Posted by: Ken Brown | September 15, 2011

Taking Notes in the Library

Many people seem to feel a strong taboo against writing in books. Maybe they don’t want to ruin the aesthetic of a clean printed page. Maybe they don’t want to disrupt the author’s train of thought. Maybe they just can’t bear to stop reading and pick up a pen. All very noble ideals, no doubt, but not very practical for serious research. In my opinion a book is a tool, and as much as we all wish we were Will Hunting, most of us need to do more than just read if we hope to remember the details later, and marking up a book is probably the quickest way of facilitating later recall. Besides that, no book is entirely correct or in all parts equally insightful or useful, and I see no problem at all with indicating your judgments on such matters directly in the book itself.

Personally, the only times I bother restraining myself from underlining and adding marginal notes are: 1. when I’m reading fiction purely for pleasure, 2. when the book is so lousy that nothing seems worthy of underlining, but not so outrageous as to demand vigorous rebuttal, or 3. when I do not own the book. And there’s the rub, since as a poor graduate student I simply cannot afford to buy most of the books I must use.

If I do own the book, or have a photocopy of it, I mark it up like crazy, underlining everything significant or interesting, starring anything especially important to remember, and even writing little notes and comments in the margins. I always do this in pencil, in part because I find the grey less obtrusive than a pen or (worse) a highlighter, but most of all so that I can make adjustments if I change my mind about what was important, or realize a particular marginal note has misunderstood some key point (which of course, never happens to me!). When I can underline in this way, I generally do not take external notes on first reading, except when I am struck by some novel thought that requires fuller discussion than is possible in the margin.

This approach makes for a messy book but not only does it take far less time to underline than it does to summarize the key points in a separate document. It also facilitates finding the information I’m looking for later in a way that even detailed notes do not necessarily improve upon. Not only do you have the key information already marked on the page, but the simple act of underlining requires you to read the line at least twice, and stopping to add a marginal note only further solidifies the idea in your head. Both require you to pay fairly close attention to the position of the text on the page, and I often find that even months later I can remember approximately where on the page the information I underlined will be, if only I can find the proper page.

Even more valuable is that marking up a book or article in this way allows one to reread it by skipping from underline to underline, which takes a fraction of the time of rereading the whole book, while still capturing the main points. I find that if I do this immediately after finishing the full work for the first time, I can not only quickly take fuller external notes (in a notebook or on my computer, depending on my mood), but I am also in a much better position to evaluate the value and validity of the author’s statements than I was upon first reading (and I can always reread the larger context around the underlining, if necessary later). By contrast, when I have not been able to mark the most important lines in a work, a second reading takes virtually as long as the first, and is only feasible for the most important resources.

In short, I find that by marking up my books and articles, and only afterwards taking fuller notes from the underlining, I can read both more quickly and more effectively than trying to both read and take notes at the same time. The trouble, of course, is that I cannot do this with library books. Well, I have done it with library books, but I’m older and wiser and hopefully a lot more considerate than that now. And in any case, I have a feeling Göttingen’s libraries would be far less forgiving of that sort of thing that my old liberal arts college.

What to do then? So far none of the solutions I have found are ideal: Either I photocopy or scan all the key parts of the book (as I always do for articles) and mark up the photocopies as usual, or I take detailed notes while reading, combined with the use of sticky notes or page flags.

The problem with the first, aside from the little legal and ethical issue of copyright violation, is that it really isn’t practical to photocopy the whole of any but the shortest books, and it is often difficult to predict in advance how much of the book will actually be worth reading in detail. I’ve often found that many of the sections I photocopied either prove unnecessary, or else depend on some other section that I had not photocopied. There is also the expense of the photocopies themselves, and though I am currently blessed with a virtually unlimited budget for that sort of thing (I sure wasn’t while writing my M.A. thesis!), there is still the environmental issue and even the practical problem of having piles of photocopies everywhere.

Using digital scans on the computer or similar device could alleviate some of these concerns, but I’ve yet to find a digital technology that allows all that I would want to do with a book, from smoothly flipping through, to naturally taking notes in context, all while sitting back in a chair rather than leaning over a desk. I also find that I write better when I can lay out my sources and notes side-by-side while I am writing, and even having a second screen for the computer is not sufficient to replicate that experience. As much as I still long for the day when I could carry all my books and notes around in my pocket–if not as a replacement, at least as a supplement–I don’t see that happening any time soon.

As for skipping the copies and just taking full notes as I read, this is feasible if the book is only tangentially relevant to my interests, such that I only need to keep track of a few of the points it makes, but if it is a monograph devoted directly to the question I am currently researching, this method is way too time consuming to be practical. It takes long enough to read a 300 page book without taking notes, but it takes 10 times as long if I try to type or write out summaries or quotations of all the key points as I go. Unfortunately, failing to do so makes it far less likely that I will be able to remember or find the required information later, even if searchable online versions have made that somewhat easier.

If I know that I can keep the book for a while, I can take less detailed notes if I combine them with sticky flags stuck to the pages of the book themselves. This is still less precise and more time consuming than underlining, but for longer and more important books that cannot simply be purchased or photocopied, it is better than nothing, at least until I have to remove all the flags and return the book. My main problem with this, though, is that unless you use a whole lot of them, such flags can only point out the general part of the page and not specific sentences. I also find that the more flags I use, the more difficult it becomes to flip through the book, and the less useful they are as a means of quickly finding an important section later.

My latest method, which I like quite a bit better, uses little strips cut from sticky-notes, not to hang off the page as flags, but simply stuck in the margins in place of underlining (pictured at the top and in close-up here). It is no substitute for underlining when I can do that, but it needn’t take any longer and can be nearly as precise, without disrupting page-turning like too many flags do.

I simply cut a very thin strip of sticky-note and put it directly next to the sentences that I wish to highlight, cutting it down or adding additional depending on how long a section I need to emphasize. For important details, I use a brighter color like pink, and for especially important points, I can still hang a flag off the edge of the page like normal. Full size sticky-notes can also be used in place of marginal notes, so long as one does not go overboard with them.

Using this method, I can then go back through the book a second time to take fuller notes nearly as well as I could with an underlined copy, without having to do any damage to the book itself. It also saves greatly on the number of sticky-notes I need to use, and should I need to return the book, I can always scan the marked pages before doing so and keep the digital copy for context, without needing to print it off (since it is already marked up), nor needing to determine in advance how much of the book I’ll need.

So that’s my current approach. I’m sure it could use improvement  (one trouble I anticipate is the little strips falling out too easily), but in the mean time I’m curious what methods other people use to keep track of what they read. Do you aim for speed and efficiency, or do you have a more detailed and methodical approach? Either way, what tips and tricks have you found?


  1. One small improvement you might try is that instead of using the photocopy machine to make copies of your, might I say highly ingenious use of sticky notes on pages, is to use your digital camera, set up on a tripod facing down, to snap pictures of those pages. The advantages are that they would be in color, of high resolution, easily transferred to your computer and easy to print if necessary. Saves paper, and usually saves time.

  2. I don’t technically use a copy machine, except when I have to use one of the other small presence libraries in town. The main and theological libraries both have these ingenious scanning machines that let you just hold the book open and it will scan the pages and save to USB-stick (you can choose color, grey-scale or black and white, whether you prefer jpgs or pdfs, and whether to group them into multi-page documents or save as individual images). I transfer them to my computer, use a program that crops off the edges (with thumbs), and print those that I need.

    All the images in this post came from such a machine (I deliberately rotated the images for effect, in this case), though I normally save in black-and-white rather than color. I’ll have to see how big of a difference it makes to save in color for the already marked books (since I will not be printing them off), but there is no reason to do so for the unmarked ones (which I often will).

  3. Actually, I don’t think photocopying works is a copyright violation as long as the photocopy is for your own personal use. If you intend to sell it, it would be different. Of course, laws might be different over there, but I’m pretty sure that’s how it works here in the U.S. However, I’m not a lawyer and I make no claim to the legality of the above comment (IOW, try it at your own risk).

    • I’m not clear on the law over here either, but in Canada where I did my undergrad and master’s work, there were strict rules about how much of a work you could copy, even if you only intended it for personal or educational use (I recall something like no more than 1/5th of the total of a work of non-fiction, and no more than 500 words of a work of fiction, but there were further restrictions as well). I gather that educational and personal use laws are a little more lenient in the states, but I’m not sure how much.

      I doubt it is legal anywhere in the developed world, however, to make and keep a full copy of a work that you do not own, regardless of the use you plan to make of it. Unless of course the author and/or publisher gives you permission to do so.

      Thanks for the comment!

  4. You can use a pencil to lightly mark-up library books. There is no issue with that.

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