How to Tame the Chaos of Historic Research

Historical reenacting is an odd combination of rustic camping & secluded library research. But with all that research comes an endless book list that can be hard to manage. How many times have you been at an event, discussing this great reference you just read, only to realize you can’t remember the title or authors name? How many times have you remembered some random snippet of interesting information, only to stare at your bookshelves unable to remember where you read it?

How do you manage that endless pile of reading material? From the books that are you tried and true favorites to the ones you still haven’t gotten around to reading? How do you organize your notes & images so they are easy to reference later? Luckily I’ve got a few tips that might help tame the beast that is historic research.

Use or Other Citation Creating Website.

If you are planning on writing anything academic, keeping your book list in proper Chicago, MLA or other format isn’t just a good idea, it’s vital to being taken seriously. Luckily these days, putting together that formally organized bibliography or works cited is as easy as visiting a website like Personally, I don’t miss the days of leafing through the Chicago Manual of Style to find out how to cite a book with multiple editors. Yes, even though I have written about creating proper citiations before. I create my citations through the site & copy them into an ongoing text file, prefect for citing at the bottom of a simple blog post, or the end of an 80 page thesis.

Make an Amazon Wish List.

If you aren’t as concerned about impressing others with the formality of your references, try making a wish list (or several) on Amazon. Honestly, those lists are the first place I go when I am in need of a new book to read, or when I am at Half Price Books, see a book that looks interesting but can’t remember if I own it yet. Amazon lists are also a fantastic way to share recommended reading among friends, unit members, and newcomers to the hobby since the lists are not just easy to share but getting your hands on the books is just a click away. I have even been known to send my book lists to my family when they ask what I want for my birthday (hint, it’s probably a reproduction cookbook).

Customers in the book department, Selfridge's Department Store, 1942.

Add Bookshelves to Google Books.

Similar to Amazon wish lists, Google Books are even better for primary sources. Try creating a dedicated Google Book “Shelve” for each of your favorite time periods or subjects to keep things organized. I even have a shelf dedicated to “Books in foreign languages” for those times when just English options aren’t enough. The second best thing about Google books is the option to find the books in print via Amazon and other sources with just a click. The best thing of course is how many books are actually 100% free! Those free primary source books are some of the best available online and the easiest to read thanks to their standard formatting. I actually invested in an e-reader just to maximize the number of primary sources I’m reading.

Keep Notes in Google Docs.

When I’m reading one of those free books from Google books, it’s not unusual for me to have a second browser tab open to Google Docs, collecting snippets for later reference. I start every document with the same citation information that a properly documented paper would need, then follow with quotes directly cut from the book itself but you could simply use the book title and author. Later I can read through just these notes to refresh my memory or search for a specific reference. It’s not a perfect note taking system, but it sure beats the way I was taught to keep index cards when I was in school!

Be Extra Organized with Evernote.

Evernote is like Google Docs, with better tagging capabilities, image capture & weblinks. I’ve just started fully exploring what Evernote can do to help organize my endless research notes. I really love being able to take screenshots of recipe pages & tag them with the ingredients or era that I’m researching. What is even better is being able to go back to those images & click a link to follow back to where the clip originally came from, be it an ebook or webpage. It’s not perfect though. I haven’t figured out how to save all the images to one file easily and the link is no substitute for a properly written bibliographic citation, but I’m sure with a little more experience, I will figure out those tricks too.

Chemists Club Library.
Go Old School with Post-it Notes, Highlighters and a Notebook.

Seriously, have you ever seen a book after a historic researcher gets done with it? Post-it notes over important sections, highlighted spots all over the place, pencil comments in the margins. When it comes to books that I know & reference frequently, they can end up looking more like bad scrapbooking attempts than valid sources of information. While I love the ease of reading a book digitally and keeping notes in the cloud, it sometimes doesn’t feel as “real” as sitting down with a book, a pile of my favorite Kokyo highlighters and a rainbow selection of Post-it notes. Although take my advice, transfer all that information to a back-up file as well for those times when you aren’t near your bookshelves to pull out your favorite book.

If you are anything like me, these tips will be a boon to your organization and research efforts. No more forgotten sources, piles of random notes & searching the web desperately trying to find where you *know* you read that great fact.

What is your favorite way to keep track of your historical research?

See you in the past!