by Joe Goetz
As a librarian, and more generally as an overwhelmed, forgetful person, I have a fascination with personal organization systems. It just seems like what I want or need to remember has practically nothing to do with what I actually do remember, with all kinds of chaotic results. I also like being able to compartmentalize, and not think about grocery lists or other such daily matters until I need to. Finally, I like to work by building up from small pieces, which requires keeping track of lots of information over time.
Fortunately, I’m not alone. Smart people out there have created some terrific tools for outsourcing normal brain functions, especially in the area of remembering things and keeping track of bits of info. I’ll discuss three I’m especially fond of: Evernote, Zotero and Wunderlist.
Evernote is a cloud-based application for storing and organizing all kinds of notes– textual, visual and audio. It’s especially powerful if you have a smartphone. You can take a picture of a poster, say, and Evernote will store the image and recognize any text in the image for you. You can sort this image-with-text into a folder, and tag it with keywords to help you find it later. In addition to the phone app, there are desktop and web versions that all sync automatically. Even without a camera, Evernote is a great way to organize notes, store internet bookmarks, and generally keep track of your readings and thoughts. It’s versatile and fast, and I use it for many aspects of work, housekeeping and casual reading. Plus, it’s free in its basic version, which is all most casual users will need.
Zotero is similar to Evernote in some important ways, in that you can also make notes, sort them into folders and tag them with keywords. But Zotero has the added ability to extract citation information from online resources like library catalogs, databases, and websites such as Amazon.com. For me, this makes it my tool of choice for serious research. Zotero also automatically saves images of webpages when you cite them, and allows you to highlight and annotate them later. Zotero is a browser add-on, and opens at the bottom of your Safari, Chrome or Firefox browser window. This allows you to read what’s in your browser, such as a pdf, as you make notes and build your bibliographies– it’s very convenient and handy. The main downsides of Zotero, for me, are that it lacks an iPhone app and that it syncs across computers rather slowly. But even though it shares some functionality with Evernote, I wouldn’t do without it. If you do all your research on one laptop (or have an Android phone), it’s outstanding.
Finally, I’ve just come across a new tool this week that, at last, seems to answer my deep and abiding need for a really user-friendly to-do list. It’s called Wunderlist. Like the other two apps I’m discussing, it syncs across your devices and has a downloadable version. But having tried many different list-making tools over the past several years, this is the only one that really lets you visualize your tasks as a whole, or divided by topic or due date, quickly and easily. Nothing gets buried; there are no complications; everything you need is right in front of you. It’s only been a few days and I’m already totally dependent on it for getting things done.
Like most people, I suspect, some of my best thoughts come at random times throughout the day, and most of my large projects are built up from lots of small pieces (like those random thoughts) that can easily get buried and forgotten. If I’m doing a serious research project, the problem is multiplied. That’s why I encourage students and researchers to find and follow a simple, well-organized system for keeping track of information. These applications could give you the structure you need to remember, take stock, de-scatter and discover the information you come across every day.