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Going Paperless (Tools We Use)

I’ve been trying to go paperless since graduate school, when I bought my first sheet-feed scanner. It was a slow, noisy, hulk of a machine which would jam half the time. But I’m not the kind of person to let reality get in the way when I know something is possible, even if that possibility is just over the horizon. 2010 is the year that going paperless became truly possible, and not just for those who dream of the future—for everyone. What’s amazing is that all of a sudden there are hundreds of choices depending on your own personal workflow, system preferences, etc. Here’s how I do it:

INPUT: If you aren’t starting with a digital document from JSTOR, you need to scan your paper. My school has a fancy photocopy machine which can chew up an article and spit out a nice small PDF file, but if you don’t have access to that you can get yourself a Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500 (or S1500M for the Mac) which can do the same thing. If you have a smartphone with a good camera you can also simply take a snapshot and use software like JotNot to convert those photos to something resembling a scanned document.

STORAGE: Once you’ve scanned something or downloaded it from the web, what do you do with it? Personally I am a big fan of Evernote which will do OCR on your (English) image and PDF files and which lets you do fulltext search on your entire library. It also can sync between your computer and mobile apps. But for academic texts I need structured metadata. I need to be able to pull out citations and insert them in my bibliography, etc. For that I use Sente. The iPad version of Sente pro finally came out and it is amazing. (See my review of the free version.) Unfortunately, Sente and Evernote still aren’t enough. I have some huge PDF files which aren’t handled well by either app so I also depend on Dropbox to sync those files across computers. And while all of these options have the ability to share with others, I find the easiest way to share files online is with Google Docs so I also use that, especially for teaching.

READING/ANNOTATING: Sente is pretty good for annotation, and I’m sure it will get better, but my favorite way to read PDFs right now is with iAnnotate for the iPad. I find the reading experience nicer than Sente which currently only shows one page at a time. For academic reading it is nice to be able to quickly scan whole paragraphs which cross page boundaries. And for documents where text is not “selectable” (such as docs I’ve scanned myself but not OCR’d) I like iAnnotate’s ability to add little “stamps” in the margins, such as a check mark, exclamation point, or question mark. When done both Sente and iAnnotate have the ability to export selected text and notes along with the marked up PDF. I email these to Evernote. (The fact that Sente syncs its annotations back to the desktop means you don’t have to do this step if you just use Sente.)

Not everything is on PDF. More and more academic texts are now available on Amazon’s Kindle and other ebook formats. (Although sometimes the pricing is ridiculously high. Academic books from UK publishers can cost over eighty dollars as an ebook!) What I like about Kindle is the ability to easily access one’s annotations online via the Amazon web interface. That and the fact that my annotations are synced between all my various devices. (I don’t have a Kindle, but I use the Kindle software on my iOS devices and my desktop.) I have not found anything as useful in other ebook software. One problem, however, is that Kindle books don’t give you proper page numbers. You can just cite it as an electronic text as the APA recommends, or you can do a full text search for the material on Google Books or Amazon book search to see the page number.

NOTE TAKING/PROOFREADING: One of the last redoubts for paper in my workflow has been those few places where pen on paper just seems to work best: taking notes during a talk or marking up text while proofreading. But recently I found something which makes it possible for me to do this on my iPad without printing out: Note Taker HD. The trick is that it lets you “write” in a special writing box. This allows you to write large letters with your finger, but have it appear small on the page. You can also switch to a standard writing mode where you can mark up the page directly. You can either write on a blank piece of paper or you can import a PDF, such as a PDF of the paper you are working on or a student’s paper you need to correct. It may not be quite as good as pen and paper, but it works well enough for me that I’ve stopped printing things out. I’ve tried several similar apps, but I find Note Taker HD to be the best. However, for taking notes at lectures or while interviewing people it is also worth mentioning SoundNote which can record audio as you type notes. Afterwards you can then lookup the relevant audio by clicking on the word you were typing when it was recorded—a little like how Livescribe works.

With these tools I’m able to avoid using paper nearly eighty percent of the time. The waste generated creating all these electronic devices may not be any better for the environment than cutting down trees, but keeping everything electronic means it is all searchable and I’m less likely to loose it. And now that so much data is stored on the cloud, it also means I can access my library and my notes from just about anywhere that has web access. As someone who travels between at least three countries every year, I like the idea of having most of my stuff stored in the cloud. I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready to join the Cult of Less but it is an idea that appeals to me. More importantly, in 2010 it is finally within the realm of the possible.


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