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. Our care to maintain a note-taking and retrieval system, then, is not a matter of preference, but a matter of stewardship.

9 thoughts on “The Importance of a Note-Keeping and Retrieval System

  1. Derek,
    I highly recommend Getting Things Done by David Allen. And using his method is subversive since he is a priest in a new age church!

  2. Derek:
    Microsoft Office OneNote serves as a great program for taking notes. Have you tried it? I used it when I was in seminary. With the program, you can search your notes and organize them under multiple topics. It does all the extra work automatically; all you have to do is type.

  3. Rudy,

    I haven’t tried OneNote. It sounds pretty cool and it appears to be relatively inexpensive. I would like to take a look at it. I have never been a huge fan of keeping all my notes on a computer. Not that I would discourage anyone from doing so, but I like having a hard copy of everything. Even what I do write on a computer eventually finds its way into a folder or binder. Having said that, I probably would have to first work with OneNote before I made any more comments about it. I don’t know what it does and what it doesn’t do.


  4. Derek – Good thoughts about diligence in note-preservation. I’m still refining my own system. I do think it’s important to mention that it’s very easy in our age to overestimate the value of having hefty, organized files. Not because such files are unprofitable in themselves — certainly they’re very helpful as Don Whitney’s illustration shows — but because we can deemphasize the power and priority of internalized knowledge. We just allow our files to be our mind and memory. The power of memorization, non-written meditation, and the ability to community from the depth and experience and wisdom and knowledge stored up in our own Scripture-saturated minds can be deemphasized in favor of having a massive file system where we can retrieve things “whenever we need it.” I say this partially because most of the saints in the history of redemption had only had their minds and hearts and had to store up knowledge and wisdom there instead of on paper or electronically. Not to take anything away from what you’re saying; just a little perspective.

  5. You have previously mentioned an article you wrote on 4/24/2008 called “A Great Way to Take Notes.” You mentioned that you explain your note card system in this article. Where can we access that? It sounds very helpful. Thanks. ~Greg

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