- Oct 2022
Goutor, Jacques. The Card-File System of Note-Taking. Approaching Ontario’s Past 3. Toronto: Ontario Historical Society, 1980. http://archive.org/details/cardfilesystemof0000gout
...the historian is only as good as his card-file.<br /> —Jacques Goutor, (p360
Goutor doesn't specifically cover the process, but ostensibly after one has categorized content notes, they are filed together in one's box under that heading. (p34) As a result, there is no specific indexing or cross-indexing of cards or ideas which might be filed under multiple headings. In fact, he doesn't approach the idea of filing under multiple headings at all, while authors like Heyde (1931) obsess over it. Goutor's method also presumes that the creation of some of the subject headings is to be done in the planning stages of the project, though in practice some may arise as one works. This process is more similar to that seen in Robert Greene's commonplacing method using index cards.
...the usefulness of a note-taking system has an ultimate limit beyond which it becomes self-defeating. [...] After all, the ultimate purpose of the exercise is not to produce beautiful notes displaying the researcher's technical prowess, but rather usable notes to build the mosaic.<br /> —Jacques Goutor (p33)
Unlike many note taking manuals, Goutor advises that within the small list of rules and standards which he's laid out, one should otherwise default to maximizing the comfort of their note taking system. This may be as small as using one's favorite writing instruments or inks. (p28)
It's nice to see him centering self-care and small things which contribute to the researchers' mental health within note taking design and user interface.
The design of Goutor's note taking method is such that each note should have "a life of its own, so that it can stand independently of every other one in the file." (p28) This concept is broadly similar to the ideas of both atomic notes and evergreen notes in related contexts.
Goutor says that a note's life stems from its identity by means of its bibliographic source, its unique content, and its ultimate purpose. Here he uses the singular "purpose" and doesn't explicitly use "purposes" thereby indicating that an individual note can have multiple potential lives in different places within one's lifetime of work. It seems most likely that he may not have thought of using ideas in multiple different locations, but again, his particular audience (see: https://hypothes.is/a/8jKcTkNPEe2sCntTfNWf2Q) may have also dictated this choice. One could argue that it would have been quite easy for him to have used the plural to suggest the idea simply and tangentially, but that his use of the singular here is specifically because the idea wasn't part of his note taking worldview.
Goutor defines self-help notes as notes which one would use to refresh their memory about what remains to be done or researched, problems that remain to be solved, or information which is needed to be researched or found. (p26) These are akin in some sense to what I call "open questions". He also indicates that these notes might be triggered by one's daily activities or occasional musings which relate to one's project but occur outside of its active pursuit. In this sense, they have a similar feel to the idea of Ahrens' fleeting notes, but in Goutor's practice they aren't defined as occurring while one is doing active reading or research.
He suggests that one keeps these notes in a separate area so that they might be systematically and regularly visited for review, further research, or answering as the opportunities to do so present themselves. Once the questions have been answered and appropriate notes updated or added, these self-help notes can be discarded.
Goutor acknowledges that there are a variety of note types, but focuses on bibliographic notes, content notes, and self-help notes as being the most common and most important. (p12)
These first two are broadly self-explanatory, but the third should be intriguing given the other literature in which this type is rarely, if ever, used. We'll see what comes of it...
Perhaps in large part because of his narrow local audience of amateur historians, Goutor's detailing of note taking method included several pages on early research preparation before taking any notes at all. Some of this was to ensure that extant potential materials for one's subject actually existed, in cases where a researcher might run into issues of availability. It also took into account the public audiences they might be serving and what those audiences would expect in terms of level of detail, resources, photos, maps, charts, etc. (p 9-11)
This is in marked contrast with the broader audiences of writers like Eco and Ahrens who presumed either extended research needs for either masters or Ph.D. theses, or, in Ahrens' case, life long researchers at universities or journalists, though Eco did make a nod in this direction at the end of his work. With a broader area of applicability, one's collection of notes might also help to guide their particular interests into a variety of tangential or related areas. Goutor either didn't see this longer term value, or curtailed his efforts here because of the scope of his audience.
There is a difference between various modes of note taking and their ultimate outcomes. Some is done for learning about an area and absorbing it into one's own source of general knowledge. Others are done to collect and generate new sorts of knowledge. But some may be done for raw data collection and analysis. Beatrice Webb called this "scientific note taking".
Historian Jacques Goutor talks about research preparation for this sort of data collecting and analysis though he doesn't give it a particular name. He recommends reading papers in related areas to prepare for the sort of data acquisition one may likely require so that one can plan out some of one's needs in advance. This will allow the researcher, especially in areas like history or sociology, the ability to preplan some of the sorts of data and notes they'll need to take from their historical sources or subjects in order to carry out their planned goals. (p8)
C. Wright Mills mentions (On Intellectual Craftsmanship, 1952) similar research planning whereby he writes out potential longer research methods even when he is not able to spend the time, effort, energy, or other (financial) resources to carry out such plans. He felt that just the thought experiments and exercise of doing such unfulfilled research often bore fruit in his other sociological endeavors.
Much like Gerald Weinberg's fieldstone metaphor for note taking and writing, Jacques Goutor frames the process as creating a mosaic of information "fit [...] into meaningful patterns" whether they be narratives, charts, or other forms.
- research planning
- note taking
- user interface
- self-help notes
- Heyde's zettelkasten method
- subject headings
- manuals on note taking
- fleeting ideas
- card index as productivity system
- atomic notes
- note reuse
- life of x
- On Intellectual Craftsmanship
- Robert Greene
- fleeting notes
- card index as database
- C. Wright Mills
- research methods
- Umberto Eco
- physical reminders
- note taking advice
- evergreen notes
- mental health
- types of notes
- Sönke Ahrens
- note taking why
- note taking affordances
- scientific note taking
- Fieldstone method
- note taking methods
- card index
- diffuse thinking
- Jacques Goutor
- open questions
- Beatrice Webb
- Gerald Weinberg