Creating and maintaining a reference material library – Part 1 The basics

what is reference material ?

My definition for reference material is simple. Anything that is not actionable which I would like to keep for future review. This can include (but not limited to) lists of things that interest me, how-to’s , meeting notes, lecture notes, guidelines, links to important sites, information about hobbies I have and ideas I came up with.

Why keeping a reference material system to begin with ?

My rule is this … if something was important enough for you to research or read about, it is important enough to keep, and be able to reproduce with minimal effort.

Things that you should keep in a reference material system

  • Interests and hobbies
  • project related research material
  • snippets of information you find useful
  • meeting notes
  • lecture notes
  • ideas you think about

Things you should NOT keep in a reference system

  • Passwords (NEVER EVER), those should be kept in special encrypted containers such as 1password.
  • Actionable items , those should have their own system (you can read about it in my organization related blogs starting here)

Where should reference material be kept ?

That’s a good question. Personally, I am trying to keep everything digital. If it is in paper form, I either scan it, or take a picture of it with my phone (As good as scanning in my opinion).
Why do I prefer electronic form ?
  • Save the world ! less paper, less trees to cut !
  • You can back it up if it is in electronic form, paper is usually a single copy
  • Once you have it in electronic form, you can have it available for you anywhere you are
  • Electronic form takes much less space
  • Electronic form is much easier and faster to search on

Where you shouldn’t keep your reference material

One single rule – you SHOULD NOT keep it within your “todo” system.Why ? because it clutters everything and you end up with too many things to seethe through when you actually want to do some work.
Note: Links or shortcuts TO your reference system FROM your actions system is ok, and is encouraged (for example, the research material related to a task should be referenced from the task).

The characteristics of a good reference system

  • Versatile – should be able to hold a plethora of information types, pictures, different file types, links, text, etc
  • Easily accessible from anywhere – online OR offline, and preferably on any device (PC / MAC / IOS / Android etc)
  • Robust search – should be very easy to find things using multiple filters
  • Can be easily backed up
  • Secure
  • Trusted – you need to know that once you put something in there, it stays there
  • Easy to process – Adding new data in a meaningful way should be simple

What do I suggest ?

The simple answer is Evernote. I have tried quite a few solutions. I list other similar products here to allow you to do your own research should you choose to do so.
I would encourage you to look into other products because of the following reasons:
  • I do not want the reader (you) to ignore another product just because I suggested it is “not good enough” for me
  • Products change all the time, could be that i have tried an early version of a product, and now it is 10x better than before
  • Every person have their own workflows and ideas, you should make your own decisions
  • Every product is different, each have their strengths and weaknesses – nothing is perfect
Some of the products I tried are:

The good news:

The principles I suggest here will work with any of the above programs …

Figuring out your reference system

A reference system is unique for each person. We all have our own set of unique interests, work and family life, and therefore a very different set of information to store. The good news, is that the process of figuring out your system can be the same:
  1. Collect all of your information into a single “bucket” (software), and investigate the different information types you have. Try to think high level. Analyze the information from “100k view perspective”, this should eventually show you high level groups of data (WHAT is the information you are looking at). I will share my own list to give you a better understanding of what I refer to.
    Each and every one of the items below become a general tag that gets applied to every piece of information I have (at least one):

    • ^Tutorial – a step-by-step walk-through for someone with no experience
    • ^Guide – gives basic information, not detailed instruction. Think “pointers”.
    • ^How to – a list of detailed steps for particular operations (usually less detailed than a tutorial, assumes knowledge in the subject matter).
    • ^Resource – General useful information for a given topic
    • ^Asset – Project related artifacts (meeting minutes, notes, diagrams , research etc)
    • ^Presentation – Presentation notes

    Note: The “^” at the beginning is not a mistake, I actually name those tags like that. That allows me to quickly see the those tags when I type “^” in Evernote. The reason for the symbol itself, is that it reminds me a roof, and since those tags are the most general tags I have, it makes sense to me.

  2. Collect all of the special sources the information came from (only special ones). In my case, that’s the list:
    • @Mind Map – I use mind maps to take notes and brainstorm
    • @Omnioutliner – I use omioutliner to take notes and keep how to’s
    • @Omnigraffle – I use omnigraffle to create workflow diagrams, and mockups
    • @OCR – I use an OCR program to scan images and PDF’s to make them searchable

    Note: The “@” (at) sign is part of the name I use to make the tagging simpler. @ reminds me of “location”, WHERE is this information coming from ?

  3. Collect all of the specific subjects you have. That’s where it gets really tricky, you need to have enough tags to make searching robust enough, but you do not want to have too many tags floating around, otherwise it is too complex to process your inbox (we will get to that soon).Think high level subjects at this point. This is probably where my list will help you the least, since these are specific subjects of interest, but i will provide it anyways:
    • !PHP
    • !HTML
    • !CSS
    • !JSCRIPT
    • !MySQL
    • !Apache
    • !OsX
    • !Windows
    • !Linux
    • !Shell
    • !Organizational skills
    • !Relationships
    • !AWS
    • !OS
    • !Brainstorm
    • !Business Skills

    Note: All of the items start with a “!” (bang) – these are specific subjects.

  4. Try to identify groups of data (folders or containers) that the information belongs to.
    In my case, this is my list:

    • !inbox – Initial holding space for information for further processing (the “!” makes sure it shows at the top of the list of folders in Evernote)
    • Technology – All technology related information
    • Projects (container of containers) – Contains container for each project with assets and research materials.
    • Hobbies (container of containers) – Contains a container for each hobby with all assets and research materials
    • Expenses (broken down into personal and work related)
    • Manuals (different manuals for electronics stuff)

An example for using the above information

For example, lets assume that I am researching how to bake a cake for my daughters birth day …
Once I find a recipe in a site, I store it in Evernote. By default it lands in the !inbox. When I have some time, I process it.
At this point, it will tag it with the following information:
^Tutorial (tag) , ^Asset (tag) , “How to bake chocolate cake” (the title of the information), and I will file it under “Projects” in a “Danielle’s birthday” project.
^Tutorial – Because it is detailed steps for someone with no previous knowledge
^Assest – Because it is information that relates to a project (my daughter’s birthday)
Projects folder – that where the project is
Danielle’s birthday – the project it is under
Notice that in this case, I did not provide it with a specific tag (one of the “!” ones), because I do not have one for baking (I don’t collect enough information about baking to merit a tag for it), but because I put “bake” in the title, I will still be able to easily find it using the built in search in Evernote.
The information above should give me enough filtering to minimize the list of items if I ever need to find it, even if I do not remember all of the details.

The things that Evernote lacks

  • No native support for mind maps
  • No native support for outlines
  • No native support for omnigraffle (mockups and diagrams)

The solution

In this blog post I will introduce the “simple” approach to overcoming the above limitations …. manually create PDF files and save them in Evernote. In the next blog post – Creating and maintaining a reference material library – Part 2 Automation (Advanced), I will introduce the workflow I have implemented to automate the creation of the PDF files, and the automatic tagging of the information gathered.

Final Words of wisdom

Collect first and process later, there is no such thing as collecting too much information as long as you take the time to process the information at a later time, file it correctly, or delete it if it is not required.

If this is interesting to you, I would recommend reading other blogs I wrote about self organizational skills:

Mind Maps
Getting Organized Part 1
Getting Organized Part 2
Getting Organized Part 3
What are projects and how to best approach them