Research on the cloud: my top study tools for humanities postgraduates

So this week I officially become a student again for the first time since I graduated in 2008. I now have a student number and a supervisor. Next week I’ll enroll and take possession of my student card, along with a printing quota and library access, it’s all very exciting.

In truth, though, this just formalises my research – I like to think that I’ll always be a student at heart, and I’ve been working on my current project for more than 6 months and across two hemispheres.

The challenges of researching while traveling have made me a serious convert to cloud-based tools. I’ve spent hours (and hours and hours) researching which tools are the best, and now work with a select group of systems that work really well.

Given the time it took me to sort the good from the bad, I thought it would be worth sharing my list of the best cloud-based research tools. It’s not a huge list, but that’s a good thing, because that means more information stored in fewer places.

These will be particularly relevant to humanities postgraduates, although most are applicable to all disciplines. Oh, and all of these are free, although most have optional upgrades involving small fees. Best of all they are in the cloud, meaning you can access them all over the place, and your data isn’t dependent on one machine.

1. Zotero: The bibliographical system of the gods

Zotero comes out of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. It’s core focus is a Mozilla Firefox add-on, in which users can maintain a library of resources (books, journal articles, webpages). Yes, EndNote does this, but Zotero does it way, way better.

My Zotero library

The Zotero magic is in its ability to suck metadata out of almost anywhere. EndNote will only talk to, and import citations from, library catalogues and journal databases. The end result is a LOT of manual entry of records. Zotero, on the other hand, saves data from the source directly. It’s hard to explain, but check out the tutorials to see this in action – it is almost too good to be true.

Zotero links in to most major word processing software with a neat ad-on, again meaning that you are working within the program itself – no toggling between your word processor and the bibliographical software.

It also stores all of your records, notes, etc on external servers, so that if your computer dies or you have to work on another machine, you can still access all of your records. Oh, and on the topic of notes, by keeping your notes on Zotero (as standalone notes or tied to a specific book etc) they are fully text searchable.

I’ve also just seen their latest news announcement, which includes information about a range of great updates. These include the expansion of the add-on to cover other web browsers (including Safari and Chrome), an update of the web-based interface to allow full read-write capability (i.e. for when you don’t have the browser add-on) and updated word-processor integration.

I use this to: Collect, store and cite references. Keep notes about references. Search through my notes.

2. Evernote: notes

Evernote is very simply an online notebook. I used it a lot more before I got into Zotero in a big way, but it is still a really useful tool for jotting down thoughts in a place that can’t be left on a bus or in the library.

Its big advantage is that it is supported across almost all platforms (Zotero requires a computer) so you can record a note from your phone, iPad, friend’s computer etc. It’s simple, but quick – just what you want to capture those scurrying thoughts or flashes of genius.

It also has a cute function where you can ‘clip’ webpages or material from the web and store it as a note, although for serious research I would prefer to put things in Zotero and store it as a proper bibliographical entry.

I use this to: Hoard random thoughts that might come in useful someday.

3. TimeGlider: Easy and elegant timelines

This is a very handy web-based timeline creator, which is perfect for building a record of the key events and dates associated with the historical moment of your research. I find this a fantastic way to visualise and connect events. By  overlaying the events specific to my research with the major political and economic events of the time, things start to fit together.

My timeline - early stages yet

This is web-based, so you can log-in and add entries from anywhere, and you can even print your timeline.

I use this to: Store information about major events. See how events connect and fit together. Check which came first, the chicken or the egg.

4. Dropbox: Backup, backup backup!

Dropbox is a new addition to my list, but as I get further with my research the risk of losing everything is getting bigger by the minute. Dropbox offers a simple backup system, with the added advantage of a one-month history of your files, so if you accidentally save over that amazing first draft, you can retrieve it.

I use this to: Backup important files.

5. Google Docs: Word processing on the cloud

A simple word processor that offers good collaboration tools and connectivity with Office. Its pretty basic, but in a good way.

I use this to: Work on files when I’m not at my own desk.

6. WordPress!

A blog platform probably isn’t the most typical research tool out there, but it does offer the research student some vital opportunities – namely the chance to workshop ideas, vent spleen, share links and generally connect. I looked at a lot of different blogging platforms and I’m really glad I took the plunge with WordPress.

I’m sure there are loads of other great tools out there, but these are my favourites, and I have to say they truly make my life easier. If anyone has suggestions get commenting!

J

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2 responses to “Research on the cloud: my top study tools for humanities postgraduates

  1. well…I feel like a Paleolithic student… except from 4. 5. and 6. I never heard about those websites, and I couldn’t even imagine that there were those types of online-tools to store research, or build timelines.
    My new mission is to spread the news to the other paleolithic italian students!

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