[Here is an updated version of this post.]
I often write about things I don’t like or think are hyped (at least in regards to library usefulness). My instinctive antipathy to the library equivalent of what someone recently termed the “breathless bullshit industry,” and the sheer amount of that breathless bullshit, means that I’m more often in critique mode than celebration mode. On the other hand, there are products and services more or less directly related to library research that I like, that I use, and that I heartily recommend to any faculty or students who might be interested. I’ve even started what I hope will be an annual presentation to faculty and students in my liaison areas about such research tools for scholars. The best way to know what tools are good and useful is to use them, so I’m going to discuss what tools I use and why to organize my research life. I definitely recommend you try them if you haven’t.
First is the LibX Toolbar. (Here’s a link to a description of the Princeton version if you’re unfamiliar with it). It’s a toolbar that can be adapted to search your library’s various databases and provide quick links to important resources. If your library doesn’t have one, build one. If it has one, use it and promote it. The PUL LibX toolbar is now my main portal to library resources, and all the feedback I’ve gotten on it is positive. It’s available for Firefox, Chrome, and IE. I’d created a library toolbar a few years before LibX came along, but LibX is so good I immediately abandoned it. It’s the best library search tool I’ve found, and with it I find I rarely need to go to the library website at all.
Once I’ve found books and articles through the LibX toolbar, it’s time to put them in a citation management system. Far and away my favorite citation organization program is Zotero. The library subscribes to Refworks, so I have to maintain some facility with that, and Mendeley has its charms. But Zotero is so easy to set up and use, especially as a Firefox plugin, that I see no reason to use another program. The Word plugin works well, too. Lately, I’ve been using the group libraries part as well, both at work for sharing citations and in the LIS class I teach for an assignment. And unlike Refworks, I don’t have to be signed onto the campus network or put in a special code. If I’m browsing the web and want to grab a citation, one click is usually enough. I’ve used the standalone version with Google Chrome, but there are some things it doesn’t do as well as the Firefox plugin.
Besides organizing citations, the most important thing is for me to have access to everything I’m writing and every digital document I might want to read from any computer with an Internet connection. I also never want to lose a document. For my writing, I put everything in Dropbox, because of the several programs I’ve tried (including Sugarsync, Google Drive, ADrive, Asus Webstorage, CX Storage, and Live Mesh) it’s the most reliable for syncing across computers and operating systems. I use it on two Windows 7 laptops, an iMac, two Android devices, and very occasionally a Linux netbook and it’s never let me down. I also rely significantly on Sugarsync, but the Magic Briefcase doesn’t want to sync reliably with the Mac, or knowing Apple, the Mac doesn’t want to sync reliably with Sugarsync.
Everything goes into Dropbox, but for live writing projects I do further backup. For the book, I had all my writings and readings in a Dropbox folder, but I also used Sugarsync to backup the Dropbox folder. Unlike Dropbox or Google Drive, Sugarsync will allow you to not only create a sync folder (the Magic Briefcase), but backup any other folder on your hard drive to the cloud. Thus, for an important folder, I’ve got a copy on in the Dropbox folder on my hard drive, which is synced with any computer I use in addition to the cloud, plus I have the same folder synced to the cloud with Sugarsync. Only in the event of some global catastrophe would my work be lost, and by that time I probably wouldn’t have time to worry about it. A lot of people use Google Docs exclusively for their writing, and they have to rely completely on Google, or go through bothersome exports. I use either MS Word (which is much more robust than Google Docs anyway) or Scrivener, which means the files I create in a synced drive can be accessed without an Internet connection on my regular computers or with one from anywhere. (If I didn’t get MS Office free from my university, I’d use Open Office the same way, which is also more robust than Google Docs.)
Then, the reading. I could just dump all my digital readings into Dropbox as well, but that’s not a particularly good way to organize hundreds of files. For a while I tried Mendeley, which I liked, but it only works with PDFs. Eventually I settled on Calibre, which handles PDF, mobi, and epub formats among others and also allows for conversion among them. Got a PDF or epub you want to convert to mobi to read on your Kindle? Or to epub to read on something besides the slow-loading Kindle app (I use Aldiko on Android)? Calibre’s great for that. There are even plugins available that let you do interesting things with DRM, but I won’t talk about that. Unlike Mendeley, when you import a file into Calibre, it doesn’t just add the metadata and point to the original folder. Calibre instead imports the file into a separate Calibre folder, which I then back up with Sugarsync. Like Mendeley, it lets you alter the metadata and add tags. Most of my hardcore reading and writing is done on one laptop, but if I want access to those files from another computer, I can just log into Sugarsync, download them, and even import them into Calibre on that computer. And, as with writing, for current vital readings on a given project, I usually add them to Dropbox as well for easy syncing, knowing that I have a well organized and searchable version in Calibre.
So that’s it. Armed with the LibX toolbar, Zotero, Calibre, Dropbox, and Sugarsync, I can pretty much guarantee that finding library materials, organizing citations, organizing readings, and backing up everything is easier than ever. If you want to describe alternate strategies that work well for you, please do.