Primary and Secondary Source Management

Despite all sorts of professional involvement in data mining and knowledge development/management/exploitation, it hasn’t translated well to how I manage my personal files at home. I’ve been collecting primary and secondary research materials for years, but somehow never really used any form of software or tool to manage it all. File folders and file naming conventions, that’s about it. Now that my library of PDFs, Word docs, saved emails and the like has grown to silly proportions, and now that I’ve got the time to focus on my PhD and book projects, the old ways have got to go.

Over the last week, I’ve been researching two types of product: computer-assisted qualitative data analysis software (CAQDAS) like Atlas, NUDist/NVivo, Ethnograph, and the CDC’s E-Z Text, among others; and bibliographical/reference software like EndNote, Reference Manager, and Sente. The former are much more complex tools, involve a steep learning curve, and feature some interesting possibilities – notably coding functions. The latter are much more basic – I want to say that they lend themselves well to secondary source management, whereas CAQDAS is for primary source exploitation.

Two things come to mind. First, I find myself resisting what feels like a technological trap, ie. locking my data into any particular tool and its capabilities, and in turn find myself favoring something simpler. Export functions can mitigate some of that, so obviously a must-have feature.  Second, distinctions between primary and secondary sources are harder to maintain in discourse analysis – so I find myself wanting some of the CAQDAS coding functions in my reference software. Not a show-stopper, but something to think about, especially as I read more on all of this.


  1. Mike, I am in the same boat! But I’m an Atlas user and can’t quite imagine using it to organize files – it’s more for organizing the content of files – coding patterns in the text data. Whereas what I need most is an easy way to keep my materials themselves in order.

    I guess it depends on what you want to do. Atlas for what it’s worth has lots of functionality but is expensive, clunky, complex and proprietary which makes it harder to make your coded data available to those who don’t own it. If it’s coding of documents you want instead of file management per se, one set of software you might look at is the Coding Analysis Toolkit, which was designed to overcome the deficiencies of Atlas – it is free, web-based and works with keystrokes instead of mouse-clicks.

  2. @Charli: Thanks for the pointer, I’ll check out the Coding Analysis Toolkit. It’s interesting, I think, that the basic reference software extends to things like email and personal communication – which is a short step away from managing primary data sources. Unless I’m missing something, it shouldn’t be too difficult to implement some form of basic coding from within the functions of most of the reference software packages.

    @Chris: Zotero looks amazing. I’ve been trialing Sente, and it and Zotero look almost identical. Functionality looks to be on a par, as well. The interface is what’s sold me – much clearer and more intuitive than either Reference Manager or Endnote. So far, that’s what I’m leaning towards – the short learning curve is essential, letting me quickly use the tool to work the content, instead of getting bogged down in the technology.

  3. Most importantly, Zotero actively makes sure they will be around for a long long time (it is part of their mission statement). Plus, since they are open source, if in 10 years the Zotero project ends, your data is not locked in some proprietary format.

    Basically, Zotero keeps your data free!

  4. I tried Zotero but was too disorganised to make it work properly. Since I’m in a similar position to Mike I may give it another go…

  5. @Chris – keeps it free from being trapped in any specific technology or platform, or keeps my research free for anyone else to tap into, at any point in the process? Philosophically, I don’t have a problem with open source. I even think it’s a good idea for some things. But as far as my research is concerned, it implies certain consequences – like having my “original” work potentially scooped by someone else, or having incomplete findings misinterpreted or misused by others before I’m ready to share them with the public – that I’m not willing to accept without some sort of constraints or qualifications built in.

  6. John Matthew Barlow

    For most of my doctoral research, I used Endnote, but that became problematic when I switched mid-flight to a Mac from a PC. I had headache after headache in trying to migrate data from PC to Mac. Zotero is something I poked around towards the end of the dissertation, but by that point, I didn’t care anymore about organising myself. But as I move onto the next project, I have been poking about Zotero, and think it’s amazing, I echo all that Chris says about it. My two cents.

  7. John Matthew Barlow

    Actually, if memory serves, a friend of mine, Elena Razlagova, worked on its development at George Mason when she was doing her PhD and post-doc work at the Centre for History and New Media earlier this decade.

  8. I meant this: “keeps it free from being trapped in any specific technology or platform”. I just mean that if the Zotero project fails, your data won’t in be inaccessible because they stop supporting that file format.

    FYI: I keep all my Zotero stuff offline (don’t use the online sync feature).

  9. Steveo

    Chris is so right… Zotero is also my peripherial (maybe my main) brain !!! I am using it to save PDF but also web or blog pages !!! I don’t have to tell you how many good thoughs you have on blogs so it’s great to be able to get some archives. After it’s just amazing to be able to search through them. Make my life so bette !!!

    Otherwise, I am also using Evernote ( to keep track of my newspaper articles. It allows you to search through the all text… Pretty cool when you need to find a name or something else !!!

    Couple weeks ago, I have also start to use Mendeley ( It very cool to add comments on your PDF and grade them but unfortunately this is not an open source software !!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: