I had a meeting yesterday with a couple of historians on campus to talk about teaching our students how to take notes. Raphie Folsom told us that in his graduate studies, most of the classes focused on cutting edge historical theory, but the most practical course taught him how to set up a database for note-keeping.

Historians read voraciously both in published books and articles and in archival sources. Simply keeping track of everything you’ve read is a logistical challenge and good organization is key when it comes time to cite your sources.

Raphie’s answer for his own work has been to use a FileMaker database with records built around each source that he reads. This system creates virtual note-cards in much the same way we might teach a school age kid to take notes. The value added of the electronic system is that it is searchable and filterable allowing for the production of tables of cards sorted according to the various fields of interest.

One problem with FileMaker is that it was built in the time period where programs were something you installed on your computer. This is perfectly fine for an individual user with a laptop, but it makes it very hard to work with a community on a collaborative project. Stephen Weldon used FileMaker for the History of Science’s Cumulative Bibliography for the better part of a decade, but to do this he had to set up scripts and protocols that would reconcile records between the multiple computers of the people working on the project. It is also hard to teach note-taking methods to students using FileMaker, because it’s hard to troubleshoot their issues across machines.

FileMaker does now offer a web-app version of their databases, but it can get a bit expensive to use when you have multiple people working on a project. The solution that we are currently testing for the class is to use the open-source Drupal CMS to build a system that is modeled on Raphie’s FileMaker database. Drupal is a web application that be installed with one click in the OU Create system. It can be used by anyone with web access and can have many users working at the same time. Once we build a database in Drupal, Raphie will be able to train his students on how to fill out note cards in his methodology and how to use those notecards to identify and support historical arguments.

I’m excited about this project and I think it dovetails nicely with the Tulsa Race Riots project that I’m working on with Karlos Hill. Drupal can be a bit of a cumbersome beast, but I really like where I’ve been able to get with it on my SituatingChemistry project, and I think both of these projects will be smaller and more manageable. We will be working with Tara Carlisle and Sarah Clayton, the Digital Scholarship Librarians here at OU, on both of these projects. I hope that I’ll be able to share prototypes of each of these projects within the next couple of weeks.