I suggest five rules of thumb for maintaining some semblance of control over the flow of information that can inundate your computer desktop and your brain:
First, use the tools that are available to you. The programs I discuss in this guide, together with email programs and web browsers, have features that allow you to select, sort, file, and find items of information.
Second, rely on the expertise of others to reduce the chaff. There are smart people out there dedicated to sifting through many sources to select information relevant to you. Their interests will never align perfectly with yours, but they will winnow out much that is off topic and find useful nuggets of information from sources that are a poor use of your time to monitor yourself. They will also miss some things you would like to see. The risks of false negatives (missing something useful) and false positives (receiving useless junk) are more than outweighed by the benefits of others’ editorial intelligence.
Third, prune sources ruthlessly. Only you can decide if you are getting something valuable from an online resource. If you are a lawyer or law student, you tend to be a packrat. Saving every source will swamp you. If you are not getting useful information from a source, delete it.
Fourth, review your incoming information every work day. If you fall behind, you will be intimidated.
Fifth, and perhaps most important, use the delete button. Use it early and often. If an item is not important to you, get rid of it. If it might be useful in the future, use a program that stores and organizes your notes.
Saving and organizing your notes
I was taught to keep my notes and citations on 3-by-5 cards. I usually used "magic" yellow legal pads and leafed through them to find what I was looking for. We don't have to do that anymore. "Reference management software" (also known as "personal bibliographic management tools" and "citation managers") comes close to automating the entire citation process, from finding to recording to citing to creating bibliographies. See here for a comparison of different systems. Some popular programs:
- EndNote was originally designed for ease of use by individuals with different degrees of experience in citation searching, but who still needed to store and manage large amounts of bibliographic information on their personal computers.
- ProCite was designed more for information specialists working for others in environments with multiple work forms, computer operating systems, differing client citation search needs and criteria and where specialized private databases were needed. As a result, it was designed to be highly customizable in citation searching.
- Reference Manager
- Reference Manager is a basic citation manager very similar to EndNote in use. It contains most of the features of EndNote but without the depth.