My Digital Toolbox
My Digital Toolbox

My Digital Toolbox

As I mentioned before, my laptop did its best ex-parrot impression last weekend, so I’ve been spending the past few days getting my new computer set up the way I want it. This has given me plenty of time to reflect on the ways in which how I use a computer in my work has changed in the five years since I last bought one—the programs which I now, as a doctoral student, consider essential are quite different to those I was using as a recent graduate of a Master’s programme.

The apps/programs mentioned below are for Mac, as that’s what I use, but I think almost all of them have Windows versions or equivalents.

Cloud Storage

The first programs I installed were those which let me get back copies of all the files I’d saved to the cloud. I use a combination of Bitcasa [Referral link], Google Drive, and Dropbox [Referral Link] (the latter primarily for resources I’m sharing with others), though there are lots of good choices out there, both free and premium. The decision as to which cloud storage service is right for you probably depends on your needs, preferences, and budget. But regardless, these three services, in combination with an external hard drive backed up via OS X’s Time Machine, meant I didn’t lose anything when my old MacBook died. (I always wince when I come across graduate students who aren’t backing up their work on a consistent basis, and I have met several, because it’s not a matter of if your computer will die, it’s when.)


6a013486c64e2e970c01a73deeedd4970dMy digital brain is contained within Evernote, a program which I’ve been using for a little less than a year but one which I already cannot imagine doing without. As I started amassing ever more primary and secondary sources for my dissertation, the file folder system I was using to keep track of things became ever more unwieldy. Things were nested five or six folders deep and there was, of course, the issue of what to do if a file ‘belonged’ to two different folders—if a given charter transcription was relevant to both Topic A and Topic B. I was losing a lot of time just to sorting through and finding material.

The solution to my frustration turned out to be Evernote. I’ve transferred my sources—transcriptions, photos, pdfs of finding aids and so on—into this program. As a digital filing cabinet, it offers ‘notebooks’ (which you can see listed along the black sidebar on the left-hand side of this screenshot) which are in many ways analogous to file folders on your hard drive, allowing you to bundle together similar ‘notes’. For instance, I have a notebook for notes on Premonstratensian rules, one for the monastery of Lieu-Restauré, and so on. Evernote also, however, allows for tagging individual notes in many different ways across notebooks—so clicking on the tag ‘charter’ will let me find all the notes I have tagged ‘charter’ across all notebooks.

Evernote even has the ability to recognise printed/handwritten text within images through its own OCR process. Put an image into Evernote and that image becomes searchable within Evernote—I’ve found this very accurate with scans of maps from books or pdfs of typewritten manuscripts, but unsurprisingly medieval handwriting will make it very confused.

Evernote syncs to your browser and to mobile devices—on more than one occasion, I’ve been able to call up photos of charters to show to colleagues on the spot (truly, we’re living in the future). There are limits to how much you can upload in a month with the free version, but a month’s paid time (which gives you 1GB worth of uploads) is just $5, which even for a grad student budget is pretty affordable.

6a013486c64e2e970c01a511e3a73d970cWhere Evernote is my commonplace book, Zotero is my reference manager. I’ve been using Zotero since I started my doctoral programme, and I really wish I’d had it when I was working on my Master’s. (I used to keep a list of things I’d read in a .txt file! The humanity.)

Zotero is a free browser extension for Firefox, Chrome and Safari (also now available as a standalone tool) which was designed by historians for historians as a bibliography tool. It stores full references to journal articles, books, manuscripts, and a whole host of other sources commonly used by historians. Zotero can save references automatically from online databases like JSTOR or from library catalogues, including automatically saving pdfs of journal articles; it lets you create collections (as you can see in this screenshot of my library) corresponding to particular projects or courses; and it can generate citations according to hundreds of different reference styles. It does have some integration with word processors via plug-ins, so you can write in Word and it will keep track of your references for you and then automatically generate a bibliography for you.

Zotero does sync with so that your references are always backed up. There is an option to sync both the bibliographic references and the associated files. The one big drawback is that if you work with a lot of large pdfs (as I do), you will hit the 300MB storage limit very quickly and upgrading to their premium syncing level is expensive. I manually back up my Zotero library to Google Drive instead. There is apparently a way to automatically sync your Zotero library, complete with stored pdf files, to Dropbox, but I have to confess that the instructions are too technical for me and I’ve never tried to make it work.

Last, in my browser, I also added the bookmarklet which lets me easily add bookmarks to my Diigo account, which is a social bookmarking site. Here’s where I confess that I find Diigo’s website design to be incredibly clunky and unintuitive, and that I’m always on the look-out for an alternative, but needs must. I’m still irritated with Yahoo for what they did to, the original version of which was simple to use, let me look up my bookmarks from any computer, and had a (now-destroyed) social network of academics, libraries and research institutions sharing their online finds with one another. I know most people probably use Twitter to find new links nowadays, but its ephemerality and lack of a solid search function make it a poor alternative for me.



6a013486c64e2e970c01a511e3ac89970cI have Word for Mac installed, but I hardly ever use it unless doing something like formatting my CV, putting together a flyer, printing out a formal letter and so on. This is because I realised that what Word does best is layout, but that layout is way down on the list of priorities for someone working on a lengthy piece of writing, academic or otherwise. Enter Scrivener. This program has made me become one of those terrible evangelist types, because I honestly can’t envision writing anything longer than a couple of pages in Word anymore.

This is because I don’t write in a linear manner, and non-linear writing is something which Word is not designed to facilitate. Word is about layout, but Scrivener is about actual composition. It lets you work in ‘chunks’—smaller individual sections which you can name, drag and drop to move them around within larger sections or your project as a whole (project layout is visible in the lefthand sidebar of the screenshot), and to which you can attach a digital ‘index’ card which lets you keep track of your intended goal for that chunk. You can add comments and footnotes (as you can see on the right of the screenshot), and you can also split the main text frame, vertically or horizontally, to compare two sections or versions of a text. This means I can, say, have the current version of a chapter in the top half of my screen, with a version (complete with track changes) sent to me by my advisor in the bottom half of the screen. I can easily work on one as I refer to another with no switching back and forth between windows.

The one downside for me is the lack of a plug-in which lets it talk easily with Zotero, but Scrivener more than makes up for this in other ways. Such as how it saves your work automatically after two seconds of inactivity, and you can also set it to automatically back up your work to a Dropbox account every time you close the program.

Scrivener is a paid app, but there is an educational discount year-round and I think it always goes on sale around November.



These are small programs which don’t necessarily form a direct part of my research process, but which I find very useful in a more general way.

  • Alfred is a launch bar—a little program which lets you search for, and launch, apps and files without having to go near a mouse or dig through folders.
  • Flux automatically adjusts the intensity/colour of your computer’s screen throughout the day, making it dimmer and warmer as the evening progresses. I’ve noticed less eye-strain since I started to use it, and I’ve been able to get to sleep much more quickly after a late-night writing session.
  • Interpres is a tiny, free little program that gives you access to a Latin-English translator/parser right there on your desktop. I find it indispensable while translating.
  • An RSS reader. There are a bunch of them out there—I use Bamboo, which is an extension that sits inside my email program, though I know Feedly is very popular. Probably none of them will ever work for me the way the late, lamented Google Reader did, but I find an RSS reader indispensable for keeping up with the news and academic blogs in a quick manner.


  1. So sorry to hear about your computer! For us PC users, we call it the Blue Screen of Death (BSD). I’ve only gotten this screen once with a Dell computer, and I’ve never bought a Dell again. I am an HP person now, and I’ve never had problems.
    In any event, I’m so impressed with how much you had backed on the cloud. I too rely on cloud storage…with OneNote. I work in Word, then I upload the document to OneNote. I can open it from anywhere, continue working, save it, and go on my merry way. Skydrive has been my lifesaver. I see now what you are talking about with Scrivener. You use it similarly to the way I use Word. I insert “comments” in Word all the time, because I too am not a linear writer. Because I am an online instructor, I always have to figure out ways to edit and comment on student papers in clear and efficient ways. Funny enough, this has helped my writing process.
    I also do the same thing with “Track Changes” in Word when I am editing. You can also do the split-screen thing with Word as well (, but not many people know the tricks. The one thing about Word that I currently enjoy is the “read-back” feature. Lately, I have been so tired of re-reading and re-reading my work, and sometimes it’s good to read your work aloud. Or, to have someone else to do it. I use the text-to-speech function in word to test the flow of my writing and sentence structure. I know, I sound like an evangelist as well, but I just haven’t found any other program that does what I need it to do like Word. Maybe I just have some unholy attachment to all things Microsoft…haha.
    I do, however, need a good cataloging program. That “digital card” feature you mention would be so helpful in an Excel program. My question is…does Scrivener have an Excel equivalent?

  2. My one and only Windows laptop I had back when I was in undergrad, and it was a Toshiba that gave me such problems that I’d never buy one again! I’m a convert to Macs now and can never remember quite how things work on Windows machines, but I think the choice of OS is one of those horses-for-courses types of things.
    Hrm, with Scrivener maybe I’m not showing it to the full potential—you can put comments and footnotes in the sidebar like you can with Word, but you can also pull manuscripts apart and rearrange them with much more facility in Scrivener. So you can have comments on particular sentences like you can in Word, but then also more “meta” comments on sections as a whole, and there’s a drag-and-drop way of rearranging sections of manuscript. The split-screen thing in Scrivener is also different to what you’ve got there in Word—it’s literally two separate files on the screen at once, so you can have File A and File B in the same window and compare them right there. I’d be happy to show you at one of the writing sessions?
    And I know very little about database/spreadsheet-type stuff, I’m afraid! I really should know more than I do, and I’m considering making the leap to something like Access or FileMaker Pro, but I’m still using plain old Excel files for now. I fear the possibility of a steep learning curve.

  3. Mary Springer

    Oh goodness, I just saw this message! Yes, we must have a meet where we confer about all the digital academic resources (for writing, note-taking, etc.). I can show you Access, because it’s something I know very well. I really like the way the Excel format is working for my catalogue, and we can talk about this. 🙂

  4. Oh, that would be great, yay! Sometimes next week, perhaps? I think one of my biggest mental stumbling blocks right now is that I can’t quite conceive of how to take the information that I have about, say, individual charters and turn them into something that could be useful in database format, you know? I’d really love to see a working example of a historian’s database.
    And oh, she’s very sweet! I hope she had a good time!

  5. Mary Springer

    Yes! Shoot me an email and we’ll talk ( When you email me, I’ll send you my phone. 🙂
    Next week is a busy week, but let me know if you’re free on Monday or Wednesday.

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