Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Software for history research

One continuing preoccupation over the past three weeks has been our History of English Teaching project (Walworth School being my assignment, shared with colleague Pat(rick)). We now have loads of data enough for me to make a start on writing. But first I have to organise our material it and I've spent quite a bit of time looking for Mac software that will help.

(I've also I think found some word processing/text editing applications that will free me from Word, which I hate for its constant ‘helpful’ automated interferences but appreciate for some nice features like moving the mouse across text can be set to select whole words -- I haven’t found that facility in any of the others yet. At the moment NeoOffice (free; a Mac version of OpenOffice) is my favourite.)

Organising data: we’ve got interview transcripts, school documents from the 1940s and 1950s, articles and books and the notes we’ve made on them, testimony that people have sent us as email messages or Word attachments, copies of London County Council documents, pieces of pupils' work, photographs; on top of that there are own notes, drafts etc on topics rather than individual sources. Writing a single sentence of our history might involve using information or quotations from several of these, all needing to be referenced; so each item will clearly need to have some short identifier, ‘LCC 1951 p.3’, ‘Dixon int 2009d p.4’, ‘Harvey interview 229’. Not all those references may make it into the final publication but they need to be there for us to go back to if we need to.

If I had been working as a historian twenty years ago, I imagine that for each item I'd have written one, several or a great many index cards, each with a separate quote or note and each with its laboriously copied-out source reference at the top and one or more index terms for sorting and locating. But I've only recently started doing history and expect software applications to take a lot of the drudgery out of the task.

My preference to write a single set of notes and quotes on an article or book (I've used the bibliographic package EndNote for that for several years now, though I haven’t been doing historical research) and then, later, in writing the draft, to copy and paste chunks across or simply take the gist of a point and rephrase it. I like having the notes on an item as a single text because sometimes I'll read right through it to remind myself of what was covered by the item as a whole and to look for points that might be relevant to my current task. But it would be nice for those continuous notes to be a set of digital index cards as well (each with its source reference), that I can move about and arrange under different headings and, indeed, use in many different projects. So I want an application that will meet that need, and I haven’t found it yet. Historians must have developed something that would do the job. Next I'll look on the websites of the various historical associations.

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