What Should I Record While Reading Sources for My Thesis?

Taking Useful Notes while Consulting Sources for Your Thesis or Dissertation
Chances are that you will be reading many scholarly sources, both primary and secondary, print and digital, as you work on your thesis or dissertation. The time you spend consulting these sources may be considerable, but it will be time well spent if you take careful notes that enable you to make the best use of each and every source you read.

The first thing to do when you realise a source will be useful is to record accurately and thoroughly the complete bibliographical information for that source. The elements of this information will vary from source to source, but the details will usually include author and editor names; the titles of books, journals, articles, chapters and web sites; volume, issue, edition and page numbers; and publisher names as well as places of publication and publication dates. If the bibliographical information provided in a source is confusing or you are uncertain about exactly which details you will need, record everything that seems important, especially if you are dealing with a source that is not easily accessible, such as a manuscript or rare printed book in a distant library. The bibliographical information you record can then serve as a heading for your notes about a source, effectively providing organisation by separating them from your notes on other sources. Never rely on the ideal that you will be able to remember which source a random note refers to, no matter how striking the ideas recorded in the note may seem at the time. After fifty or a hundred articles on similar topics have been read, their contents tend to blur, so record your notes in a way that anticipates this eventuality and caters to your human memory.
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Once you have the bibliographical information for a source in place, you should accurately record beneath it all the information and ideas you find important and interesting in what you read. If you have continued access to the source, shorthand notes that highlight the main or most important ideas and act as effective triggers to jog your memory and help you find the material again will often be sufficient. However, if you may not be able to consult the source again, photocopying or scanning the parts you will need is an excellent idea, although it may not be possible for some sources in certain libraries, archives and museums. If you are not able to make such copies, your notes will need to be precise and record in detail everything you think you may use in your thesis or dissertation. Direct quotation or transcription can be best in such situations, though both are time-consuming, and checking your work for accuracy and clarity is essential: you need to be able to read and use the material at a later date with complete confidence.

Whether you are transcribing text in detail or making rough notes of a few words, it is always wise to mention the exact location within a source of any information you bother to record. This will usually mean jotting down page numbers as you record your notes, but depending on the nature of the source, you may need to use folio, column or paragraph numbers or even invent more creative ways of describing the location. Whatever extra effort it may take, recording the exact location of information accurately and thoroughly when you first read a source will make it much easier both to find that information again and to cite or quote it properly in your thesis or dissertation.

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