Evernote for Academics: Tagging vs. Notebooks

Evernote for Academics: Tagging vs. Notebooks

Introduction

If you do a quick Google search for “organizing Evernote”, “tagging vs. notebooks”, or “Evernote file management” you might be quickly overwelmed about all the “answers” and “solutions” to how to organize Evernote.

Well, I guess I have good news and bad news for you. The good news: there is no “right” answer. The bad news: it generally takes trial and error to figure out what works best for you. Below I will outline the basics of notes, notebooks, notebook stack, and tags. This series isn’t necessarily focused on an in-depth “how to” but rather to give you some basic ideas and principles on using Evernote. If you are wanting some help getting started creating any of these I will provide a link at the end of each section for you. The videos at the end of the post are not meant to rehash the text of the post but to show you some additional tips pertaining to this topic.

Click here for a basic getting started guide

Notes

Notes are the most basic component of Evernote. These can store basically any type of information ranging from just typed text to image files to PDFs. This is where you will input all your information. For my purposes most of my notes are typed text. Evernote allows you to format the text as you would in a typical word processor (i.e. Microsoft Word, Apple Pages, etc.). This means you can bold, italicize, and underline your text. Create tables, bulleted lists, and enumerated lists. You can also hyperlink text to other notes and external websites. Basically any formatting you want to add to your text you are free to do so.

One of the great aspects about notes in Evernote is that you can have multiple files within the note in addition to text. For example, if you are reading an article you can screenshot a section of the article, add it to Evernote, and then add your commentary on the related section. See video below.

Personally, I tend to keep my notes very brief and have multiple notes within a notebook. I find this organizational strategy more effective when going back to review notes.

For help creating notes click here.

Notebooks

These are a collection of notes. There are two different types of notebooks: local and synchronized. If you want your notebooks available on multiple devices choose the default, synchronized notebook. A local notebook is only store on the machine it was created on and will not synchronize to other devices. You can have unlimited notes in a single notebook.

Notebook Stacks

Notebook stacks are groups of notebooks. The one caveat to notebook stacks is they can only go down one level. For example, if you have a notebook stack called Student you can have multiple notebooks in this stack but you can’t have notebooks within those notebooks. In a traditional file system you can have as many folders within a folder as you want but Evernote limits this to one level. I used to balk at this idea because I like the hierarchal structure of a file system and having many folders within a folder but I have found that Evernote’s solution is perfect for their system because it keeps your Evernote database clean and structured. With the powerful search features of Evernote you never have to worry about digging through an endless line of notebooks to get to a file.

Go here for a short tutorial on how to create Evernote Notebook Stacks

Tags

Tags are a way to group similar notes across notebooks. Unlike notebooks you can have multiple tags on a single note (Notes can only be in one notebook at a time). For example if you have a note about the history of interpretation of Matthew you could theoretically tag it with: history of interpretation, Matthew, Gospels and include it in your Biblical Studies Notebook. If you wanted to see all your notes on Matthew you can search for the Matthew tag and it will bring up all the notes tagged “Matthew” regardless of what notebook it is in.

If you are going to use tagging I suggest these three basic tips, which are by no means unique to me:

  1. Create a standardized tagging system. Decide before hand if you will use singular or plural tags. In the above example you may tag one note Gospel but another note Gospels. This ruins the purpose of tagging because now you have to search for two seperate tags for the same idea.
  2. Keep tags broad or for very specific purposes such as individual projects. I will address this more below.
  3. Don’t be afraid to review your tagging system and modify it later. Evernote makes it very easy to edit tags for multiple notes at once.

For some helpful tips on tagging see this post.

How I Use Tags and Notebooks

Using tags and notebooks may seem simple at first. The example I gave above with the note on the history of interpretation of Matthew seems great for a single use. But what if you have hundreds or thousands of notes with 3–4 tags each? This can be daunting and you will soon most likely lose track of what tags you have used. At one point I think I had upwards of 600 different tags in Evernote in a database around 1,000 notes. This means that my tags were either singular or plural for the same idea or too specific so I only had one note labeled with a certain tag.

A couple months ago I deleted all my tags and I am in the process of retagging my notes with a specific system. I now use many notebooks with fewer tags and specific tags. Most of my Evernote database consists of biblical studies related material so I have now created a biblical studies notebook with a more simple tagging scheme.

  • If a note pertains to one book I tag it with that book (i.e. Matthew)
  • Since sometimes my studies involve different sections of the bible I also broadly tag the grouping of that book (i.e. Matthew, Gospel). This way if I am doing research on the Gospels I can search the “Gospel” tag and see all my notes with Matthew-John in there for I can dig a little deeper and just look at notes on Matthew.
  • If a note is original language specific I either tag it with Greek or Hebrew. For example, if I have a note pertaining to grammar on Matthew I will tag it Greek, Matthew, and Gospel.
  • Finally, I use tags for specific projects. Instead of creating a seperate notebook for a project and moving my notes from one place to another I instead add a tag. For example, when I was working on a paper in my James class I just tagged everything pertaining to my research “James paper”

I don’t just have articles and notes related to biblical studies but in many other areas of theology as well. I haven’t come up with a specific tagging system yet for these types of notes so I am leaving them without tags. Evernote’s powerful search capabilities will help me find what I need regardless.

Conclusion

Well, there you have it. I hope this short post will help you get organized using Evernote. To sum up, I would recommend using many Notebooks with Notebook Stacks along with a few very specific tags. But there is no right or wrong way to organize Evernote. You may find that you work better by dumping everything into one notebook and using tags for organization or you may choose not to use tags at all. My only warning though is that if you use too many tags it does tend to get overwelming and ends up not being useful.

Additional Video Content:

  1. How I organize my notes (using an “Inbox” notebook and some Notebook naming schemes).
  2. Using Skitch to capture a screenshot of an article, adding it to Evernote, and then adding some commentary on the note.
  3. Quickly add tags to multiple notes, create a table of contents for a notebook, and how to move notes from one notebook to the next.

If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions please leave a comment below. I would love to interact with you and help with your Evernote organization.

Brian Renshaw is pursing a Masters of Divinity at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is currently a member of the Evangelical Theological Society, North American Patristics Society, and the Society of Biblical Literature. His research interests range from the Gospels, Catholic Epistles, history of interpretation, theological interpretation of Scripture, and discourse grammar. Regarding his involvement with the Center for Ancient Christian Studies, Brian serves as Director of Digital Production and is also on the editorial staff. Currently, he attends Sojourn East with his wife, Jen Renshaw. You can follow him on Twitter @renshaw330, he blogs at his personal website.