I first want to stress a couple of key points from my last blog post. The first point I wish to stress is in order to undertake a functional literature database, you must have your computer files organized. By organized, I mean a standard naming scheme allowing you to easily discern the author and content of the file and creating a PDF library on your computer allowing you to find the article you need when you need it. The second point I wish to stress is that there are reference managers/PDF organizers such as Endnote and Mendeley available by subscription that are excellent at organizing your journal article PDF's and acting as your literature database. However, as I stated in my last blog, I have not personally met any scholar who uses these reference managers proficiently to the extent they are able to keep their articles, citations, and notes organized. I have a free Mendeley subscription and may add a supplemental blog on how to use the application once my three-part organizational series is completed. At present, I want to focus the series on organizing your research through the one tool you already have access to and with which you are most likely proficient − your own laptop or desk top computer. I will show you how to use Microsoft Excel as a reference manager/source organizer.¹
The Literature Database Defined and Demystified
Your Source Index worksheet tells you all the source material you have in your database and gives you indexing information regarding each source. This main worksheet provides you the information needed to discern the content of each piece of source material, helps you in searching for relevant or needed source material, and helps you if you need to develop an annotated reference list. The Source Index includes:
- ID − This is your unique identifier for each piece of source material. I began my source ID with the number 1; you may begin with whatever number or number-letter combination you choose (but, keep it simple so your database is easy to use). This ID will follow the piece of source material into the Quotation Source worksheets.
- Year − The year the source material was published or made public.
- Type − Indicates the type of source material: book, film, journal article, microfiche, etc.
- Classification/Sub-Category − These relate to the Library of Congress classification for the source material, mostly relevant for books. You may not need these columns, and it is perfectly fine to exclude them (or any of the elements of the database) you do not need. (Also, feel free to add any elements you need.) I included these because when working as a research assistant gathering interdisciplinary material, the Library of Congress categorization was a primary means by which I knew I was covering all relevant subject areas.
- Key Concept − This is where you indicate the name of the Quotation Source worksheet under which the source quotations and your notes are located. For example, note the Key Concepts listed here:
correspond to the Quotation Source worksheets (the subject/topic worksheet tabs) at the bottom of the Source Index worksheet here:
Also note, I often use sub-concepts in addition to the Key Concept to give me a better understanding about the content of the source material.
- Citation − This is a complete, correct citation of each piece of source material. You want these citations perfect according to the mandatory citation style of your discipline. When you take the time to make these citations perfect when you first begin to work with the piece of source material, you only need to copy/paste (or merge, if you know how to create a merge macro in MS Word) the citation into your list of references.
- Synopsis/Abstract − This is your brief overview of the content of the source material. What you put into the synopsis is up to you. I compose approximately four lines detailing the article and its relevance to my research.
- Key Words − This space allows you to categorize the source by relevant theme or themes for easier searching or sorting. (Someone suggested four columns for four key terms to make searching and sorting even more straight forward.)
- Methods − A short description of the type of research methodology utilized for easier searching or sorting.
- Notable References − Often I come across references inside the source material that are interesting or relevant to my research. I make note of them here so I may (a) have the opportunity to explore the reference later, and (b) recall the source material where the notable reference was cited (e.g., Mitchell (2016) referenced Smith (1994) as presenting the basis for her understanding of the phenomenon).
As previously mentioned, your Quotation Source will actually consist of several worksheets broken out by your Key Concepts. Each Quotation Source worksheet consists of five columns: ID, Page Number(s), Primary/Secondary Source, Quote, Notes. A Quotation Source worksheet looks like this:
- ID − This is your unique identifier from the Source Index worksheet for that piece of source material. Many sources will be under one Key Concept, Quotation Source worksheet. With the unique identifier, you can quickly locate the block of quotes for a specific source.
- Page Number(s) − This the page number(s) in the original source from which the quotation was taken. Alternatively, you can use hour:minute:second designations for audio or video sources.
- Primary/Secondary Source − Often in a source other sources are referenced (for various reasons), yet the reference is relevant to your research. You want to make certain you credit the quotation correctly and indicating in your Quotation Source worksheet whether the quotation is from the primary or secondary authors will ensure proper credit is given. For example:
These secondary sources can be carried over into your Source Index worksheet and placed in Notable References for that piece of material.
- Quote − This is your quote from your source material. There is good news and bad news about adding quotations. The good news is for any electronic source (journal articles, ebrary books, PDFs, HTML, Word, etc.) the quote can simply be copied and pasted into your worksheet (easy-peasy). The bad news is you will have to type in the quotation taken from any physical material (books, audio, video, microfiche) or ebooks (Kindle). To end on a positive note, most source material for scholars is in electronic form.
- Notes − These are your notes, questions, definitions, etc., regarding the quote. Remember, for a literature review you want to present your case by interacting with the current literature, not simply summarizing a list of things you've read. Making your notes with the quote ensures you are engaging with the source material, evaluating it, and ready to advise the reader on it.
Your Source Queue worksheet is where you make note of anything interesting you want to look at because it might be relevant to your research. Your Source Queue is that lost piece of paper upon which you wrote the title of that article on or the name of that relevant author. Get rid of the sticky notes and small pieces of paper. Vomit all your possible leads in this worksheet.
- To track the retrieval status of the source material. If I went ahead and obtained the PDF journal article, I will note the article is in my PDF library so I know where to find it when I am ready to look at it. If the book is available at the library, I note at which library it is available. If I checked out the book, I make certain I make note that I have the book and when it is due and whether or not I returned the book (trust me, when you are checking out tons of material it is easy to lose track, so I attempt to stave off overdue fees using the Source Queue).
- To track whether or not I use a potential source, and if I rejected it, I indicate why I rejected it (usually color coding them so I can easily find a used or rejected source):
- To act as my thought process. I do not delete any item from my list because I find myself going back over it at one time or another to find out what I've looked at and what I still need to look at. This leads to an interesting phenomenon, particularly when I've tracked my use/un-use of sources: my Source Queue is actually my thought process on a topic in print form.
That's It, That's a Literature Database
I want to stress one last thing regarding my Excel-based Literature Database: it is not the be all, end all solution. There is always room for improvement. There is always a better way. I had a student once make some not so nice remarks about my database. I simply encouraged the student, as I am encouraging you, to use what you feel comfortable using. I am not preaching the use of this database. I am not preaching perfection. I am preaching organization, and providing you with a starting place and some ideas to become organized.