Guest Blog: Evernote and Anthropology

We here at the Wenner-Gren Foundation are fascinated by the new  technologies that anthropologists are constantly tinkering with, bricoleur-style, alongside their tried-and-true research practices. From iPad-mounted rigs for ethnographic filmmaking to apps for digital audio recording, we’ve come a long way from Malinowski’s spartan Trobriand tent.

Lately, we’ve been hearing a lot about one little app in particular: Evernote, a piece of notemaking/archiving software that first appeared on the scene as a beta in 2008 and since has become something of a cult item for the digitally-inclined anthropologist. Today, we welcome guest blogger Danielle Carr, a Ph.D. student in anthropology at the University of Minnesota. Carr studies the somatization of trauma and is currently working on an ethnography of Deep Brain Stimulation therapy for depression and PTSD, and has become something of an “evernote evangelist” in her own words. Let’s turn it over to her to learn more about Evernote’s use in anthropological fieldwork and her experiences with the product.


I never intended to become an Evernote evangelist. I’ve long held that  when someone establishes intense eye contact and tells you excitedly that something will absolutely change your life,  the best policy is to nod and continue your adequate existence, bereft as it may be of juice cleanses or Infinite Jest or gel insoles. When the first of my friends began preaching the starry-eyed  gospel of Evernote to me, I humored them. I smiled over coffee as they waxed rhapsodic about infinite syncing across devices, much as I imagine Marco Polo’s friends smiled over the 13th century equivalent of brunch as he spluttered about this wonderful new trading route that they simply must try. Reader, I admit it: I was patronizing.

I didn’t think more of it until I began preparing for fieldwork. I had been advised to keep a running word document of field notes, to save everything else in folders, and to back the whole caboodle up daily, nay, twice daily. Perhaps this strategy works for Bowflex-bodied ubermenschen, but as my file organization tends to quickly descend into a situation resembling a Bosch painting of Russian nesting dolls, I was apprehensive.  It was in this dark moment of despair that I gave Evernote a try. That, it turns out, is how they get you.

My friends, I write to you a reluctant convert. I know how this sounds, but hear me out. Here are three reasons Evernote was the perfect tool for my participant-observation based project.

1.       It allows you to create any sort of archival file.

The most groan-inducing aspect of ethnographic research is that you must keep assiduous track of every picture, audio recording, or scan you encounter. Normally, this would require uploading all the files from your sundry devices and weeping quietly as you label them by hand each night. Evernote allows you to make any sort of file (be it a scan, recording, picture, or video) and label it from within the application. Each file is saved in a “note”, or an entry resembling a notecard, to which you can add as many types of files or text as you like. The program then syncs all files across any device linked to your Evernote account. I carry an iPad during active fieldwork, and label all the notes as I create them. At the end of the day, I switch to my laptop and add tags to the notes, and write additional comments in each note.

2.       It creates your archive for you.

Ethnographic research requires that you remember not only what you learned, but when you learned it, since you are yourself a character in the emerging narrative. Evernote’s design allows you to input data in bite-sized chunks as you come across it, merging the textuality of a blog with the archival sensibilities of citation management software.  Each note you create is collated into “notebooks” and you can keep as many running as you wish. Each note is automatically inserted into this archive, which allows you to build a very precise narrative. In my case, I keep one notebook with websites, articles, and academic articles related the field I am studying, and in another I keep the documentation I am myself collecting, including my field notes.

3.       It syncs across all of your devices.

While this feature may not work so well for fieldwork in rural areas without wi-fi, using two devices has been ideal for my purposes and Evernote allows me to switch between them as desired. During the day, I carry a small satchel with an iPad, spare consent forms, and a notebook. I keep running notes on pen and paper, using the iPad if I need to take a photo or a recording, and write everything up at night using my behemoth of a laptop. Using an iPad for fieldwork is the topic for another blog post, and my own deep ambivalence and guilt about owning said iPad is another still, but speaking from the strangling embrace of the global capital’s tentacles I must admit: only having to tote one device that automatically organizes all of my data has been dreamy.

There are a few considerations worth mentioning. Using any program to organize your data binds you, in sickness and in health, to their platform. You can ameliorate this by keeping your data backed up elsewhere, as you can download any file you collect in Evernote and save it wherever you like. The other issue is that Evernote is free unless you go above a certain monthly upload limit. I have used it for two months now without being forced to shell out the five bucks monthly, but it is worth bearing in mind. There’s also the issue of confidentiality. While there have been no Evernote-hacking scandals to date, it’s probably best to anonymize your data before you put it in their system.

At the heart of these concerns, of course, is the question of ethnography’s complicity with neoliberalism. I don’t pretend to know the answer on that one, but I do think it is an issue digital projects and methods must bear actively in mind as we incorporate new tools. Considering our position in the nexus of research, technology, and capital may not be the most important conversation for anthropology, but it is a necessary one all the same. And so, dear reader, I share with you the system I’ve cobbled together that seems to be working well for me.  I remain open to comments of all sorts. Though not to comments about juice cleanses. As Levi-Strauss once commented (probably), you have to draw the line somewhere.

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