Tag Sale

Everyone has heard that Evernote is the best thing since sliced bread, and is a must-have for the genealogist's toolbox....right?  A completely searchable database of whatever you choose to save, available on computer, phone and tablet -- what's not to like?  Despite all the hoopla, I keep hearing colleagues quietly scratching their heads, without a clue about how they can really use Evernote for their research.  

I admit up front that I have a tendency to adopt a new technology and embrace it as the definitive solution, only to drop it just as quickly when it doesn't quite work the way I had hoped (remember Zotero, anyone?)  So this time, I've waited before jumping to a conclusion.  It has now been more than a year since Evernote has been an integral part of my research procedures, and I am confident that I really use it...I might even add that I would be lost without it.  

Evernote has intuitive tools to capture data from a wide variety of sources: images and data from the internet, items you email directly to the program, as well as screen captures and data files from your computer.  You can upload 60 MB per month with a basic account, or 10 GB with a premium account.  Contrary to what you might think given this kind of capacity, I use Evernote primarily to manage my research, not as a place to store data.  

When I first started to use Evernote, it seemed logical to attach all the digital records I found, but then I started to see my data scattered in different locations.  Sometimes it was easy to add a document to Evernote, and other times it was just easier to file it on my computer.  I like consistency, and in the end I decided I am more comfortable storing my data in one place on my computer, in a single filing system that I set up a long time ago.  Evernote was designed to be a productivity tool, not a data storage or back-up system. 

The way I actually use Evernote evolved organically.  I was preparing for a visit to an out of town library and happened to have Evernote open, so I cut and pasted entries from the online catalog into a note.  Within Evernote, I saw that I could add checkboxes to each item, which made it simple to mark them off as I used them at the library.  I could also annotate the catalog entry with remarks about each item as I used it.  It wasn't until much later that I realized I had created a research log... and it required no advance set up or extra steps along the way.  It was easy.  

Another time, I was doing some background reading for a project,  collecting URLs relating to that subject, and decided to gather all the links into a single note.  Ta da! Instantly I had a portable set of completely searchable bookmarks.  Filing a bookmark on my computer is like sending it into the black hole -- it is lost forever.  In Evernote, I never forget why I bookmarked a page because you can annotate to your hearts content, bookmarks are never lost since every word is searchable, and as a result, I actually use them!

By this time, I started to get a sense of what I could do with Evernote.  I set up timelines for the major players in my family tree, with links to online data and citations to other relevant information documenting their lives.  I created tables detailing when my various database subscriptions and society memberships expire.  I added notes containing shared segments and contact information for all my known DNA matches -- just to name a few of the possibilities. Evernote also comes to my rescue when I'm tempted by a "Bright Shiny Object," or BSO(1)  -- just add it to a note and investigate it later.

So here's my secret to making this work:  use tags.  

Yes, Evernote is every-word searchable, but you will make life easier on yourself if you are able to quickly and easily retrieve like items.  Tags allow you to retrieve similar items in one easy search:   all your "to do" items, for example, or everything relating to "DNA."  I mentioned how I use Evernote to create a library catalog list:

  • I tag that note "to do," and add tags for the name of the repository and the relevant person or research question.  
  • When the search is completed, I delete the "to do" tag and replace it with a "research log" tag.  
  • By searching on a combination of tags, you have a flexible way to limit or expand the notes that are returned on any search.  For example: "to do" plus "New York" plus "Schoharie Co" = everything I have to do relating to Schoharie County, NY.  "Research plan" plus "family name" =  all the research plans I have created relating to one particular family, regardless of location...the possibilities for targeted searches are endless.

The most important key to making this work is to have a set of naming conventions and rigorously adhere to them.  Make sure your tags identify a note's "who, what, when, where, why"  qualities, as appropriate.  Here are mine:

1) Tag by name of the family or research project.
2) Tag by place.  I always include the state; including tags for the county or town level depends on usage.  
3) If including actual source material, tag it by type of record:  for example, cemetery, court document, correspondence, land, newspaper, probate/will, vital record, etc.   Also include such record types as finding aides and indexes; it is very useful to have this information handy when you are at the repository. 
4) If I am making a note from data that I have manipulated, I add a tag for what I have done to it, for example:  analysis, research log, research plan, timeline.
5) Tag by actions taken or to be taken: to do, fix this!, BSO. 
6) Tag by repository or location of action to be done.
7) Tag by purpose, for example for background reading, online coursework, etc.
8) Tag by status, for example: pending, complete, uncertain ID.  

Being consistent with your tagging is crucial:  choose a standardized way to spell your tags -- for example, don’t abbreviate some states and spell out others.  If you are working fast and don’t have time to figure out the best tag for a note, you can leave it blank (typing: -tag:* in the search field will bring up all untagged notes) OR just tag it “fix this!” and get back to it later.  I make it a plan to review and clean up my Evernote files once a week.

I don’t worry so much about using Evernote notebooks.  If you are really good at tagging, you don’t need them, and deciding which notebook to use can slow down data entry.

I'd love to hear how others use Evernote, so let me know what works for you!

(1)   "BSO:" I think Thomas MacEntee coined this phrase, which captures the lure of a new avenue of research when we should be focusing on whatever task is in front of us.  I used to call it the squirrel syndrome.  It's my biggest "time thief."