Using OneNote and Office Lens for Humanities Research

Brad Underhill, a CHRG member and Deakin Postgraduate student, shares valuable insight regarding the use of OneNote for research. 

Six months into my PhD, and fresh from a research trip to the archives in Canberra I thought I would give my impressions of OneNote and Office Lens as a novice researcher and digital convert. Changing over to a new system for recording and organising my notes was not something I undertook lightly. Who wants to learn a whole new data capture ecosystem and then transfer across all your previous research? Why change a system that has served you well? Familiarity breeds efficiency. Right? On the other hand, if you recognise your current method is going to struggle under increased loads of information, then the perfect time to change is right at the beginning of a new project.

During my undergraduate and honours studies I hand wrote all my notes. The reason I chose this method over digital was a belief that the process of handwriting would help in the recall process. Fortunately, I turned out to be an excellent organiser of notes, and dutifully recorded references and page numbers. It worked well enough- I remembered what I needed to! Towards the end of the honours thesis, however, this method was becoming hard to manage. It became obvious that if I were to continue with my studies, it was time to move across to a digitised data collection system.

There are plenty of options. The most popular, Evernote, costs money, and while a few people have recently mentioned Tropy to me, I was not aware of it when I began my research. In the end I chose OneNote because, firstly, it gets pretty good reviews and appeared to do what I need: a way to easily capture, store, organise, and write my notes next to primary and secondary source material. Secondly, as it was part of the Microsoft Office suite of programs I thought I could learn to use it quickly. And thirdly, this meant it was already included on my computer, and therefore, was ‘free’. I am a cheapskate. Nothing to lose I thought. Give it a go.

Okay so how does OneNote work? Well effectively it is an ever-expanding digital notebook for capturing, storing, sorting, searching and sharing information. Think of your OneNote as a filing cabinet, and inside this filing cabinet you have multiple notebooks (as many as you wish), within each of these expandable notebooks you have binders (called Sections-and again as many as you want), and within these Sections you have Sub-Sections (folders), and eventually you get to the data which are on the pages. It makes more sense in an example which I will describe below.

The main takeaway is to remember that it can be as big as you want. All information in every Notebook is easily accessible either by a couple of quick clicks, or by using the very effective search function. Further, all material is seamlessly stored on your PC (OneNote is also available for Apple products- I use an iPhone) and in the cloud on OneDrive, and is accessible on nearly any mobile device, tablet, or browser. Not only that, but as a Microsoft Office program, it feels and behaves like Office (which may not appeal) and is designed to be used in conjunction with all the other Office programs.

One of these programs is Office Lens. As researchers, we all know the benefits of using cameras in the archives, of taking away an exact replica of the primary source materials, but I believe programs like Office Lens help make the experience even more efficient. This program allows you to take a picture from your iPhone (or equivalent) – whether that be a PowerPoint slide at a conference or printed document- then enhance it by cropping, sharpening, and straightening it, and then sending it directly into the exact page you want within that vast OneNote filing cabinet. No more uploading your photos onto your computer in whichever method you use and then sorting into files and folders. This method allows for instant organisation. Furthermore, it is stored on the OneNote ‘pages’ as a scanned image or PDF within a pseudo word page. This means you can then type notes next to the document. If you have an iPad or Microsoft Surface, you can also use OneNote and then handwrite on those documents.

And the final kicker? It is all searchable. Not just your typed notes besides the scanned image, but the scanned image as well. This is because OneNote supports Optical Character Recognition (OCR), you can copy and paste text directly from the image and then make changes to the words. This feature is excellent for journal articles and other printed material but will struggle when the legibility of archival material is of poor quality. OneNote will also recognise your handwriting (although I found this a bit unsatisfactory). If you have an oral interview or recorded lecture, that is also fully searchable- it will find the exact moment a term is spoken. That is all pretty good, you can search for a term within any of these formats, but not just within a page, or sub-section, or section, or notebook, but within the whole filing cabinet. Think of the benefits of having all your research- primary and secondary, your own notes- all within one program that is searchable in all formats.  

A final point before I give a couple of examples of how I use OneNote. As mentioned earlier, I am still a novice at this academia thing, and even more so as a OneNote user. I have made plenty of mistakes with how I set up my Notebooks/Sections, and some of the pictures from OneNote were terrible to start with, but, as with most things digital, you can fix it! The options are endless: move things around, edit photos, try different ways to take notes, and maximise the connectivity between OneNote, Excel, Word and Outlook. Rest assured I have made all the mistakes, but you get better with practice. I know it is hard to change systems halfway through a project, but my suggestion is that if you have something small you are about to start, and are a little curious, then give OneNote or one of the other options a go. You might be pleasantly surprised!

My OneNote setup

I have five Notebooks within my OneNote ‘filing cabinet’. One each for University matters (training/teaching/planning), Secondary Sources, Primary Sources, PhD Theses and Monographs, and my Honours work from last year (I have transferred some of this across). Each of these are broken into either topic, themes, authors, departments- whatever is most suitable.

 Click on image to view details


Example: OneNote and Office Lens in the Archives

I was in Canberra in July and spent my time at either the National Archives or the National Library. My PhD is investigating Australian colonial development policies in Papua New Guinea in the post-war period. As an example, I will demonstrate how I recorded my research in the personal papers of Eddie Ward who was the External Territories Minister from 1943-1949. These papers are held at the National Library; and his papers for this period are contained within two archival boxes (or 18 folders).

My primary sources Notebook is divided into Sections categorised by institution (National Archives, National Library, PNG Archives and so on). Within each Section I have the same sub-sections: broken into themes and departments (development, Territories department, administration and so on). However, at the next level, sub-sections, I change to suit the circumstances. That is, I mimic the arrangement of the papers as they are held in the repository. Further, OneNote has a tag system so that you can highlight the papers as potential material in chapters or articles.

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I like to think of my notebooks of like digging deeper and deeper into a large bag, and it has Tardis like qualities, because it is a lot bigger than it looks!

In this example, Eddie Ward’s papers are located as follows:

  • Notebook (Primary Source)
  • Section (National Library)
  • Sub-Section (Territories Department)
  • I then replicate the National Library repository system
    • Sub-Section (Box 43a or Box 436 series 12)
    • Folders (They call them sections again but that is too confusing)
    • Pages (holds the extracted data: you can ‘print’ whole online journal articles within one page)

  Click on image to view details

In addition to providing a method to catalogue and organise primary research, OneNote is also useful for downloading and storing online journal articles or books. You can then easily write notes next to any relevant point. I also use Office Lens to take photos of books and once again store them within OneNote, so they are easy to find and refer to- again I put my notes right next to the original text. Excel spreadsheets can be imbedded within a page, great for literature reviews. You can take screenshots and directly upload them on to a page, if you are reading an online article you can insert a small side bar for notetaking, once you have completed your notes and closed the webpage, OneNote will leave a link on your notes to the webpage address. There is a vast array of ‘To-Do’ list options; within each notebook you can have specific deadlines and OneNote can then produce one list containing all the deadlines. There is a function in Outlook that enables you to send any emails as a record to OneNote; I have a correspondence section for important emails relevant to my research or communication, which saves searching through the folders in Outlook. Another feature of OneNote/Outlook is scheduled meetings, which can be linked with your notes from the meeting. I am only scratching the surface as there are endless opportunities to coordinate your research and academic commitments.

Hopefully this article provides some understanding of the benefits of using a digitised notetaking program such as OneNote for your academic research. Remember that at a minimum, it is an inexpensive risk that may pay enormous dividends in the way you pursue your future academic career.


Comments (1)

  1. - Reply

    What are the limitations of using OneNote as a digital notebook for academic research? Additionally, have you tried using any other note-taking or research organization tools besides OneNote, and how does OneNote compare to those alternatives?

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