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How Evernote Changed the Way I Work as a Historian

How Evernote Changed the Way I Work as a Historian

Posted by Calum White on 06 Sep 2016

Posted by Calum White on 06 Sep 2016

Calum W. White is a historian studying for a DPhil in History at Balliol College, University of Oxford, England. Find more of Calum’s posts here.

I’m writing this blog post not because I think I’ve found the answer, but because I’ve said to people things like ‘Oh yeah, I started using Evernote and it’s brilliant’ without ever fully explaining why. I’m going to try and briefly outline how I use the program, and how it has impacted the way that I go about doing research as a historian.


Calum W. White

Evernote offers ways to organise files and information and provides an easily navigable GUI (graphical user interface) for your documents. One of the things that attracted me to it the most is that it allowed me to seamlessly move between documents in folders without losing sight of the original directory. This is especially handy if you’re looking for something that you know exists but don’t know exactly where you put it, or what you called the file. Everything is organised into ‘notes,’ which are best thought of as a catch-all term for a file. A note can be just text, images, a PDF, and it can be a sound file. All of these can be sorted and accessed as notes. These notes are stored in notebooks, which are the same as folders. You can see my interface below.


As you can see, the main notebooks are on the left, the list of the notes is in the next column, and the note itself is on the right. In this case, it’s my master list of files and descriptions, all of which have checkboxes next to them. I tick the checkbox once I have received and viewed the document. All of those correspond to a file on the left, where I can view the original.

Why is it good for archival work?

You’re probably pretty happy with how things are laid out in your archive note system. That’s fine. What Evernote does very well, however, is collect material very quickly and easily. You need to have a smartphone, and it needs to be capable of taking the photos at a decent enough quality to use the source. Download the app. On Android, you can put the widget on your phone’s desktop. Now it’s possible to take the photos directly and save them to the place they’re supposed to go.

Let’s pretend that Adrian Gregory’s The Silence of Memory is one of the documents I want to archive, and I want to quickly photograph it in full.

Open the app, click the ‘+’, and choose ‘Camera.’ Or, if you have an Android phone, as I do,  go to the widget and click the camera button. It will bring up the interface. shown below.

I recommend clicking the top right and putting it in Manual mode for archiving purposes. Take as many photos as you like, and watch the timeline in the bottom get populated.  If the document is really big, I split it up into parts every 70 or 80 pages or so. If you think the image was blurry or missed out something, take another – it’s very easy to delete them from the document later.

Now, click on the green tick and it’ll create your note. Write the name, and select the notebook to save it. It will then save the document there and, if you have internet access on your phone, upload it to Evernote. Automatically backed up – hurray!

A quick scan and a refresh, and it’s on my computer in case I need it. Double click the files and they will maximise to full screen, and even put it in a slideshow mode.

Evernote doesn’t simply let you capture and accurately save documents, however. In addition, it will make all the text automatically searchable (using the top right box). You can add tags to the document, but this isn’t essential.

That’s how I use it for archives. It’s changed how I capture data – instead of spending hours arranging images into PDF files, I do it all in Evernote and by the time I get home, everything is already done, synced, and ready to view. It’s also changed how I can access that data.

The search functions are incredibly helpful for finding quotations in a hurry, or finding that reference you forgot to footnote.

I’ve also used it as my primary PDF viewer. I uploaded every journal article I have to another notebook. and I view it within Evernote. With Evernote Premium, PDFs are also searchable, and you can annotate PDFs on your laptop or tablet and the annotations will sync. Also, Evernote will recap any annotations you’ve made on the files at the top of the document in an annotation summary.


Can I use it for other things?

I clip and send things to Evernote from the web all the time. Download Evernote’s Web Clipper for your browsers. For anything on your phone, click ‘Share’ and ‘Send to Evernote’ and it will store the entire page for you automatically to sort through later. If I see a CfP (call for papers) on Twitter, I send it to Evernote and find it later.

Similarly, if there’s a conversation with someone about work and they have a name or a reference or two, I quickly open up the document on my widget and write it down and look it up later. This has helped me to keep all those things I otherwise wrote on scraps of paper or the backs of envelopes in one place (and again, searchable).

For those of you who take notes in seminars. I experimented with typing my notes down directly in Evernote, but I felt self-conscious of the noise the laptop made as I tapped the keyboard. Also, I tend to think about things differently when using a pen and paper. However, once I’ve been to a seminar or handwritten a plan, I take a picture of it and send it to Evernote, and this gives me all the benefits of being able to find it again quickly, pick up things in searches, and back it all up instantly. Here’s the plan of this post below, for example.


If you’ve already worked for hours in archives and have folders full of PDF files of documents already, that’s fine – I did too. Simply upload them to Evernote and make them searchable.


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8 Comments RSS

  • Jim Riggs

    I’m an iOS user and not too well versed in Android, but wouldn’t your photos look much better if you shot these as Documents instead of just photos? Evernote and Scannable do a fantastic job of converting photos of docs to PDF’s that look like you photocopied the page. It’s awesome!

  • mystrangeworld

    dear mr white, thank you for sharing this information. Did you ever consider also using tags? It will make your life even easier as you may add further context to your notes e.g. a tag with the yera, month, place, topics, authors, status completed/open. I noticed you used check boxes, you may also consider using Swipes with Evernote in order to have another view and management of your open checkboxes.
    You may check out the Evernote community or Certified Consultants for additional hints.


    • mystrangeworld

      or the Evernote Forum.

  • J.

    He’s not an historian. He’s a graduate student working towards his doctorate. I hate title inflation.

    Some of his ideas were interesting, but a book scanner, which any university library would have, is easier for copying and uploading page images. I could not read information in the image that accompanied the first paragraph.

  • Valetta Anderson

    I’m a playwright of historically based and infused plays and use Evernote when away from my PC. However, when I return to my PC I transfer my webclipping, photos, soundfiles, et al to Zotero to easily cite as needed into my scripts and presentations. Does Evernote have plans to add this citation feature in the future?

    • prosen

      Valetta, Like all high tech companies, we’re unfortunately not able to share our product roadmap. You might be able to get some help with the citations by sending a Tweet to @evernotehelps. One of our really great customer service support reps will be happy to work with you. -Pam R

  • Kaliunis Fernandez

    Thank you for sharing a very clear experience with Evernote.

    There were ways of using Evernote in your account I will enrich my own method with.

  • Colin

    He should really be using scannable for Evernote instead of snapping images. The quality and readability would be much better