Humanities academics: what PKM/workflow do you use?

I’m preparing to start a summer-long research project in the humanities, and I want to go into it with a notetaking system better than the (looking back now, cringeworthy!) fixed system I used before.

However, there are so many out there, and even though I’m sure the answer as to which I should use is likely “whatever works for me/you personally,” I’m curious to see what other academics and students use and why!

I’m currently reading Ahrens’s book — what other resources should I look into?

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I’m relatively new here so don’t know if there is a specific meaning behind “worklfow” here but I can tell you what I do!

Background: I’m a social science academic, been through many variations of notetaking and knowledge management over the last 15 years but they always fell down on the specific point of relationality, so I was very excited when I found out about this approach, particularly as I am in the middle of a project where the relations between concepts, groups, ideologies really (really!) matter.

I’ll tell you the general workflow. I have used some 3rd party plugins but they’re not crucial for the process, they just reduce the friction a little so I won’t go on about them too much.

Firstly I read offline, old school, pen and paper and ideally printed materials if I can get it. I try not to highlight or do in document annotations as this is what I used to do and in the long run it either means I make far too many notes or make useless ones. This is my 15 years of painful experience talking. I spent a lot of time on extensive detailed notes, and they are not useful. So I stick to pen and paper as this encourages me to just note down in my own words, key ideas or insights, bullet points. Keeps my excessive note taking under control.

I then create a new note in Obsidian to represent that publication. I use plugins for this but you can quite easily just do it manually, create a naming convention, use tags to mark it as a literature note or keep these in a different folder. In that note I then transfer all the key ideas I wrote down, in my own words such that I have a summary of the author’s argument. This note is about what the publication says, not necessarily what it is doing for me. As I’m writing these notes down any thoughts I have about relevant links to other ideas, or how I’m going to use a concept I will write down in the same note but distinguish them somehow - I just use bold. This is a temporary measure because I do not always have the time to properly handle those thoughts at that moment, and would rather stay in the flow.

Once this is done I then review the summary and think what ideas are worth breaking out into their own notes. Say for example, the source coins a concept I will create a new note and name it after the concept, I might replicate some of the material from my literature note or ideally, write a self-contained summary of the concept in the new note. I make sure my new concept note has a link back to the originating literature note, and I go back to the literature note and make sure there is a link to my new concept note alongside where I originally wrote about the concept. This is not strictly necessary to form the connection but I like to do it so I’m clear when I have and haven’t generated a note from a paper. I can look at the literature note and see what concepts/ideas I’ve popped out of it, and if I go to the concept/idea note I can see where it originated from.

I’ve used the example of concept here - but we know ideas are not always concepts, they might be an interesting way of articulating an idea, or an argument. I also break these out of my literature note into their own note, and I name them something descriptive but general enough to be useful in other contexts. This is not always easy and I try not to sweat it too much as it may be that idea is too context dependent in itself. This isn’t necessarily a problem as you’ll see below. If anything comes to mind I’ll link to other existing notes as I write my concept/idea summary but I don’t worry too much about it. Lastly I also sometimes use note aliases if I know that a concept or idea might be referred to in different ways. This helps reduce friction later on when I refer to the notes or search for them. For example I might alias a note named ‘Democracy’ with the word ‘democratic’.

So at this point I have an originating literature note, and then a range of concept/idea notes that have arisen from it. I try to ensure that literature notes only link to concept/idea notes that originated from it. For those concept/idea notes, I haven’t worried too much about making them so abstract that they could be used in any context yet. I’ve just modularised the key components of the paper. This means that as I review more literature, if I want to refer to specific concepts/ideas at the publication level I can.

Finally I have a third ‘level’ of note which is the decontextualised idea. After going through the above process with a number of sources I may feel I see a pattern, or I want to tentatively define a concept. For this I create a new note that describes this concept/idea and refers to the preceeding context dependent concept/idea notes in order to support whjat you’re writing. This umbrella note may expresses the theme of them all, or together form the basis of a claim you want to make. This is the best bit for me because you are generating your own idea, but the foundations for them are clearly defined by this collection of more context specific ideas, which themselves link back to the original literature.

Lastly, whilst I try to avoid too many, there are quotes that are valuable to keep. Initially I just keep them in the literature note, however for those quotes I think of interest beyond the immediate context of the author’s argument, I will seperate them out into their own note using a naming convention and seperate folder for them. Again I ensure I link back to the originating literature note so I know the source. I will then use transculsion to invoke the quote in other notes if I want to use it. This way I can see all the different ideas where the quote has relevance.

So in summary I have 4 different ‘styles’ of note.

  1. A literature note (The foundation layer)
  2. A concept/idea note (Comes from literature notes, can be context dependent)
  3. An umbrella note (An abstraction derived from a number of concept/idea notes)
  4. Quotes - (Free floating, must be connected to its literature note, can be invoked at any other level using transclusion.)

Finally finally the obligatory disclaimer: I’m still working out all this stuff myself. My approach arose organically based on how I already conceptualised the process of building an academic argument. It may change in the future and I haven’t always been this rigid. Generally I like the idea of just going with the flow but these are probably the principles that re-occur as I’m going through the process.