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Copyright 2006, 2011 by Dr. Jim Jones
of West Chester University

Go to the HIS480 Syllabus or Assignments.

The title of this lesson refers to creating "notecards" but in fact you will actually create a database of notecards. That is less difficult than it sounds, however, because the purpose of this lesson is to show how to take a collection of notes and give them a structure that will help you retrieve information and make sense out of it.

You can't give your information a structure until you've got some information to work with, so your first step is to collect notes and get them into the computer. For any number of reasons, this is not a leisurely activity -- you may have expenses to pay for each day spent doing research or, as is more likely in the case of HIS480 and other courses at WCU, you have to assemble data early in the semester so that you have enough time to write a good research paper by the end of the semester. No matter what the reason, you should learn to work quickly and efficiently when taking notes and typing them into your computer. For some suggestions on how to do this, read the essays on Taking Notes with a Computer or Taking Notes from Newspapers.

Once you have accumulated a quantity of notes (preferably from both primary and secondary sources), you should start looking for patterns. One way to do this is to imitate the approach of pre-computer historians who copied all of their notes onto 3x5 cards so they could divide them into files by subject and sort them chronologically. In another lesson, we'll learn how to use those files to write a research paper.

In the old days (before computers) historians took notes on paper and organized them on sheets of paper using systems that varied from one person to the next. When they felt they had enough information to start writing, they created an outline of the major points of their argument, recopied information from their notes onto 3x5 file cards, and sorted those cards into piles that corresponded to the points of their argument. They they sorted each pile into some sort of logical order -- usually chronological -- and started writing.


Notecard: the computerized equivalent of a 3x5 card which contains a single historical fact or group of related facts, plus their source, date and keyword. [NOTE: Keywords are derived from your historical question and the outline of your argument. See Historical Modeling]

Notecard file: is a single word-processing document that contains a group of related notecards organized according to some theme. All of the notecards in a single notecard file will have at least one keyword in common. [NOTE: Each individual notecard can have several keywords, and therefore appear in more than one notecard file.]

The same process still works in the computer age. In fact, computers make some of the steps a lot easier, since they provide programs that can check spelling, make copies and sort information. The end result is still the same: files of computer "notecards" organized by topic and sorted into chronological order.
To the right is an example of a single notecard, with all of the formatting codes that would normally be invisible shown in green. It begins with a PAGE-BREAK, but it could begin with anything that does not appear elsewhere in the notecard. It does not matter what you use to end the notecard because, once you combine them into a notecard file, the PAGE-BREAK that begins one notecard will also end the notecard immediately ahead of it.

The top line contains the date of the fact. The second line contains keywords that show the card belongs in notecard files on diplomacy, military matters and economics. Both of them end with a HARD-RETURN which you create by using the "Enter" key on your keyboard. The next "line" contains the bibliographic reference, but it is long enough that it appears to take up two lines in the notecard. It also ends with a HARD-RETURN.

The fourth line is blank -- it is there to make the notecard easier to read. The fact begins on the fifth line and takes up as many lines as are needed to convey all of the content. Finally, the notecard ends with another blank line created with a final HARD-RETURN.

---------------------- PAGE-BREAK ----------------------
[Line 1]1945/07/17-08/02[HARD-RETURN]
[Line 2].dip.mil.eco.[HARD-RETURN]
[Line 3]Charles L. Mee, Jr., Meeting at Potsdam (New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1975), 11.[HARD-RETURN]
[Line 4] [HARD-RETURN]
[Line 5] The Potsdam Conference met near Berlin in the summer of 1945 from July 17 to August 2. The goal of the participants was "to reconstruct the world out of the ruins left by the Second World War." [HARD-RETURN]
The three leaders -- Winston Churchill (UK), Franklin D. Roosevelt (USA) and Josef Stalin (USSR) -- had divergent interests at the Potsdam conference. Churchill's main interest was to play off the Americans against the Russians in order to restore Britain's power. Roosevelt wanted to protect American gains, but at the same time, reduce sources of future conflict. Stalin wanted compensation for Soviet losses and protection against any more invasions of Russia. [HARD- RETURN]
Note that dates are typed in reverse order -- year/month/day, or more precisely YYYY/MM/DD -- a four-digit year followed by a slash, a two-digit month, another slash and finally a two-digit day. Although it looks unusual, this format makes it easy to use the computer to sort the notecards into chronological order. Note also that the keywords--for example, ".dip." for diplomacy-- include periods used in such a way that there is no chance they will appear eslewhere in the notecard. That means the computer can search for .dip. and find all of the notecards in a file that deal with diplomacy, without coming up with notecards that refer to "dipping snuff" or "taking a dip in the pool."

Now suppose you've got notes on a book or article similar to those taken from Studs Terkel's Hard Times. They contain a lot of historical facts, although they also contain a lot of things that aren't facts. In order to convert them into notecards, you need to follow these steps in precise order.

  1. Fix errors in your notes.
  2. Divide your notes into notecards and add empty lines at the top to provide room for the date, subject keywords and source.
  3. Discard anything that does not contain a historical fact.
  4. Add dates and keywords to the first two lines of each notecard.
  5. Insert the bibliographic information on the third line of each notecard.


First, get rid of as many errors as you can. This is extremely important because by the time you are finished, you will need to make copies of your notecards. It is easier to get rid of errors in one card now, than it is to track down all of the copies and correct each one.

Read through your notes and check for spelling, grammar or punctuation errors. Replace unusual abbreviations with the full spelling (not necessary for "Ave." but necessary for something like "UNIFIL," which stands for "United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon"). If you find a pronoun like "it," "they," or "he/she" which refer to a subject earlier in your notes, replace the pronoun with the precise noun so that each sentence is understandable on its own. Remember the exception however: anything which you quoted directly from the source must remain unchanged. In that case, add any necessary explanations of terms, pronouns or abbreviations by placing it in parentheses after the quotation. For example:

Upland court had jurisdiction "provisonally from the east and west banks of the Kristina kill upwards unto the head of the river." (i.e the Delware River. "Kristina kill" refers to the modern Christina River.)

Finally, make sure each sentence contains its own date, or if not, place the most accurate date that you can in parentheses at the end of the sentence. When you are satisfied that you have eliminated as many errors an ambiguities as possible, save your file.


Before you do anything else, save your document under a new name, such as NOTES, so that your original notes will remain unchanged. You won't keep the NOTES file for long, but this way, if something goes wrong during any of these steps, instead of starting over at the beginning, you can retrieve NOTES and try the last step again. After each step completes successfully, save your document again as NOTES2 before starting the next step. Then continue saving it after each step as NOTES3, NOTES4, etc. until you've completed the creation of notecards. That way, if something goes wrong, you can go back to the previous version and try it again. After you're satisfied with the results, you can delete but the last of your NOTESx files.

Starting at the top of your notes, keep the bibliographic material but delete the table of contents, summary and anything else at the beginning of your notes that does not contain historical facts. Leave a PAGE-BREAK after the bibliographic material to begin your first notecard.

Next, put a PAGE-BREAK followed by four HARD-RETURNs (for the date, keywords, source and a blank line) just above each historical fact in your notes. If you were careful to separate historical facts with a blank line when you took your notes, you can this quickly by using SEARCH-AND-REPLACE to replace HARD-RETURN HARD- RETURN with PAGE-BREAK HARD-RETURN HARD-RETURN HARD-RETURN HARD- RETURN throughout the entire file. [Note: If you use Microsoft Word as your word-processor, use ^p to represent HARD-RETURN and ^m to represent PAGE-BREAK.

By the time you are done, your notes should look like the notecards to the right (from Terkel's Hard Times, page 20), and your original notes, which started out as 30-40 pages, will be broken into several hundred short pages.


Note: You should perform the next two operations -- removing non-facts and adding dates and keywords -- at the same time, since both require you to look through the entire file.

---------- HARD-PAGE - ---------

The date goes here
Keywords go here
The bibliographic reference goes here

p20 "We thought American business was the Rock of Gibraltar. We were the prosperous nation, and nothing could stop us now. A brownstone house was forever. You gave it to your kids and they put marble fronts on it. There was a feeling of continuity. If you made it, it was there forever. Suddenly the big dream exploded. The impact was unbelievable." (E. Y. "Yip" Harburg, October 1929)

---------- HARD-PAGE ---- ------

p20 "I was walking along the street at that time, and you'd see the bread lines. The biggest one in New York City was owned by William Randolph Hearst. He had a big truck with several people on it, and big cauldrons of hot soup, bread. Fellows with burlap on their shoes were lined up all around Columbus Circle, and went for blocks and blocks around the park, waiting." (E. Y. "Yip" Harburg, 1931)

---------- HARD-PAGE ---- ------

p20 "There was a skit in one of the first shows I did, Americana. This was 1930. In the sketch, Mrs. Ogden Reid of the Herald Tribune was very jealous of Hearst's beautiful bread line. It was bigger than her bread line. It was a satiric, volatile show. We needed a song for it." (E. Y. "Yip.") Harburg, 1930)


Start at the top and look at each notecard to determine whether it contains 1) a single historical fact, 2) a group of related historical facts, or 3) no facts at all.

If a notecard contains a historical fact, you should be able to identify a date, place, human actor and activity. In that case, type in the date (in year-month-day order) on the first line and one or more keywords on the second line. (Leave the third line -- the source - - blank for now.) If a notecard contains multiple facts, then you must decide if they are all related and if there is any possibility that they should be filed under different topics. If they all occurred at or near the same time, add the date and as many keywords as necessary. If they are not related, or if they occurred at very different times, make as many copies of the notecard as you need and date/keyword each one separately.

If the notecard contains non-factual material, such as a heading from the Table-of-Contents, the author's opinion, a discussion of theory or other material that is irrelevant to your reseach question, remove it. Don't worry -- you still have your original notes (see the last instruction in step 1, above) so if you discover later that you made a mistake, you can awalys retrieve the discarded information.


On the top line, write the date in YYYY/MM/DD format. If you don't know the exact date, include as much information as you can. For instance, if your notes say something like: "in early November 1932 ..." you should include everything about which you are certain, and indicate what is not certain. In this case, you are certain about 1932/11 and you can add either ?? or "early" to procude something like "1932/11/??" or "1932/11/early." When, if your research yields something more accurate, you will be able to make the date more precise.