Research Tools and the Dissertation
As I prepare to defend my dissertation, I thought it might be useful to share the tools I found helpful during the research and writing process. I enjoyed these kinds of posts when I was starting my diss. I hope this post will be helpful to others in the same place.
When I started the research process, I spent a lot of time scouring the web for suggestions on setting up good academic workflows. In particular, I was interested in programs that would help me acquire sources in the archive, organize the material in useful ways, and make the writing process more efficient. I wanted to have a process already in place to accommodate the large amount of archival material I expected to gather. I was looking for apps that were inexpensive (if not free) and easy to use.
I was fortunate to spend a good deal of time in the archives, and I experimented with several approaches to scanning and photographing material. I originally planned to use a digital camera/tripod setup but found it cumbersome. After some tinkering, I preferred using a scanner app on my iPhone (you could also do this with a tablet, though I think my arms would have gotten tired much sooner!). I scanned thousands of documents and got a pretty good rhythm down. I quickly discovered that not all scanning apps were created equal, and several of them fell apart when handling large files. My favorite was ScannerPro (runner-up: TinyScan). I spent a few dollars on the “Pro” upgrade and it was worth every penny.
Here's how it worked. I linked the scanning app to my cloud storage of choice (Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud, etc., all work). Then I just sat in front of the documents (...so...many...documents...) and scanned away (it functions like taking a picture on your phone). I was shocked at the quality of the scans—far sharper than what I had been working with previously. When I was done scanning, the app prompted me to title the documents (e.g., "Jane Smith's Diary" or “Box 12, Folder 3”) and automatically uploaded it to Dropbox while I moved on to scanning the next document. Do note this requires having a WiFi connection (or at least good cellular data coverage) wherever you're doing archival work. Access to a power source was also key, since I learned this drained my phone's battery pretty quickly. But if you can stay plugged in and online, it moves very quickly. I also appreciated that these files weren't stored only on my phone, since they were immediately backed up to Dropbox.
Then, after a hard day's scanning, I'd fire up Acrobat Pro on my computer, grab the files in Dropbox, and process the lot of them with Acrobat’s batch OCR feature. In short order I'd have text-searchable documents to organize as desired. One of the drawbacks of this approach was that it became very easy to scan everything. My policy at most archives (especially archives I could only visit for a short time) was to scan anything that might be of use, and read it later to determine if it was useful. This had benefits (I was able to cover a lot of ground) but also drawbacks (reading this scanned material took far longer than I anticipated).
When it came time to actually write, I primarily used Microsoft Word. I tried—really tried—to figure out Scrivener. I had heard so much about it from a number of #twitterstorians, but it didn’t seem to gel with me. I suspect I would have had more luck had I been using the program throughout the entire project, though. I’m interested in hearing from those who’ve had success with Scrivener (or any other non-Word word processors, really).
Of course, sometimes things break, stop working, or new and shinier applications come about, and it’s easy to spend too much time trying to get a program to work rather than, you know, actually working (I write from personal experience). When that happened, I found RescueTime to be a helpful tool to get back on track. RescueTime tracks how your time is spent on your computer(s), spitting out helpful reports about what you did and for how long. Seeing the time I was spending on writing—or not writing—encouraged me to get more done. It’s also free (though they offer a premium version that allows you to track offline time, if that’s your thing). I was horrified at learning just how much of my day is spent on e-mail, for example, and it forced me to confront my habit of falling down various Wiki-holes. Finally, when I was making revisions, Hemingway came in handy. It helps trim your writing by pointing out passive voice, adverbs, and the like. You can see (and play with) a simple version of the app here, though if you find that useful I'd suggest checking out the desktop version.
No doubt there are many other useful productivity apps and workflows—this is just what worked for me. I’d love to hear about other approaches in the comments.