Posted by: Kenn Hermann | January 17, 2006

RIMs and the Recomplicating of Note-Taking

Edward Tenner has offered an insightful analysis of the unintended consequences of technology in Why Things Bite Back. One of the consequences of technology that we have often noticed is how complicated it often makes very simple tasks, e.g. substituting an expensive Pocket PC and stylus for pencil and paper. (Remember the ad that circulated some years ago now on the wonders of the B.O.O.K.?) Perhaps many of you have had similar experience with what are now called Reference Information Managers, aka ‘filing systems.’

As any of you can testify who use them, they now include a mind-numbing assortment of options and extensive graphics, often to do the simplest of tasks. Sixteen years ago I started with the forerunner of NoteBuilder, a dynamic field database, that allowed me to create my own customized fields for note-taking, bibliography, and reports. I think I paid $50 for it. It did everything I wanted. And then along came Win98 that would not support NoteBuilder. (I had to buy an old laptop to run my NoteBuilder program with Win3.1. Of course, NoteBuilder was sold and no longer supported. ) Since our university had a license to sell EndNote, I swallowed and bought it.

I soon discovered that EndNote, like other current RIMs, was designed with all of the bells and whistles for keeping bibliography, downloading from online databases, etc., but nothing to aid the normal, pedestrian task of keeping research notes. After a great deal of grumbling, I discovered that I could create a new database with unique fields, which I did. Now, I have two databases, one from my old NoteBuilder, and one in my new(er) EndNote. I still have not found the courage or time to merge the two. The good news is that NoteBuilder now runs on WinXP just fine.

RIMs seem to think that the only value-added they can offer is bloated graphics, innumerable bibliography formats, and inexhausatible sources of filters for online information. My guess is that most scholars use only a fraction of these ‘enriched’ add-ons and spend the bulk of their time taking simple notes that could be easily sorted and retrieved without extensive graphics. This experience painfully confirms Tenner’s analysis of how technology often recomplicates the simple task. Don’t these companies consult ANY scholars who would actually use their databases?

I have not checked other RIMs, but I am guessing that you can go through a ‘back door’ to create your own note-taking database with your own fields that are tied to research, not bibliography, like I did with EndNote. Please ask me how to do this if you are not sure.

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