Some of the tools I use

My work life this summer has been predominantly focused on two summer institutes, one for art historians and one for historians, which give the participants an introduction to concepts and methods in digital (art) history. It was a lot of information to pack into two weeks per institute, and very thought-provoking for everyone involved.

As the title of this post suggests, the participants’ questions and concerns made me think about my digital workflow(s). Not only in the archives (I’ve been chewing on that for a while), but in the day to day. There are a lot of tools – mostly software or software-as-service – which I and other graduate students use on a daily basis that were completely new to many of the participants.

What follows are just the things I use frequently and how I use them. When I need a new tool, I usually ask around on twitter and check out the archives of GradHacker and ProfHacker, especially their categories/tags for tools, technology, and software.

Reading: One of the first things I did after accepting the offer for my PhD program was to go out and get an iPad. I remembered the stacks and stacks of journal articles, book chapters, and historical documents I’d printed out in my MSc programme and undergrad days. Sure, I use my tablet for other things, but it has been amazing for reading. I use iAnnotate (iOS and Android; $9) to read PDFs, because I like the user interface and the fact that it syncs with Dropbox. Early on, I would export the annotations and add them as notes to the Zotero record for the article, but it didn’t work very well for highlighting only a few words in a sentence.

For web content (blog posts, online articles), I send things to Readability through my browser so I can read them later on the tablet or on any of my computers.*

Communication: Many of the institute participants were new to twitter and were rapidly overwhelmed trying to keep up with the conversations streaming past them. “How do you do it?” they asked veteran users. “Columns” we replied. I have been using TweetDeck for years to manage my twitter streams – three personal accounts, multiple lists and hashtags. I also like the fact that it allows me to easily schedule tweets. TweetDeck was down for hours this spring, during which time I learned that the Twitter desktop client for mac also allows you to create columns based on lists or hashtags.

Writing: I recently started trying to use Scrivener (OSX, Windows; $45) for writing and, following the example of a colleague, taking notes for conferences. Scrivener is built to allow for multiple kinds of writing – novels, research, screenplays – and it lets you chunk out pieces of content. It allows you to move between text files without leaving the application. There is also a distraction free (full screen) composition view. What I like best is that you can compose in chunks, move those chunks around, and then compile and export the whole thing to a variety of formats (most of my professors request Word documents). When I was an undergrad, I would write paragraphs of things I wanted to say, print them out, and then move them around, tape together, and then write. I’m now much better about outlining, but it’s nice to be able to compose sections independently so you can easily revise that outline on the fly even after you’ve started writing. I also like the research section, which I’ve used as a place to park long transcriptions which I need to consult frequently, so that (again) I don’t have to leave the application while writing.

For brainstorming, note taking, and composing on the tablet, I use iA Writer (OSx/iOS only, $4-9). It’s a plain text editor which, on the desktop, has a full screen view. On both desktop and iPad it can save to iCloud, which makes it easy for me to take notes or write brainstorming drafts on the tablet and use the content later on the computer. I also use GoogleDrive for brainstorming composition, and frequently for collaborative work.

Organization: One of the ways I stay organized when working is built right into my OS: multiple desktops (“Mission Control“). I have TweetDeck in its own desktop, which I get to either by swiping or CTRL+Arrow. It allows me to have multiple applications open and full-screen or large without feeling cluttered or having to open and close windows constantly (I could, of course, CMD-TAB between applications, and I do, but I still like having the multiple desktops).

For saving information, making lists for later reference, and taking notes in meetings or from research trips, I use Evernote. I’ve been using it for some time, so there’s a degree of clutter in my account that I’m still trying to control. I’ve used it for taking notes in class and for making lists of book series I’m reading so that I refer to it on my smartphone when I’m at the library. Evernote also allows you to share notebooks between users, which has come in handy on multiple occasions.

I use Zotero to capture books, articles, and newspaper columns for classes and research projects. I’m currently using it to keep track of the books for my oral exams, and I have a series of folders which have been a catch-all for “that might be useful for the dissertation.” As with Evernote, there is a function for shared folders, which has been useful for collaborative research projects.

I may well have forgotten something, but these are the applications which live in my dock and/or the first screen of my smartphone and tablet and which I use frequently (if not daily). Moreover, I’m sure others will be added; while writing this post, I noticed that Literature and Latte has a mind-mapping tool, so I downloaded the free trial.

*I have a work laptop as well as a desktop of my own.