I recently revived my languishing Latin studies and remembered that I had started a vocabulary list in Word. After looking at it I realized it would be much more useful in OneNote, where I could arrange the conjugations and declensions on separate “pages,” making them easier to update and review. Once I had that set up I started adding more pages of Latin notes, which got me on to the subject of note-taking generally.
I had started taking Latin notes in pencil in a little spiral notebook, but I found that writing in it was awkward if I got too close to the edge or the spiral, and finding anything required a lot of page-flipping. Since I already had a binder set up with downloaded answer keys, I switched to loose leaf paper, which is much more practical as it lays flat. I have to admit I love the sound and feel of pencil scratching on paper, but I wonder if it would be easier to do my work on the computer?
I’ve also been thinking about note-taking for my serious reading. I don’t expect to keep my Latin notes, but I do intend to keep my reading notes. Until now I’ve used Moleskine notebooks for my reading notes (as I’ve posted before), but as aesthetically pleasing as the notebooks are, they have some drawbacks. The main problem is what to do if I want to go through a book two or three times, as per the traditional grammar–logic–rhetoric method. Notes or comments from a second reading can’t be placed with notes from the first reading for a given chapter. One solution is to write on one side of the notebook and leave the other page blank for future use or for quotations. I tried that and ended up with many blank pages, which is not much fun with an expensive notebook. I’ve also had problems with running out of room to write down a list of characters (I’m looking at you, Tolstoy!). Switching to loose leaf paper would solve both of those problems, but cheap paper will yellow soon and binders are bulky to use and store. Typing or scanning rough notes into a notebook is a possibility, but an onerous one.
Going digital would eliminate the problem of my increasingly illegible handwriting. I can type much faster than I can write, and being able to search my notes could come in very handy. My little netbook is really not much larger than a Moleskine, and, with wifi, has the added advantage of letting me look up words or facts wherever I happen to be reading. The only problem is ergonomics. If I’m taking notes on paper, I can hold the book open with one hand and write with the other. Typing obviously requires two hands, so I’d have to put the book in a bookstand, which makes it a nuisance to turn the pages.
There is also the perennial problem of digital obsolescence. The notes in my sewn, acid-free Moleskines will probably last as long as I do. The notes in Microsoft OneNote will last as long as Microsoft exists and continues to support OneNote. OneNote has been around for a mere 6 years, and though the people who use it absolutely adore it, it is not well known, which is usually a recipe for getting cancelled! Like all electronic formats, OneNote is only temporary, and my notes will require updating and converting for as long as I want to use them in digital form.
Then there’s the more important question of whether typing notes is as good of a memory aid as writing notes. ME/CFS has ravaged my short-term memory, so I must take notes if I want to remember (and blog about!) what I’ve read. I’ve been googling around and there doesn’t seem to be any research on the subject, despite the fact that laptops are taking over university and even some high school classrooms. I did find some comments from students who found they retained information better if they took notes by hand, but I wonder if that’s just a question of acclimatization. If you’re used to writing notes on paper, switching to computer will probably not work as well at first. It used to be that I could only write by hand and had to type it in later, but now I only write on the computer and can edit on screen as well. Something has changed in my brain with regard to how I perform the act of writing. But memory is a different faculty, and I wonder if typing on a computer gets stored in the same way as handwriting? Typing is arguably as tactile as writing with a pen, but the connection between our fingers and the letters on the monitor is perhaps more virtual than our quarter-million year old brains can relate to.
I suppose the only thing to do is to keep experimenting. Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages, and there doesn’t seem to be a clear winner. It probably comes down to personal preference and which system is more likely to get used. If you’ve tried taking reading notes electronically I’d love to hear about it!