Taking notes is second only to reading writing and simple 'rithmatic, in the skills one should master before finishing high school. Yet after 12 years of grade school, four years of college, 800 hours of professional development/continuing education, and a semester and a half of graduate school, I can think of only two lessons I had in note-taking: outlines and "bubble maps". So two fifty minute class periods to learn what two decades of academic life would ultimately hinge upon. Even the most callous and cold-hearted parent will check and make sure their kids figured out how to doggy-paddle after tossing them into the deep end of the swimming pool!
What's more, note-taking is a very personal process. It requires trial and error with different note-taking strategies and tools, and may eventually require some reflection on how you process best information (visually, spatially, rhythmically, etc.). Well, 20 years too late as I limp my way to the grad school finish line, I finally discovered the tool for me. Meet Zim.
Zim is a Perl-based "desktop wiki", a WYSIWYG tool that allows you to create a local set of wiki pages. If you're like most of the population and don't yet understand Nerdinese, check out Wikipedia and learn first hand the beauty and magic that is Wiki.
The hallmarks of wiki pages which Zim implements with tremendous simplicity are:
- ease of editing
- hierarchical organization
- intelligent linking
Zim's maintainer(s) describes it as a tool "intended to keep track of TODO lists or to serve as a personal scratch book." And I guess oxygen is just a gas that helps make breathing a little more comfortable. In my previous life, I used the computer to take notes for more conference calls and meetings than I care to remember. I've dabbled with a variety of desktop tools for note-taking, from Microsoft Word to Lotus Notes to Cold Fusion Studio in WYSIWYG mode. What sticks out most through these experiences is that they all SUCKED!!!
In this age where our browser bookmarks have supplanted our scrapbooks, and email and MySpace/Friendster/Blogger accounts our diaries, Zim is note-taking, reviewing, and archiving platform for the hyperlinked generation. It's by no means perfect, but even at humble version 0.11, Zim has transformed reading and note-taking from grueling chores, engaging and meaningful learning experiences. I feel like I read faster and more deeply with Zim open alongside my textbook than I did before whether taking notes or not.
Will Zim work for you? Maybe. It's more important that you take time to think about how you think, how you record information for later use, and simply what draws you to information (format, color, spatial arrangement...) then consider the tools available to you (analog and digital) from that standpoint.
The good thing about Zim is that you're not constrained to the linear constraints of a word processor, nor the physical constraints of pen and paper. As it becomes more important whether in class or at work to take notes that are meaningful, organized, easy to access and distribute, it's even more important to have a tool that suits your preferred note taking style.
Zim isn't the only such tool out there, nor is the wiki style the only alternative to vanilla-text editor note-taking or even the outline-friendly presentation tools. Freemind, and kdissert are Graphical Mind Mapping tools (think "bubble maps" or "concept maps") that are also excellent for recording and organizing notes and ideas. Consider these particularly if you find you are more visually or spatially oriented. Zim, Freemind, and kdissert are all free (as in "free beer" AND as in "free speech") but there are commercial tools available as well (see Microsoft OneNote, or Inspiration). There are also a number of note-taking strategies in addition to the ones mentioned above which you should peruse, especially if like me, you only got 100 minutes of note-taking lessons for twelve years of grade school.
Just remember, it's not about the money you spend, the quantity of information captured, or the who's who in using one system or another. It's about taking the time to find out what works best for you. I lucked out and found Zim. Take a look and see what you find.