Alex Wright

A note on the notes

November 28, 2005

For the book I'm writing, I have been wrangling a few hundred references to articles, books and assorted Web documents, along with piles of stray notes. Trying to get a handle on this bibliographic sprawl, I have finally come to the realization that I need something more suited to the task than Word. So for the last few months, I've been shopping around for note-taking and citation management software. I still haven't found what I'm looking for, but here are a few tools worth mentioning:

  • Endnote
    The gold standard for academic bibliographies, includes an integrated tool for searching and importing citations from library catalogs and other research databases. It is by all accounts a fantastic tool, but my predicament is not dire enough to warrant shelling out $300.

  • Refworks
    A lightweight, Web-based alternative to Endnote that lets you create a personal online database of citations, with a Word plug-in for importing and exporting references in standard formats. This would make a great solution in an on-campus setting or for collaborating with multiple authors, because users can access the same database from multiple locations. But as a stand-alone user, I'm more interested in a desktop client.

  • BookEnds
    Lightweight Mac software for creating a basic bibliographical database. Also includes a free companion app for searching the Library of Congress and other databases. The free version lets you create a database with up to 100 entries. It also lets you attach documents to your references, so it can do double-duty for keeping track of notes.

  • MyInfo
    Personal reference manager for Windows. I started using an earlier version of this tool about three years ago and found it useful but limited. The product seems to have come a long way since then, but I'm gravitating more towards the Mac these days.

  • DevonThink
    I looked into this after reading Steven Johnson's "Tool for thought" piece in the Times. It's a useful and intriguing piece of software for pulling together electronic documents and mining relationships between them through semantic analysis. I expect to keep using it, but alas it is no help for bibliographies. This seems like an obvious feature gap; if they were to add a basic citation export feature, they would have me in the bag.
So far, the winner is looking like a combination of BookEnds, DevonThink and Apple Spotlight, but noone has quite convinced me to shell out hard currency yet. The ideal tool would combine note-taking, citation management and search (ideally with DevonThink-style semantic analysis). That I would pay money for. In the meantime, I expect I will keep making do with scotch tape, bailing wire and shareware.

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File under: User Experience

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