Thinking about Workflow: DH 1.0

Why I started to think about how I do research, or how I came to Digital Humanities

22 June 2017

In the spring of 2011, I was in the middle of doing research for my dissertation. I had recently returned from my second extended trip to the archives in the Netherlands and Belgium and had accumulated a ton of notes. I knew that technology had drastically altered the possibilities for research, but the fundamentals of my own workflow were hardly different than they had been when I began undergrad in the early 2000s. Sure, I used the internet to watch Netflix, but the basic tools—centered on the Microsoft Office Suite—were essentially the same. One day, I gave in to the nagging feeling that I was not getting enough out of my computer, that there were better ways of doing things. I started to poke around the internet to see if I could find ways to improve my workflow. What started as a distraction soon turned into a months-long project on finding better tools for conducting research. I quickly realized that the actual process of getting work done, doing research and writing papers, is little discussed in graduate school. Early career graduate students are so busy reading, writing, and generally trying to keep up, that the process of how to do the work is easily pushed to the background. Since then, I have tried to think critically and systematically about my workflow and have often discussed this with others.

My desire to embark upon a technological odyssey was driven by a very simple problem that developed naturally in the course of research for my dissertation. My primary research involved reading 16th-century correspondence. I used a simple—and I think somewhat commonsensical—approach to taking notes. For each correspondent in the archive, I would create a new Word document and do my best to paraphrase what was said in the letter. As time went by, these Word documents became quite long. After a month of taking notes on the letters of one correspondent, my Word document reached 100 pages single-spaced. At this point, writing in the document became unbearable. It would take almost a minute for the document to fully load. I would sit there and look at the bottom of the window and see the page count go up: 10 pages, then 15 pages, then 17 pages for a document I knew to be over 100 pages long. Scrolling through the document was difficult, and I had no real way to find anything in the middle of the document other than manually scrolling to where I thought it might be; search was a disaster.1 My solution at the time was simply to open up another Word document and continue typing. This solution was neither practical nor scalable.

When I finally decided to do something about this issue, it did not take much searching to come up with the solution: text files. I knew that my Mac came with a program called TextEdit, but I had never thought to use it. I began to copy and past some of my longer notes from word into TextEdit. Upon opening the files, I saw to my amazement that they were completely functional in under a second. One hundred page documents opened in a flash.

This simple change away from Word to text documents opened up a world of possibilities. It caused me to pause and think. If this way of taking notes was so much better and so simple, why did I not know about it. What else was I missing? It took a while and a lot of trial and error before I found a system that worked for me. I first moved to rich text files, before turning to plain text. But I had begun the process. Plain text proved to be the basis for my research workflow and for what I am calling DH 1.0. Even more significant than the particular solution that I developed was thinking critically about my workflow. I began to read articles and listen to podcasts about technology and Apple. I started to use an RSS reader to subscribe to blogs. And I joined Twitter. You can obviously go too far in thinking about how to get things done to the point that it distracts you from doing the actual work, but that does not mean it is not worth the time and effort to think through how you do things. One of my goals in this blog and in future posts is to discuss the system that I developed based on plain text files and why I think it is better.


  1. This was with Word 2009. I do not know if new versions are better. I haven’t tried.↩︎