How To Collect And Access Data?

By | April 28, 2005

A reader wrote asking

I am a writer who has tens of thousands of 3×5 note cards and no system to organize them. What I want to do is have their content available on my computer so that I can mine them as I write. Do you have a suggestion for any software that can do this? TheBrain seems to be more of a project organizer, rather than a free-form database.

It’s a question I’ve asked myself. I’ve still not found the perfect way to organise notes, especially if you’re a writer in the sense of doing a book (where the requirements can be slightly different).

Here are some of my suggestions, although doubtless there are more ideas to come:

  • SuperNotecard from Mindola. This is a real writer’s tool which “uses virtual notecards to help manage writing projects. This approach focuses on the basic compositional parts and keeps the structure flexible so that it can be easily rearranged”. For both Windows and Mac
  • Any outliner program (check out a list here). My current favorite is MyInfo from Milenix, which is into version three. That said, I would have to warn that its latest incarnation, though sporting some very neat tweaks, is not really stable enough yet for primetime.
  • Then there are things like EverNote, which are much more of an ideas and notes collector rather than an organiser (if you think about it, it’s a two stage process, and not always easy for software to be good at both).
  • Ever tried a Wiki? Wikidpad is an acquired taste, but an excellent leverage of Wiki technology. Another option, no longer being supported, is Pepys.
  • If you’re using cards, you might want to check out Merlin Mann’s Hipster PDA solution, which uses the same technology. In fact, I’ve just bought some of those cards myself to try it out.

I’m not sure which of these I’d recommend. I suspect it’s personal taste. I also think that the field is still wide open, and that the software for this kind of task has not yet been written. I can hear the Mac guys sharpening their keyboards ready to tell me I’m wrong. Go ahead guys, the lines are open.

4 thoughts on “How To Collect And Access Data?

  1. Roger

    There’s a new tool currently under development to help writers connect their ideas with their collected facts and to visualize these connections.

    It’s called Ceryle (rhymes with carol, but with a soft c) and is at

    Ceryle uses topic maps as its underlying technology and consequently is capable of all kinds of things database-based tools are not. Or maybe I should say “will be” since it’s still in alpha. In order to get a copy at this point, you have to complete a survey on your writing habits. Ceryle is being developed by Murray Altheim, who did a lot of the work in modularizing XHTML when he was at Sun; now he’s in a Knowledge Representation PhD program in England. Ceryle will be free software (and open source) when it’s released.

    Here’s what the Ceryle FAQ says:

    “Ceryle was conceived as a writer’s tool, principally designed to service the needs of those trying to organize any kind of research information, including fiction and non-fiction writers, journalists, academic/scientific researchers, and students. Because it is in reality a fairly general purpose tool that can help organize any kind of information, it may serve other purposes. If you think of yourself as a ‘visual’ person, find yourself diagramming ideas, or have a desk covered in post-it notes, Ceryle might be for you.

    “Q: What does Ceryle do?
    “In about the briefest possible terms, Ceryle combines a text editor, a database to store content, a Topic Map engine to create an organizational structure for that content in the form of ‘graphs,’ and a visualization toolkit to display and edit those graphs. It also uses the graph toolkit to allow building blocks of text to be composed into larger documents.”

  2. Mike Rohde

    Wild idea — what about carrying around business-card sized cards and buying a business cazrd scanner? When you get home with your notes, you can simply suck those puppies into the scanner and then sort the scans. Nearly instant backup.

    Okay, it’s no help with organizing them, but I thought it might be worth mentioning. 🙂


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.