research / productivity

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4 min. | 711 words

I am a young historian – heck, I barely even qualify for that title when I have no book to my name and don’t hold a PhD yet. But as a researcher very early in my career, one thing I think about frequently is the legacy of the digital files that I create. Perhaps it’s a residual anxiety that accompanies the idea that physical files will “last” or are more easily preserved that I continue to hold on to.

But this is silly. After all, like the Kindle, we’ve built systems that are sustainable and won’t fall apart (or, knock on wood, succumb to fire or water). Our digital files, if we think carefully about them, are transferable between operating systems and platforms with relative ease and are much easier to store and back up.

Maybe I’m just vain, but I hope someday to be able to donate all the research material I amass to a library for preservation. I feel, though, that I shouldn’t just leave it up to future archivists or librarians to figure out how to get my stuff off a hard drive (or whatever storage platform awaits us in the future). For my own reasons I want my data transferable – I want to avoid lock in. But I also want my data future-proofed as well as I can humanly make it.

For me that means as much plain text as possible, or at least using software that allows for very easy exporting. Here are the platforms I use to ensure portability and sustainability:

  • Notational Velocity: Random temporary notes, reference files, meeting notes, and other non-research related writing happens in Notational Velocity, which I’ve previously written about here. Occasionally I’ll also draft up blog posts in nvALT, but usually I do most of my blog writing in TextMate (despite flirting with BBEdit, vim, macvim, TextEdit, and nvALT as full-time writing platforms). All my notes in nvALT are synced to Dropbox and also accessible via my Droid phone through Epistle.

  • TextMate: I’m trying out the alpha release of TextMate 2 and I am loving it so far. For me, TextMate is still the superior text editor for the Mac. I use TextMate for blog writing, mostly, as well as programming.

  • Zotero: I mainly use Zotero for keeping an up-to-date bibliography. I use to use Zotero for a wide range of things, including saving webpages I wanted to reference and taking notes. Now, webpage clipping normally happens in Evernote (a system I’m not entirely happy with) and note-taking happens in DEVONthink.

  • DEVONthink: Thanks to Chad Black and William Turkel for convincing me to check out DEVONthink. It’s a lot of tool that has a bit of a learning curve, but it’s amazingly powerful and useful. All of my research goes here. I flirted briefly with Evernote as a place to store research notes and primary source material, but the lack of export concerned me greatly. DEVONthink’s export is far superior, and allows me to maintain folder hierarchy as well as pulling out all of my notes. Unlike Chad, I use DEVONthink’s built-in database for this reason (instead of indexing my own local files). Originally, I did index locally but found that my folder structure was getting too complicated. If I feel like it, I can export everything from DEVONthink and start over.

  • Scrivener: My primary writing environment. Scrivener’s export feature allows me to pull out what I’m working on fairly easily, so I’m never locked in to their platform. Plus, it’s just an excellent environment for serious writing.

  • Physical files: Yep, I still have them. I have several bankers boxes in my office full of material, everything from research files to articles to comprehensive exam notes (which, at this stage, are mostly digital). I still read a lot of journal articles in paper – I just can’t make the jump to reading on the screen. My Nook, unfortunately, has proven inadequate for reading PDFs. So, I still maintain a system for filing these, although notes and a digital copy both end up in DEVONthink.

All of this hopefully means that anytime I need to move to a new platform, application, or some future device we haven’t invented yet, I’ll be in a position that allows that to happen easily.


Greetings! My name is Jason Heppler. I am a Digital Engagement Librarian and Assistant Professor of History at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a scholar of the twentieth-century United States. I often write here about the history of the North American West, technology, the environment, cities, politics, and coffee. You can follow me on Twitter, or learn more about me.