Friday, 5 November 2010

A Toolkit for Academicians, Pt 2

I gave a lecture recently to Masters students on bibliographic software and note-taking, which has got me on to the question of firstly, how to streamline all the various applications I use, and secondly, how to rid myself of that USB drive at a minimal financial cost, befitting my subsidised academic status.

Working the System
Up until recently (see post one on the topic), I had been taking all references in Zotero, and then using Word do my notetaking. I kept all my files and documents synchronised across my computers (work and home) using the magnificent SyncToy tool from Microsoft. But I nevertheless had stepped into the cloud and synchronised endless references through Zotero and my bookmarks through Firefox's Sync, recently rebranded from its development name, Weave.

Word documents are cumbersome things for taking notes. They must be manually saved regularly, they are prone to corruption of the informational variety, forcing you to make multiple versions to prevent the tide of corruption from enveloping your work in a sandstorm of random symbols and wingdings.

My system was:
  1. References - using Zotero and synchronised across the cloud
  2. Notes - using Word and saving on a USB drive, synced to local hard drive.
  3. Bookmarks - Firefox with Sync, synchronised across the cloud.
I thought I was organised. I was! But I could do better. I must!

Having spent some time trying out OneNote 2007, I discovered the joy of insta-saving, post-it walls of information, and the facilities for recording meeting notes. OneNote, step-by-step, began replacing windows explorer, taking my meeting notes, using it as an idea platform. Concepts now lay plastered all over it. Some stuck, others fell.

OneNote 2007 became my vehicle for notes, a logical and entirely predictable step, you might say. But OneNote 2007 is still not connected to my references. When I open my references, I know not what is read and what is not, my notes are dislocated.

Zotero, as is well-known, has facilities for note-taking, but they are messy. Copying and pasting into Word or otherwise is a little cumbersome. But it works. I need a compromise. So I now use Zotero as the primary vehicle for notes, and if I need greater functionality, I record that I have switched to Onenote in the Zotero reference notes.

Back to the Cloud

I am still stuck to my USB drive, through my files and OneNote. I wish to get my files out of the equation, so after comparing a few online storage options, I am most impressed by Dropbox, which syncs your files automatically across the cloud across multiple computers. With 2GB of free space, I can get started. I lose the fat and paste my files in my Dropbox folder. However, going beyond the 2GB is costly for a student at €10 per month, so I shall place my referral code here, which means if you follow the link and open an account, we both get 250MB extra free storage.

But, there is also SugarSync, SyncPlicity, Carbonite. They all sound pretty good, but I like the simplicity and subtlety of Dropbox. I recommend you contrast and compare.

That leaves OneNote 2007. Currently it is stored on my USB drive, which automatically syncs with a temporary copy on the local hard drive. I can start OneNote without the USB drive, and when I introduce said piece of equipment, it syncs within a minute or two.

There is an obvious solution. Upgrade to OneNote 2010 and store my data on Microsoft's SkyDrive. Microsoft now provide free online storage of up to 25GB on their SkyDrive service, just login with your live ID and away you go. But there are limitations for my work - files must be less than 50MB in size. However, as long as security is not an issue, I could host my OneNote 2010 files online. But I am concerned, as this is my thesis, and is replete with my intellectual fecundity ;-).

Microsoft also offers Windows Live Mesh, which allows you to have much of the same functionality as Dropbox, but with a ceiling of 5GB. You can then use a client which is part of Windows Live Essentials to automatically sync your chosen folders.

But my PC at the University is locked to neolithic Windows XP, and runs Office 2007. Live Mesh cannot be installed on XP for understandable commercial reasons. My solution, then, is to continue to be stuck to my USB for OneNote, and see about storing my OneNote files on a webdav server for remote access, eventually transferring my Zotero data to the same. Or I may store my OneNote data in the Dropbox folder. Who knows? How exciting!