The Amateur Historian: Managing References - the Affordable Way

  By Hugo Estrada, 20 November 2007; Revised
You got into history by watching documentaries on PBS or the history channel or by playing Total War or Civilization. You took the next step by finding an online history discussion forum such as All Empires. You entered true amateur historian territory when you decide that it is time to write your first history article. You selected a topic, and you start reading all what you can about it. You then write several drafts. Now all what is left is to write the bibliography. Piece of cake.

Then you realized that you can't remember where you got that very cool detail about the king being into composting as a hobby. You look through your books. It isn't there. You mentally review your reading list. You get the books from the library. It isn't there. You now remember that you may have read that bit in a few books that you can't recall the title of. So you decide to ask for help from the librarian. Full of shame, you ask her for the history book with the red cover and the cool eagle. The librarian looks at you as if you were the biggest idiot that has dared to come to her desk.

Suddenly you realized that there was some wisdom at your teachers' advice to keep a reference list of what you have been reading while doing research. You need a reference management system of some kind. Quick.

You could just write all the books that you have read in a list in a notebook, but this is hard to work with, you soon find out. Reading lists are okay, but the system breaks down when you start writing down quotes. Categories that made sense at the beginning of your research suddenly become cumbersome, and there is not way of rearranging the quotes in a different order after you have written them down.

The natural next step is to use index cards. Low tech, old school, and very handy. However, dealing with the cards can become a problem once you collect enough of them. They sit in shoe boxes for years. When you finally throw them out, within three months you realize that you need that information again. And there is some sort of threshold where the cards becomeunmanageable unless you want to buy specialized furniture to house them.

The third option is to use a software managing system. The big name here is EndNote It keeps track of references, it creates footnotes using different style guides, and it integrates seamlessly into Word. It also costs hundreds of dollars. And if you are not wealthy, or you are are very young, or are attracted to history for it being a low cost hobby, you simply cannot justify buying EndNote.

So let's explore free or low cost alternatives to EndNotes. Some will not do all the cool things that EndNotes do, but if you are not a professional historian or going to graduate school, you don't really need them either.

The first alternative that I want to discuss is using a tiddlywiki as your reference management system. Tiddlywiki is a one page wiki system that doesn't need a server. You just download it into your computer, set a bookmark on it, and start working. Even better, the working metaphor for tiddlywiki is the index card called "tiddler", meaning that working with it fits into our mental ideas of working with physical index cards. If you want to have internet access to your tiddlywiki, you can sign up to get free accounts of an online tiddlywiki server such as tiddlyspot, . You get all of the goodness from index cards minus the dusty shoe boxes. And if you so desire, the software makers claim that you may print them out into index cards, although I have never done so myself.

Here is an example of a tiddlywiki used to store bibliographical information, . I have been using this site to keep track of the history books that I have been reading on Mexico. Please feel free to experiment with it.

Working with tiddlywikis is extremely simple. All what you have to do is to click "New Tiddler" and a new index card appears. Give it a title, enter the content, and enter tags, searching keywords, in the tag field. Tags are keywords that authors enter into blogs to make searching for the content easier. The programmers for tiddlywiki added this feature for tiddler index cards as well. They adopted what is called free tagging. this means that you don't have to set categories in advance; you just write what seems appropriate and the system will automatically add them into a list.

One drawback of the freedom of entering categories on-the-fly is that if you make a typo while writing a category your card will not appear when searching under the correct spelling. To prevent problems, the programmers have included the capability for you to look at your previously entered tags. Just click on the word "tag" in the instructions for the tag field, and a list of existing tags will appear. Select one by clicking on them. If you did enter a misspelled entry, just find the card, and edit it. Fixing the tag will automatically erase the category.

You can also write several tags for each card. This means that you are not stuff putting it under a single category. The more tags you put it, the better the chances for you to find the information later on.

The power of the tiddlywiki for amateur historians is how easy it is to find information using these tags. On the right-hand column of the page, click on the "Tags" tab. All of your entered tags will appear here in alphabetical order. To bring up all cards with a certain tag you look down the list, find it, click on it, and click "Open All." Or if you see the card that you are looking for it, just click on its name.

Tiddlywikis will not write your endnotes and it doesn't integrate with word or any other word processor. However, since it is free, it costs less than an actual index card system. And by signing up for an online version of tiddlywikis one has access to the information wherever there is an internet connection. And what is more, you can share your work with other people on the internet.