting up personal profiles in a dozen databases, but if you use one frequently, it's probably worth exploring its capabilities, particularly for keeping up with new stuff.

Being savvy about mail management also came up. Route all of your mail, for example, to a gmail account and teach it to sort your mail for you. Ditto customizing your laptop or iPad or using iGoogle as a desktop organizer for all kinds of stuff. These are not yet on the "how did I live without this?" plane for me, but others find these tools enormously worthwhile.

Linkedin came up as a useful social network for soon-to-graduate students looking for networking opportunities that aren't quite as social as Facebook.I think our career center promotes this, but maybe I'll work it in, too.

In the Decluttering category Ad Block Plus and Readability scored points. I admit I've become pretty adept at blocking advertising just by ignoring it, but they can provide a bit of zen for the cluttered website or the overtired brain.

Also noted: lots of free productivity software such as Open Office, Google Docs, Jing (for screen capture and short videos - something I use all the time), Wordpress for creating websites and blogs easily and Paint.net as a free and simple substitute for more sophisticated and expensive image editing packages. Plus several things I'd never heard of or don't know enough to teach. Perl, for example. I'm a swine before perl.

I'm going to integrate a few of these into my course, a select few, because I find many students are not as tech-savvy as we tend to think, or at least less intrigued by digital gadgetry than many of their starry-eyed elders. But there's a good chance I'll learn some new tricks from them, and if any change my life, I'll be sure to share them here.


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