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Copyright 2004, 2006, 2011 by Dr. Jim Jones
of West Chester University

Go to the syllabus.

When you take notes from a book or other document (henceforth: "document") for historical research, you should have several goals in mind:
  1. Understand the content
  2. Produce a summary of the content that can also serve as an index to the original work
  3. Be as accurate as possible

Goal 1: Understand the Content

You have been learning how to understand what you read since elementary school, and as a university student, you are expected to display a high level of skill. Your vocabulary should be above average for the general population, and you are expected to use a dictionary to look up words that you do not know, including foreign words such as coup d'état or Apartheid.

History writing is a specialized form of writing. To complete this course successfully, you will need to read academic books and articles, understand them, and produce detailed notes from which you can extract historical facts and which you can share with other scholars. The purpose of this lesson is to teach how to "process" a history book or article by extracting its structure and key points, and putting them into a form that is easy to search and share.

The Ideal Book: When you first learned how to write a composition in English class, you were taught to begin every paragraph with a topic sentence. By extending that idea, every chapter in a book should begin with a summary (and end with a conclusion), while every complete book should open with an introduction to the topic of the book and end with a conclusion. Finally, each chapter should have a title that explains clearly what it contains.

All history books do this to a greater or lesser extent. The introduction explains the historical question that the author hopes to answer and ends with a conclusion that summarizes the author's argument: i.e. how the author arrived at an answer to the question described in the introduction. The intervening chapters present the evidence that the author found in an order that supports the author's argument. Here is a hypothetical (and deliberately nonsensical) outline for a book about the Cold War:

Introduction: What caused the Cold War?

[NOTE: The introduction should also explain why the question is worth asking, and it may even include an outline of the following chapters, explaining why each is necessary for the author's argument.] 1. What was the Cold War?
2. How did business and technology change just before the Cold War?
3. How did the changes in chapter 2 bring on the Cold War?
4. Why were changes in popular music the most important of the changes described in chapter 3?
5. Why was the mass-marketing of rock-n-roll the most important of the changes in popular music?
Conclusion: Rock-n-roll caused the Cold War.
Bibliography: Sources for the material in chapters 2-5.

If every historian wrote that way, then your reading assignments would be easy. All you would need to do is read the introduction and the conclusion of a history book. Then, if any part of the author's argument was still unclear, you could use the table of contents to find the relevant chapter(s), and then search each paragraph in the chapter(s) until you found topic sentences that relate to your question. By reading that paragraph and others that follow, you could fill in the holes in your understanding of the author's argument.

Unfortunately, not everybody writes that way (although you should endeavor to do so when you create your final project for this course). If you find a book that is not well-organized, you will have to work harder to find all of the parts described above.

Goal 2: Summarize the Material

Read the introduction and conclusion first to get an overview of the book's content. In general, unless you are reading about a new topic for the very first time, your notes on the introduction and the conclusion of a book will be the most important that you take. If you are reading about a new topic for the first time, you should take a lot of notes from the middle parts of the book in order to get basic facts on the subject into your computer. For instance, if you are reading about computer technology because you want to know how the "space race" affected the Cold War, you should probably record more than just the names and dates of various inventions. You may also need to record information about the cost of new technology, and stages in miniaturization and reliability which made it useful in more places. You might also record information about business cycles, privacy legislation and consumer demand, all of which affected the computer industry, its profitability, and the rate at which it embraced new technology. Depending on your interest and the content of the book, you might also take notes on the availability of credit, the effect of the Vietnam War and changes in international trade -- all of which affected whether people kept their jobs and how their jobs changed.

After you have read the introduction and conclusion of your book, read each chapter the same way. Look at the beginning and end to see what the author has tried to cover in each chapter. If the author has not already provided the plan of the book in the introduction, look in the first few paragraphs of the chapter. As you read each chapter, look for topics covered within the chapter. Sometimes, headings and subheadings simplify this task, but otherwise you have to read the chapter's content and decide for yourself which paragraphs introduce subtopics, which contain explanations of those subtopics, and which are simply there to provide smooth transitions between ideas. Periodically, stop and think about how what you are reading fits in with the book's conclusion. When you can do this for everything in the book, it's a fairly good bet that you understand the entire book.

How to take notes from a book

In reality, unless you have plenty of time, you will probably take your notes at the same time that you read your book. [NOTE: If you have enough time, reading a book once and then rereading it to take notes almost always guarantees better notes and more efficient note-taking.] Here are some suggestions on how to take notes more effectively.

Be selective. In an effort to take good notes, some people take too many notes -- they try to record everything that is unfamiliar or might be of interest. If this was a good way to take notes, then it would make sense to just scan the entire document into your computer (or transcribe it, if the original was handwritten) and use that instead of notes. This is NOT a good way to take notes, however, because it does not help you figure out what the document contains. Instead, it takes a combination of 1) reading, 2) deciding what is important, 3) restating it in your own words, and 4) typing it into your notes, to enable you to make use of what you read.

So what is the right balance between too few and too many notes? You've taken enough notes when you've 1) recorded everything that might be useful in answering your historical question, and 2) created a document that will enable you to go back to the original document and read more, if later on you discover that you didn't take enough notes in the first place. Finally, your notes should also contain enough information to enable you to write accurate reference notes for anything that you incorporate in your research paper. That means they must include the author, title, facts of publication and page numbers for everything you've recorded.

In many ways, your notes will be similar to the book's index, only instead of containing a list of words and the number of pages where they can be found, it will contain a list of sentences that describe portions of the content and the page numbers where that content can be found. Depending on what you are used to, this may seem incredibly tedious, and it would not be worthwhile except for one fact -- all of this will be in a form that can be searched using computer software. Using programs, like the "Search" function that appears after you click on "Start" in a Windows computer to find the correct file, and then the "Edit- Find" feature of a word processor like Microsoft Word to search through specific documents, you can locate notes on anthing within a matter of minutes. If your computer contains only one note file, then the timesavings will be small. But if you keep this up for a few years, adding notes on your own or sharing notes with other scholars, eventually you will have enough note files to make it worth searching with the computer. From that point on, all of this extra effort will more than pay for itself.

Start by typing information about the document in the same format that you would use in a reference note. Then type the number of pages in the book and the location of the book (in your personal collection, borrowed from so-and-so, the library name and call number, etc.) For example, in the notes to Thomas Thompson's biography of local musician Chris Sanderson (Chris, the first lines contain a ready-made reference note plus information on where to find the book again if you need it. The same is true for the notes to Studs Terkel's book, Hard Times.

The next step is to type the table of contents including chapter headings and page numbers. Although some of this effort may seem wasted, it is part of creating your own personal index to the original document. It will also pay off in the next step, when you make a copy of the table of contents to use as a framework for all of the rest of your notes. NOTE: This is the first of many places where Goal 3: "Accuracy" is important. Every time you copy something, you double the number of errors you'll have to correct some day. Spelling errors look bad, but factual errors (a wrong date, for example) can lead to bad history).

The last step is copy the table of contents and then begin typing your notes on the content of each chapter. Read each paragraph, identify its topic, and record that topic in a single sentence. In this way, you can reduce each paragraph to a sentence, each chapter to a list of sentences (organized into paragraphs in your notes, if appropriate), and the entire book to a collection of sets of paragraphs.

As you type your notes, remember to record the page on which the original material appears. When a paragraph carries over from one page to the next, make a note of that as well. Otherwise, be prepared to go back to the original for page numbers so you can write complete and accurate reference notes in your final paper.

Some tips

As you type, save some time by using abbreviations for long words and phrases. For instance, I abbreviate "Phoenixville" as px when I type my notes and then afterwards, use my word processor's Find-and-Replace function to change "px" to Phoenixville everywhere in my notes. Be careful, however, to use abbreviations that will not show up anywhere else in your notes. If I used "pho" as an abbreviation for Phoenixville instead of "px," when I expand it to Phoenixville I will also change "telephone" into "telePhoenixvillene" and "Phoenician" to "Phoenixvilleenician." Stick to abbreviations that did not appear in English words, like triple letters -- "zzz" is my favorite.

Since you can use software to search through your notes, include keywords to indicate topics when they don't appear on their own in the original book. For instance, in the notes on Thompson's book, on page 34 there is a reference to the cost of a telephone call from "Mike's" to West Chester. I added the phrase "somewhere in Mont Clare or Phoenixville" to remind myself where Mike's was located. In Terkel's book on the notes for page 39, the keywords "deserving poor" provide a pointer to a relevant quotation that does not contain that exact phrase.

The first time you do this, the process will seem slow. To speed things up, resist the urge to read everything in every paragraph. Focus instead on locating topic sentences and putting them in your notes. If you do this properly, you'll find somthing odd -- you'll understand less of what you're reading at the time that you read it, but when you go back over your notes, you'll understand the original document more thoroughly than if you simply read it from beginning to end.

Try to limit your notetaking to material that is factual --i.e. it includes an actor, an action, a time and a place. If you record an opinion, label it as such and identify to whom it belongs (i.e.: "the author believes ..." or "Bismark thought ..."), but remember: your main goal is not to reproduce other people's opinions, but to reach your own conclusions based on all of the facts you can find.

Avoid the use of indefinite pronouns that refer to a subject elsewhere in the document. For instance, a statement in your notes like "it was all they needed to win the election" may be unintelligible years later unless you can figure out who "they" were and what "it" was that proved so decisive. Instead, write "The donations from the tobacco companies were all that Senator So-and-so needed to win the election."

Write your notes in complete sentences. That will reduce the amount of rewriting needed to use them later on in a research paper.

Goal 3: Accuracy

Make your notes as accurate as possible. This cannot be stressed too much -- that's why it appears in red. You will probably cut and paste from your notes in the future, so any errors will be reproduced as well. Be especially careful with proper names, because your spell-checker cannot tell which of these is correct: Middletown, Middleton, or Midleton. By the same logic, if you type an exact quotation into your notes, be careful not to alter punctuation, verb tense, or anything else. Even if the original quotation has punctuation or grammatical errors, you must copy it exactly if you want to enclose it in quotation marks.

When you type a quotation into your notes, you may find that it contains more than you need or you may want to replace an indefinite pronoun with something that is clearer. In those cases, use brackets to add words that were not in the original quotation, and three dots to show where you omitted words. For example, the following quotation from Herodotus was altered to make it more readable without sacrificing accuracy.

Original text: "According to the Persians best informed in history, the Phoenicians began to quarrel. This people, who had formerly dwelt on the shores of the Erythraean Sea, having migrated to the Mediterranean and settled in the parts which they now inhabit, began at once, they say, to adventure on long voyages, freighting their vessels with the wares of Egypt and Assyria."

Edited quotation: "According to the Persians ... the Phoenicians began to quarrel. This people ... migrated to the Mediterranean and ... [made] long voyages, freighting their vessels with the wares of Egypt and Assyria."

Double-check (and triple-check) the bibliographic information to make sure that it is complete and accurate. Otherwise, you may have to go back and consult the original document again. If the book is located in West Chester, it is less tragic because you go back and look it up. But if you take notes on a document located further away -- say, Swarthmore College library -- or get them from a book that came by interlibrary loan, it will be much more difficult.

According to the Chicago Manual of Style, the standard for historians, in most cases a complete bibliographic reference for a book will contain the following items:

Complete name of the author(s) or the organization that produced the book, if the author is not named
Full title of the book, including subtitle
Editor, compiler, or translater (if applicable)
Edition (if not the first edition)
City of publication
Date of publication

In the following example, which shows how to punctuate a biliographic reference note, pay close attention to the punctuation (colored red) that separates each of the items on the above list. Keep in mind that the colon (:) in the title was placed there by the author, not by the requirements of the Chicago Manual of Style.

Thomas Thompson, Chris: A Biography of Christian C. Sanderson ( Philadelphia, PA: Dorrance & Company, 1973).

For a magazine or journal article, record: the author's full name, "the title of the article" in name of magazine or journal (in italics), volume and/or issue number (date of publication), page range in the issue.

James A. Jones, "Fact and Fiction in God's Bits of Wood" in Research in African Literatures, vol. 31, no. 2 (Summer 2000), 117-131.

For additional information on how to write an complete bibliographic reference, see Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations , 5th edition (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1982), 111-174, or The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th edition (London & Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993). Both should be available at the West Chester University library. (If you find a newer edition, feel free to use it.)

Go to the syllabus.