Apps and Tools for Citations and Note-Taking: a Workshop for Undergraduates

Anyone who has written a research paper knows that formatting footnotes and bibliographies can take up a great deal of time and mental energy in the library. Whether tracking a scholarly conversation within secondary literature, or scouring a huge archival collection in primary source research, managing one’s thoughts and research notes (and making sure one can find them again) can be cumbersome; yet, in today’s electronic world, there are scads of tools available to help researchers find and manage their citations and their ideas. This week, a professor asked if we could hold a session at the Burke Library, facilitating a discussion and workshop about the pro’s and con’s of some of the top digital apps and programs for managing citations and taking notes, just for undergraduates writing thesis papers in Religion and Theology. We enthusiastically rose to the occasion! I set out to review the top tools used by researchers in the Burke Library, and began developing the workshop. It ended up being a great opportunity to engage with some information-literacy principles around data privacy, digital preservation, and fair use as well.

First I conducted an informal survey over social media, asking writers, researchers, and students what digital tools and apps they take notes with. Out of 10 responses, the apps that were mentioned included Evernote, Google Docs, Notability, OneNote, Trello, Scapple, and Zotero (many respondents also mentioned that they use pen and paper — some things never change!) Within a few days I had the chance to explore each of these tools and their potential usefulness for college students. I created this table (below) to guide our discussion of the pro’s and con’s of every app, so the students could decide for themselves which ones would fit their note-taking needs. (NOTE: I am not paid to advertise these products, I am simply reviewing them for instructional purposes.)

Zotero is the program I decided to start the workshop with and spend the most time on. For those who have not yet boarded the Zotero train to Easy Bibliography Town, it’s a program that lets you keep track of your sources (books, articles, special collections, etc) and generate bibliographies, footnotes, endnotes, and parenthetical references for papers with the click of a button; no more copying titles, authors, and publisher locations by hand and formatting where the comma goes for every single footnote. You download the program and install a quick add-on to your web browser, then simply find the items in CLIO or any other library catalog, and you’re able to add the sources to your Zotero library with a click in your browser.

Google Docs and Evernote are two popular mainstream programs for organizing text-based notes. Both allow users to save content to a computer hard drive or in “the cloud” (web-based servers requiring a login). OneNote provides the unique feature of letting users enter text and also draw freehand shapes, arrows, and circles to map ideas visually. The students who attended this workshop were already using Google Docs for taking notes, for the most part, though some had tried OneNote as well. The group in the workshop engaged in thoughtful conversation about price and costs with these programs; Evernote is free to use, OneNote is only available through the somewhat expensive Microsoft Office suite, and Google Docs is “free” to use but it also requires a login and may track user activity.

Three newer apps — Notability, Trello, and Scapple — were completely new to everyone in the workshop (including me). Through exploration I found that Notability ($9.99) is a fun note-taking app for Mac computers and mobile devices (not PC’s, sadly). Users can type, draw, and even speak into a microphone to record notes and annotate PDFs with markings and highlighting. Scapple ($12 for students) is a mind-mapping app for connecting ideas and concepts. Trello (free/requires login) is an organizational collaboration tool that allows groups to assign project components and due dates. The students in the workshop discussed the potential pro’s and con’s of using newer apps, including concern about the novelty of these companies and whether or not their work could be deleted if the companies don’t last. Longevity is a concern in any project that involves digital preservation; it was a good chance for the students to discuss these information principles, in a conversation centering their own intellectual outputs.

I added to the workshop an app called Tropy, which I heard about from a colleague who works primarily in archival research. Tropy allows users to take photos of archival collections, upload them and organize them based on their research needs (for example: a lengthy archival document, captured one photo per page at a time, can be saved as a single group) and users can markup and annotate the image files to record their notes and ideas. Our exploration of Tropy also included a conversation around copyright and fair use; provides an overview of what constitutes fair use of archival collections for research purposes, which nicely framed the discussion.

All together, these apps span a great deal of potential uses, and provided a stepping stone for an engaging conversation around several information-literacy principles as well as a lively hands-on workshop. We are definitely considering hosting it again as a one-off workshop in the future.

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