Tag Handwritten Notes to Link them with Typed Notes

This is a small tip, but it took me four years of active thinking to come to it. I started using it two years ago, just before I authored Markdown Mapper.

Markdown Mapper is an R script for reverse-engineering network maps from notes written in Markdown format, incorporating the hierarchical structure of outlines, metadata about the notes, and tags (like #hashtags) in the notes’ text.

When I started my graduate career (which I recently concluded), I struggled to find a way to sustainably incorporate handwritten notes from meetings, classes, and brainstorming sessions with typed notes that I would alternatively create on those same types of occasions. Inevitably, my handwritten notes, lacking a coherent indexing strategy, would become forgotten or remain unconsidered as I reviewed the notes that I had typed.

My answer to this: Rather than focusing on constructing an index per se of my handwritten notes, I now just “tag” the notes. I follow this approach when taking handwritten notes (including, and especially, in mindmap format):

  1. Rather than using #hashtags, I double-underline any word or phrase I want to “tag” in my notes.
  2. Periodically, I digitize (i.e., save a digital copy of) my handwritten notebook.
    I most recently digitized a notebook by placing it on a tabletop, taking a photograph of each page, and sending it to Voussoir, as I described here. Just photographing each page with a camera or camera-phone can alternatively work well. Digitizing periodically also allows less worry about losing the physical notebook, because the notebook is “backed up” in a workflow like this.
    I save the photographs (either separately or combined as a PDF) alongside my typed notes.
  3. Once per week (or month, etc.), for each page of un-processed handwritten notes, I type the title of that page, the date, and a list of the double-underlined “tags” from that page. I save this list alongside my typed notes.
  4. At this point, I have a computer-searchable index of my handwritten notes alongside my computer-searchable typed notes. The full directory of notes files can be searched together, combined, etc. The presence of the digitized copy of the handwritten notebook allows looking up any page of notes regardless of whether the original, physical notebook is available.

For me, the utility of this approach is that the index arises naturally out of the text I write, and that the indexing process (typing up the “tags”) can happen as frequently or infrequently as my projects require.