Karl Dahlfred |

When it comes to masters and doctoral work, the key to a successful thesis or dissertation is organizing your data. It is great that you are learning all sorts of relevant and interesting information, but will you be able to find it again when it comes time to write?   There are lots of different software options out there, such as Zotero, OneNote, and Endnote, but for my doctoral research I’ve put all my eggs in the Evernote basket. Everyone needs to find what works for them, but in this post I want to briefly explain how I use Evernote to gather and organize research data from books, articles, and websites so that I’ll be able to readily find and use that information later.


One Notebook for One Book

For most non-primary source research, I read a lot of books and articles, as most people do.  For each book I read that has more than one or two significant points that I want to use, I create a notebook in Evernote for that book, titled by author surname followed by title of the book.  For example, for the following book, I created a notebook called “Hutchison Errand to the World”:

  • Hutchison, William R. Errand to the World: American Protestant Thought and Foreign missions. Chicago & London : University of Chicago Press, 1987.


Scan Pages and Upload Directly

As I read through the book, I use the “Scannable” app to take scans of one or multiple pages at a time. The Scannable app is designed by Evernote and when you photograph a page with it, the app will automatically sense the edges of the page, crop the photo, and flatten out the photo into a two-dimensional scan like a book page.  If the app fails to accurately detect the edge of the page, you can easily manually crop it.  When you are happy with the scan, you can label it and upload it directly to a specific Evernote notebook as a PDF.

For example, I used Scannable to make a scan of page 2 of “Errand to the World”, labelled it “02 secular scholarship on foreign missions begins in 1970s” (so I’d remember the main point I wanted to remember from page 2) and then uploaded it to my notebook “Hutchison Errand to the World”.  Whenever I found a relevant bit from the same book, I would photograph, label and upload to the same notebook, using the format

[page number][short summary of what this section is about]


Create a “Table of Contents” Note

After I have made the scans I want using Scannable on my phone, I go to the Evernote desktop app which syncs notes and notebooks from my phone, and vice versa.  The desktop version is the most versatile, and the easiest to work with.  However, the web version, desktop version and phone app all sync together brilliantly so I can access my data everywhere or write down a new idea on the go.

On the desktop version, I search for all notes in “Hutchinson Errand to the World,” then create a note called “TOC Errand to the World” (where TOC stands for “Table of Contents.”)  Into this note, I copy the note links for all the other notes in the notebook so that I have a hyperlinked list (like the one above) of all the notes in the notebook for a particular book.  This way I can quickly scan all my notes from a particular book without needing to scroll through the whole notebook to find what I am looking for.  Once I have my page scans from a particular book in a notebook, I will often write comments in the individual notes while my memory is still fresh from reading the book.  Thus, an individual note might consist of a PDF of page scans together with my thoughts and observations on that section.

Use Tags to Pull Data from Multiple Sources

For each note in my various notebooks, I assign tags with names of key people, themes, ideas, events, or date ranges that are relevant for my project.  For notes in “Hutchison Errand to the World”, I used labels like “liberalism,” “civilizing,” “missionary roles,” “evangelism” and “nationalization.”  Tags  enable me to find notes from various notebooks on the same topic.  So, if I have read multiple articles and books that all contain something about “civilizing”, then I can do a search for the tag “civilizing” and pull up all the relevant notes from across all my notebooks. I can also search for multiple tags if I want to pull up only those notes that have to do with both “civilizing” and “missionary roles.”

The main purpose of creating tables of contents for individual notebooks and tagging notes is to aid in my writing.  If I know that I need material from a particular book or article in order to write my paper, article, or thesis chapter, I can quick scroll through my TOC note for that book or article, clicking on the links to individual notes to various sections and grab what I need.  However, if I can’t remember where I read a particular bit of information but know that it was about “civilizing,” for example, I can search for the tag “civilizing” and look through all the notes on this topic.  This is much quicker than looking through various paper notebooks, Word docs, Excel spreadsheets, or photocopies to find something again.  Also, if I want to write a particular topic on, say, the roles of missionaries in promoting Western civilization, I could search for the tags “missionary roles” and “civilizing.”  Sometimes, as I start to write or organize my thoughts, I will copy the note links from various notes and put them together into one note, sort of like an outline where I can click on various bits of the outline to take me to the expanded version of what I want to quote or reference.

Use Tags that YOU Will Remember

You can create tags with whatever names you want, but the important thing is to create tags that you will remember and that will be useful to you.   Because much of my writing has to do with history, tags with the names of key people and key events has been very useful for me.  If I want to find information on a particular individual, I can pull up all notes from all my sources that I have tagged with his or her name.  Same thing goes for a particular event.


Getting Material from the Web into Evernote

If you use web sources instead of paper books, it is even easier to get material into Evernote.  The Evernote Web Clipper is a browser extension that allows you to clip directly from webpages (the “simplified article” option is my favorite because it cuts out the peripheral adverts, social share buttons, etc) or to capture an entire PDF from the web directly into Evernote.  If someone has emailed you something, you can use your personal “Email to Evernote” email address to forward something directly into Evernote, either to your default notebook or to a specific notebook.  Exporting Kindle notes and highlights into Evernote is also possible, although there are a few more steps.

There is probably a lot more that could be said, but if you’re looking for some new ideas for organizing your research, Evernote might be a great solution for you.  I’m not finished my Ph.D yet but Evernote is working for me.


Karl Dahlfred is a Ph.D candidate in World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, where he is doing research on modernization and the American Presbyterian Mission in Thailand before the Second World War.  Originally from New Hampshire (USA), he has lived in Thailand for ten years, engaged in local church work and teaching church history at Bangkok Bible Seminary.  He blogs in English and Thai at www.dahlfred.com.