Monthly Archives: December 2010

Taking notes the digital way

I am a compulsive note-taker. When I go to a meeting or seminar I find myself trying to write everything down, including the speakers’ lousy jokes or side comments that may have nothing to do with the topic, or even observations about the audience or the meeting facility. Even when I am told that the PowerPoint presentation will be available for downloading, I am still jotting down its contents. Perhaps this has something to do with my prior life as a journalist and my temperament as the consummate writer. I am an “information packrat”—I feel the need to retain every bit of information I run across, even the most trivial, thinking someday it might be of use. I have boxes of papers and notebooks, innumerable computer files, and thousands of bookmarked websites. And don’t get me started on a discussion about my book collection.

Recently in my work at the library I have found myself as the keeper of the minutes for several committees and groups that I am involved with. I’ve always taken notes the old-fashioned way, jotting them down on paper, a method that has been reasonably effective. But I’ve always considered ways of modifying or improving the task of taking notes. For years, off and on I’ve casually played with Gregg shorthand, but have never mastered it enough to feel confident to use it for important meetings (when I looked at my shorthand scrawls, I find deciphering them a major challenge, showing that I need a lot more work and practice with it). I have thought about using an audio recording device, but felt that my note-taking was sufficiently strong enough that the idea of spending time going through audio recordings seemed like an unnecessary bother and waste of time.

I’ve looked at some innovative, brilliant high-tech ways of taking notes, and, for certain people (but not me), they certainly are a viable option, maybe even a godsend. And, if you love clever gadgets, you’ll love these even more. I even tried one of the gadgets.

One option is in the form of the inexpensive iPad apps like PaperDesk ($1.99), Penultimate ($2.99), WritePad (($3.99), or Note Taker HD ($4.99) for note-taking with a writing stylus, or even your finger. With it you can scribble down notes on your iPad as well as draw diagrams and mathematical equations. Some even allow audio recording. As yet, though digital, these apps’ notes are not searchable and do not convert to Word docs. Of course, there is the iPad’s virtual keyboard, fine with some note-takers, not with others.

But the gadgets I speak of are those wireless digital pens (notably Smartpen and LogiPen) that record your writing, which then can be uploaded (your writing, even your drawings) into your computer, printed out, and even e-mailed. Your longhand can be converted to Microsoft Word text. Now how nifty is that? But they require their special pen, so you can’t use your favorite pen. Some even require special paper. Some even have a built-in audio recorder and speaker in the pen, so you have audio backup of your note-taking. Wow!

But then, you are dealing with a hundred dollar price tag, special pens, special ink refills, special paper, batteries, USB cables, software. (Someone I know ordered one of these off the Internet, and came to him with a part missing, and he had a wonderful time getting the right part delivered.) The program menu has so many options and features, all with helpful tutorials and help screens. But, of course, if you’re a real geek, that’s heaven. What fun note-taking has become!

For a long time I had considered using a laptop to take notes, but shied away from it, perhaps because I didn’t want to look like an oddball or nerd. I already felt self-conscious for the non-stop taking pages of notes when everyone would hardly take any.

For me, using a laptop to take notes is superior to any other form of note-taking that I have available, for reasons of speed and convenience. I am an extremely fast typist—I timed myself and found that I can type notes twice as fast as writing them down, which means I am going to miss fewer bits of information and will be more productive. Second, writing for an hour or more produces fatigue and “writer’s cramp” that using the keyboard does not. Third, occasionally in my rush of writing down notes, I find myself not completing words, causing the words to be illegible. Fourth, when using a laptop I save the step of having to enter my notes into the computer—it’s already done. And with today’s thinner, lighter, even smaller machines, lugging around a laptop is not an issue.

To sum it up, for me, using a digital pen is slower, more time-consuming, less efficient. It seems like a lot of unnecessary work and steps in having to write the notes, input them into the computer, and then converting them to a Word document. Using a laptop beats it by a mile.

The Smartpen and LogiPen systems are brilliantly conceived, but best for a certain kind of person: a pen-and-pad note-taker looking for a boost for an old way taking notes, or someone who cannot use a laptop because they are a slow typist or do not have access to a laptop, or for whatever reason does not want to use a laptop and prefers writing. I would certainly recommend these digital pens to that certain kind of user who would find it useful for their particular situation. Likewise worth trying is writing with a stylus on an iPad.

For me, using a laptop is the almost perfect way to take notes and even going back to paper and pad wouldn’t be the end of the world. But others just love using these digital pen devices. As long as we’re both happy, and the important and crucial notes of the world are taken properly, and civilization is preserved in its highest intellectual glory—we have done our proper part, and perhaps even deserve overlooked commendation.

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