Whether you're writing your first biography or your tenth, a simple yet flexible filing system can make storing and accessing information simpler, help you remember things, and generally make writing a book a lot easier. This post is the first of two about setting up a computer filing system for primary research in a biography. Or, as the Borg Queen on Star Trek might say, it's about bringing order to chaos.
One caveat: My system is designed to accommodate research for my own book, SARA AND ERSKINE, AN AMERICAN ROMANCE, which draws heavily on letters and oral histories (as opposed to, say, interviews or secondary literature). Since my needs may differ from yours, you may want to look at my introductory post on what a good filing system does, whether online or in hard copy. Or better yet, check out the specific tips for setting up a filing system in ELEPHANT STALKERS ARE ORGANIZED, PART 2.
Another caveat: I use Microsoft Word for all my online folders and data files. You may decide that you prefer any of several software applications designed specifically for writers who need to organize and easily retrieve research. Whatever software you choose, make sure that it's designed to let you store and retrieve information quickly and efficiently, including (and especially) in the heat of writing. Because whatever else it does, that's what a good filing system should do.
Definitions first: The term "primary research" can have different meanings depending on your line of work. For the purposes of this discussion, I'm using it in the conventional sense, meaning examining the primary sources that originate either with my subject or with someone associated with her--original documents that I read and annotate in an archive or a library, including letters and unpublished or published writings; recordings; photographs; even date books, passports, etc. On the other hand, I use the term secondary research to mean, essentially, "background information." I'll explain more in a post discussing how I file this kind of information.
Let's start with my primary research folder icons, illustrated in Fig. 1, a screen shot of that window on my desktop. (Click on the image to enlarge it.) I have a Mac, but the view on a Windows desktop is pretty much the same.
The principles on which I organize primary research folders (and files) are actually very simple. Here they are, all two of them:
1. With some exceptions, I try arrange primary folders chronologically rather than by topic. That is, I set them up either by year or by time period, and in chronological order, not according to their subject. I do this because that's how I'm telling Sara's story—chronologically. (In my next post, you'll see that I generally organize the actual files on the same principle.)
Fig. 1 shows the folder path to all the primary folders I've set up. The path starts in Column 1 with the "top" folder (named "Dona's Stuff" here), while Column 4 shows the full list of my primary research folders containing files full of notes and annotations of primary sources. Because I'm relying heavily on the information in thousands of letters, I've named most of these folders for the period of correspondence they cover: "0-1910," "1911," and so on.
The advantages of organizing primary research chronologically: First, it gives me a simple, more or less fool-proof way to know where to put the information I've unearthed after a long day in the archives or the library. Second, having most of my primary folders arranged as though they were a timeline helps a lot with retrieval, since I've discovered that anything my subjects said or discussed much easier to search for if I know roughly when they're likely to have said it. "When" feels more natural to me and works better for my particular purposes than "topic" or "theme" as an organizing tool because the unfolding of Sara's story and her relationship with Erskine is integral to the way I'm writing the book. Someone else might organize their filing system along lines that work better for that project.
2. I try to name my hard-copy files in a way that mirrors my online filing system as closely as possible.
The primary sources for Sara's story are thousands of letters and a 600-plus page oral history. This means that much of the material I need comes in the form of photocopies and printouts of digital files. Having so much hard copy makes it necessary to have two separate but closely coordinated filing systems, one for the digital data and one for the hard copy.
I'll discuss filing hard copy at a later date. However, I'd like to say here that it's crucial for the two systems resemble each other as closely as possible. Otherwise, trust me, you'll lose things, or at least spend hours bouncing back and forth between the two, wondering which online folder or desk drawer or file you put something in. For example, wherever I can do so, I give manila folders in my file drawers, where I keep some primary research printouts, the same names as their digital equivalents.
In my next post, AN EASY PATH TO YOUR FILES, I'll talk about setting up individual files within a folder.