I received the following email from an Academhack reader.

Here’s my situation: I work in education policy, which means I spend a lot of time reading long-ish reports and writing syntheses, papers, policy briefings, etc. What I often find is that Report A will contain potentially useful info about a variety of topics (we’ll call those topics X, Y and Z). Report B will contain info about topics V, W and X; Report C about W, X and Y – you get the idea.

What I would love is software that allows me to take notes on such a way that, when I need to write a paper on Topic Z, I can easily find all the notes I’ve taken on that topic, rather than having to look laboriously through the notes from Report A for info on topic Z, then the notes from Report B, etc. I would assume this sort of software exists, but I’ve asked around and none of my colleagues have any recommendations. I’ve looked online, of course, but without real world recommendations it’s difficult to know where to start or even what exactly I should be looking for. And when I asked an academic I know, she suggested 6×4 notecards – not exactly what I have in mind.

Re platforms, I use mac at home, but, alas, use a pc at work, so my first priority would be finding software for the latter (though I would like to have it at work and home).

Good question, I think I have an answer, or several answers, and as I have been wanting to write about “metadata” or “tagging” files this gives me a good opportunity.

Meta-explanation

First let me reframe the issue, and explain why you would want to do something like what is being asked here. Say for example you are doing research on 20th Century Literature, and you have just finished reading an excellent article that discusses David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, and William Vollman, all through the lens of Foucault. (Does such a paper exist? I just made this up, but bonus points for anyone who finds such a thing.) Under a typical filing system you could place the paper under Pynchon, or under Wallace, but not both, and what to do about Foucault and Vollman? You could create four copies of the document and file it under each, or just create small documents that say see ” (Insert Name of Article) located in Wallace, place the document in Wallace and file extra small documents in the other locales. Or you could create a card catalog for your computer—personally I think both sound pretty futile. The problem here stems from organizing computer files as if they were in a file cabinet, when they do not have to be.

I think on the internet over the past year or so we have started to see a change in this as things are no longer necessarily organized in a hierarchy, but instead placed in relation. If you think about it this is how deli.cio.us operates. Things aren’t just placed in one bin, but multiple bins and you can see a great deal just by looking at the bins.

The problem comes in when you move this stuff to your own hard drive and start to organize your own data. You might want a mix of the file system, but be able to still tag files.

The Solution

The easiest way to solve this problem is to use something like Devon or Yojimbo or for the PC as some users have recommended, OneNote. Obviously I am a fan of this method, although it does have its drawbacks. For one it is not cross platform, and you have to be rigorous about always using the application. These are also not free.

What this emailer is really looking for is a way to tag, or use metadata that is searchable. Now there are a few solutions I have for this problem.

You can add the metadata, or the tags into the document. Let’s take the same example as above. You could just use something that will search inside all of your documents (more on this later) for Pynchon. But the problem with this is that you will get all your documents that have the word Pynchon, and you really only want the documents you “tagged” as having to do with Pynchon. The solution to this is to create a tagging system with a prepend. I use a tagging system on my hard drive, and what I do is every tag starts with an “&.” Back to the above example, you would open up the document, and on the last line of the document add, &Pynchon, &Wallace, &Vollman, &Foucault. Now when you search inside all of your documents instead of searching for Pynchon you search for &Pynchon, thus returning only the documents you have tagged with “&Pynchon.” Now this has a few drawbacks, namely that you have to be able to search inside the document, and you have to be able to edit the document, (what if you get a .pdf, or have saved a webpage, this can get a bit cumbersome). This will work though as you move the documents across platforms though, the tags will stay when you move the document from a PC to a Mac.

If you are on a Mac—a better way

If you are on a Mac this is actually really easy, spotlight has the ability to add tags/metadata to any file, and you can then search for it. Lucky for me, someone for more knowledgeable has already done an extensive write-up on how to do this, and make it easy. So I can just link to it here. This is an excellent five part series where Nick lays out all the tools, tricks, methods and philosophy of getting this done. This is really a thorough post, complete with screencasts. So if you are a Mac user and you want to tag your files, this will do the trick. Start here, and then go to Part 2, Part 3, Part Four, and finally The Wrap Up. This should pretty much cover how to tag files. And if you are only going to work on a Mac, and don’t want to use something like Devon or Yojimbo this is the way to go. It can even be done for free, or there are some cheap apps that Nick features that makes it even easier.

If you are on a PC

First, if you are on a PC just go buy a Mac (just kidding, please don’t send me hateful emails, I really am just kidding). As the emailer states, this is probably a problem many in academia face as you are given PCs by the workplace. Windows doesn’t have the extensive search capabilities of spotlight so you have to work around this problem. One easy solution is to get Google Desktop this will allow you to search the files on your computer as if they were google pages. If you want to use this check out Lifehacker for some help. The one problem with this solution is it still does not allow you to tag files as the above model wants, only search within them.

If you want to “tag” files on a PC you need Copernic Desktop. This program is also free, and will allow you to do one thing that Google Desktop will not. That is search inside the Properties Pop-up for a file, which allows you to employ the tagging system. to get this done first read the series of posts above from Nick on the Apple Blog. You don’t need to get all of the tools, but rather his general philosophy, at the very least read the first one. Now when you get a new document, place it on your desktop. Before you file it, right click open the properties=>summary window, and look for “keywords.” In the keywords field place your tags, for example &Pynchon, &Foucault. It is crucial to use the prepend & (or whatever symbol/system you choose) for if you just put keywords in without this prepend you are going to have trouble distinguishing as per above. Copernic will search in the keywords field (at least that is what I am told-I have not actually tried this), but Google Desktop will not. Since Copernic it should not be too much of a problem to get it installed on your work computer.

Closing Thought(s)

I think the more information becomes digital, and one tries to manage said information, metadata will become evermore crucial for handling research. I still think something like Devon or Yojimbo is the way to go, but the above should work, and unless you have everything in your database manager it is useful to employ a tagging system for your other files (this is what I do).

Thoughts? Questions? anyone have something to add? (Post in the comments.)