Evernote and the Anthropologist

It’s 2015 and there are a few anthropologists who are still exclusively using paper field notebooks at worst, or at best a Word document to keep an electronic record of their fieldnotes. With the plethora of new formats and solutions for record-keeping, I am a firm believer that your research is only as good as your notes, and there’s no reason not to take advantage of digital notebooks.

My first experience came during my thesis research for my M.A. I found it incredibly useful and simple to use, and as I moved beyond lit reviews and proposals into the field my comfort with Evernote paid serious dividends. I still don’t know how I would have stayed so organized if I used another platform.

In this brief article, I explain how to use Evernote as a fieldwork notebook, but it is also so much more than that. Here are 3 reasons any anthropologist should be using it:

Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with Evernote, and I don’t even recommend giving them your money. This post is entirely a result of my experience with their free service.

1. It’s multi-platform, cloud-based simplicity.

Evernote can be used from any browser, computer, tablet, smartphone, or any other device that you may have. In the field, I typically used any combination of devices. Or I may be on campus and need to access everything via a library computer. Evernote keeps everything in one place, wherever you need it.

But I’m doing research in the middle of the Amazon with no internet!

Luckily for you, Evernote has offline capabilities. For most of my last research project in Yemen, I was lucky to have an hour of internet a day. However, between the native OSX app and the iOS app, I was always able to scribble a few notes in Evernote before connecting to the internet to sync them up to the built-in cloud.

2. Research in anthropology is more than just a basic notebook or journal.

In previous decades, one could venture into the field with a pen and a notebook and produce valuable ethnographic research. In contemporary anthropology, however, research is often multisited and carried out through a variety of media since more and more of it web-based. Evernote allows you to clip media such as photos or videos, upload PDFs, keep audio interviews and typed transcripts, bookmark webpages, and basically anything else you can imagine that might be useful to you in your research. I frequently stored Youtube videos, my own photos, journal articles, class syllabi, newspaper articles, and relevant tweets.

You can even use this Chrome extension to make it fast and easy to save web content to your Evernote, allowing you to sort post and clippings into different notebooks and tag it as you go. It also archives content in case the original content becomes unavailable, while still providing you the source you need for citations.

3. Tags!

Doesn’t all that stuff in one place get messy?

Evernote makes it pretty easy to stay organized with tags, or keywords that can index certain themes in various posts. They’re hardly a new feature on the internet, but they’re a highly effective organizing tool for your multimedia note collection. I typically use tags that indicate theme (gender, class, development, etc.), location (supermarket, political rally, home, etc.), and people (usually using the names of people in interviews or events). They can also be used to indicate time period for more historical research, source, or anything else you devise for your own personal system. Evernote can then sort all your notes by tags, or just certain notebooks or media types. Looking for that one quote from that one person you interviewed three years ago? No problem! This also makes it easy to see connections between different things that may not be immediately visible.

Other useful features are “Reminders” which you can use to make sure you don’t forget about something important or help you reach your daily writing goals, “Shortcuts” which allow you to put current projects in an easy-to-find place as your collection of notes grows over time, and sharing features which allow for collaborative work.

Evernote has been a lifesaver for me, and I use it for nearly everything. I even have all my class notes from my M.A. program in there, all tagged and sorted, just in case. And I’ve surprised myself with how much I go back to old lectures, book summaries, or my standard fieldnotes. Start early, and it will pay off quickly. Don’t get stuck with only paper notebooks or a maze of Word documents on a computer that crashes.