I once heard a college professor say that the best scholars are not necessarily those who are the smartest, but those who know how to best access the information. I think (and hope) he is right. This applies to two aspects of scholarship: 1) research and 2) note-keeping and retrieval. I want to focus on the latter. If we know how to take and store our notes in a way that is not only easy but also highly-accessible, then we will make good use of our time and effort; what we learn now will be ready for us to use 5, 10, 20, 30 (yes, think long term) years from now. On the other hand, if we do not have a way in which we can store and retrieve notes, much of our time studying and reading and thinking and writing may be wasted; not completely wasted, but not as profitable as it could be.
As a positive illustration, take one of my professors, Dr. Donald Whitney. During the last few days of the semester, Dr. Whitney conducted a Q & A where he answered any remaining questions we had about the class (Spiritual Disciplines). One question regarded his method of note keeping. In answering the question, he mentioned how he had recently been asked to write an article for a popular Christian magazine. He was given very little notice, however—the article had to be submitted soon. Yet, when he heard the topic of the article, he breathed a sigh of relief: he had a file folder full of solid and previously sifted information on that very topic. Had he researched for that article? Yeah—for over thirty years, as he, week after week, placed what he found to be helpful pieces of information about that subject into his file cabinet. Now he just needed to open the file and let it spill out onto paper. The article was written before he ever typed a word.
As a negative illustration, just consider the last 20 books you read. What did you learn from them? What sentences and paragraphs convicted, encouraged, admonished and taught you? What footnotes enlightened your understanding on a particular issue that was not germane to the subject matter of the book? What ever happened to that excellent illustration of courage you read about in that book on World War II? What page was it on? Even more to the point, how will you access that information for later use in sermons, articles, blogs, counseling, and other teaching opportunities? The crushing truth is that much of this information is lost, or, at best, hidden somewhere difficult to remember. All that reading and so little to show for it.
Much of our labor as pastors, teachers, and professors will be the gathering and distribution of useful knowledge. Anticipating this to be the case, I have found it helpful to begin to learn how to store up that knowledge now, so that I can use it later in the ministry. In the next post, I would like to suggest a few ways in which I take, store, and retrieve notes. I have written on this previously, but this next article will deal in more depth with the whole of my method of note-keeping, not just with the note-card system. The approach I use now is basically a combination of several methods I have distilled into a note-keeping and retrieval process that has proved to be both simple and effective. I hope it will be a benefit to you.