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I don’t regard myself as a particularly computer-geeky person, but in history circles I often turn out to be the one person who knows how to work the projector, and that, apparently, makes me an IT guru. I’m often astounded by the things I seem to know about computers that some people don’t, and how many people ask me for advice about this kind of thing. But then, if nobody tells you about things, it is certainly harder to know about them. If you’re reading this, perhaps you are one of the people who already knows this stuff. If not, then I hope it is of use to you! Below, I’ve compiled a non-exhaustive list of apps that I’ve found useful. Go to.

Keeping up to date

Email notifications

Literature expands quickly. Not everything that’s published will go on to become a classic of the field, but there is still value in being on top of what has come out recently. In a hangover from my science days I use Thompson Reuters’ ISI Web of Science to manage email alerts of new journal publications in fields of interest to me. This is a subscription service, but most tertiary institutions have a subscription. With an email alert, rather than having to login and repeat the same old search on a regular basis, you save your common search terms, and then set up an automatic alert so that a list of any new results of those searches will be sent to your inbox on a weekly or monthly basis. The humanities collections of the Web of Science are still developing, but it already covers most of the journals published by major publishers, and is growing all the time. The other really great thing about this database is it lets you track not only the citations within a particular article, but also anything which has cited it in turn, allowing you to follow the research footprints both forward and back. [Edit. Note, the email alert service requires you to set up a personal login in addition to your institutional access login method.]

Keeping track


(Or your preferred bibliography software) I swear by this little gem. I learned to love it when I was a working lab scientist, and I couldn’t believe how few people new about or used it when I jumped the fence to humanities. Endnote (and similar programs such as Zotero) lets you:

  • store your bibliography in an easy, standardized and searchable format
  • insert references into written work with a simple click
  • format references in word processed documents instantly
  • keep your notes on a particular item with its bibliographical details
  • attach soft copies of articles, chapters, etc.
  • create thematic folders

The hot tip of all hot tips is to start using Endnote (or similar) early in a project. Don’t wait until you have hundreds (or thousands) of items floating about needed to be entered!

Most literature searching databases, from ISI to JSTOR, and even your local library catalogue include an ‘export to Endnote’ feature which means you can even send reference details direct to your bibliography without having to type them all in by hand. This is super handy and saves you heaps of time, although I do still recommend going through after a big import session to make sure things capitalization or hyphenation style in imported records match any entry protocols you have been using. For example, I always use n-dash between ranges of numbers (e.g. 1264–65), but sometimes an import will introduce entries that have hyphens instead, I just quickly fix that before moving on. Then I always know my bibliography will be consistent in any piece of writing.

Endnote also now includes a web-based storage option so you can take your bibliography with you wherever you go.

For Zotero. A similar, free app:


This little app is wonderful for keeping track of time. You tell it when you begin and end working on a particular task; it adds up the time that you spend — per day, week, month, etc. — on a given task or task category and can show it to you in table or graph form. This is a useful thing for those who are working casually on a range of jobs, such as tutoring or as a research assistant, because it helps you account for every moment spent and make sure you are billing for the time you actually spend working. It’s also very useful for keeping an honest track of time spent on your own research project or thesis, and this can be especially important if it turns out you’re actually spending most of your day on facebook without noticing and need to give yourself a kick in the proverbial. Statistics show you will tend to underestimate the time spent on paid work, but overestimate the time spent on thesis/own research. Toggl does it for you so that you’re not relying on the fallible instruments we call our minds.

Focusing on Writing

Write or Die

Most people write more and better and more regularly with either a carrot or a stick. This is the stick. Write or die is an app for when you’ve done some reading and thinking need to write up your ideas in a rough and ready draft. It gives you a clean screen to type into and locks out other programs until you meet your set target, which might be in words or minutes spent writing. The app prompts you to keep working by alerting you if you have slowed down or stopped, according to the severity of the ‘stick’ you set yourself, for example, by turning the screen progressively more red, setting off a klaxon alarm, or even, on the most severe setting, erasing your work before your eyes. It’s amazing how motivated one can become to keep writing under this kind of pressure! Version 2, now online, has ‘consequences’ mode as well as ‘reward’ mode, if you’re more of a carrot person. There is a free online version, but the paid one might be worth the $20 cost if you are a serial procrastinator when it comes to getting words on the page.


Probably the best $10 you will ever spend. This app isn’t free but it does set you free from the temptation of ‘just quickly checking email’… or doing other pointless, time wasting tasks (or just watching videos of kittens) online when you should be writing. We all do this. And many people can’t stop doing it simply through will power. (*guilty*) Probably because thinking about research and writing about it are both actually really bloody hard to do: the brain naturally veers to one side and takes the path of least resistance unless you force it back to the stony path of intellectual work. Freedom helps by blocking your network access for a time set by you, anywhere between 15 minutes and 8 hours. There’s no countdown clock or any other distracting widgets telling you how much longer you have to ‘endure’ – just no internet access on your device for the time you have set yourself: browsers will open but not connect. The only way to turn it off and get your internet back is to reboot, which is actually quite a hassle if you have 15 windows open and lots of files to save and close…

Backing up

Sync Toy:

This is a great little free Microsoft app, especially handy if you use a portable hard drive (like I do) for travelling or commuting with your files from desk to desk, or — as in the case of a thesis — you want to make sure you always have a backup of the most recent version of your documents. Sync Toy can be set to synchronise (make sure the same files are represented in two places), or backup (save copies of everything in one location to a second location. Run it regularly (daily or at least weekly), especially during thesis writing!

Of course, these days there are a lot of cloud-based options that let you store and work on files in a virtual drive that can be accessed anywhere there is internet and sync to desktop versions automatically. I do use these for research notes and collaborative writing tasks, see below.

Wrangling your information


I’m still getting into this, but it’s pretty awesome. Evernote is a cloud-based notebook that lets you keep everything in one place: bookmarks, website content, screencaps, word documents, pdfs, and jottings. The Evernote web clipper app lets you capture online content and save it direct to your Evernote notebook, while in the notebook itself you can enter, tag, categorize and search your notes. Like all cloud-based apps, the desktop and online versions sync on a regular basis, or on command, meaning you can be sure of having a back up of your ideas, and you can access them anywhere. In my experience it’s cumbersome to use it to store lots of images, and I haven’t found a way to integrate it well with Endnote, but it can do most other things you might need in terms of helping you store research ideas, and retrieve them effectively. You can get a premium version which lets you search within linked word documents as well as within the ‘cover’ notes; but there is a free version which has basically all of the capabilities a student would need, and plenty of storage capacity. For example, I used it recently to make sure I couldn’t lose my PowerPoint or script for a major conference presentation: even if I misplaced my USB stick or my luggage got lost in transit, I could still download the files.

Evernote doesn’t replace the functionality of word processor programs like Word or Pages. For example, its no good at inserting footnotes and formatting, but it is perfectly adequate for taking research notes, meaning you can do this effectively on any online device. This potentially saves you weight in your bag whether it’s international travel, or just a trip downstairs to the library. Its tag function and the capacity to make multiple notebooks within your account mean you can use it as a research ‘filing cabinet’ where your own generated material is stored together with whatever relevant things you’ve found online.


Dropbox is another cloud-based app. I use it especially for collaborating on Word documents. To do this, both (or all) parties sign up for a free Dropbox account (again there is a premium version, but you might find the free one is sufficient to your needs as a student); then everyone downloads the Dropbox desktop app. This creates a folder on your desktop which is synced to the cloud. You can edit documents in the folder in real time and everyone’s copy will automatically update.

I’ve found Dropbox more useful for this kind of editing than Google Drive because the latter doesn’t let you edit Word documents from within the cloud. Instead, you have to download them and than re-upload the new version. In a collaborative situation, this could lead to a lot of confusion and potential stuff-ups about which version is current and communally approved. On the other hand, Google Drive is great for things like making and sharing forms or group schedules, and for communally editing documents if they were created in Drive as a Google document in the first place.

Online security


This is an amazing app. It’s a password manager: you create one long, complex, mega-password to get into lastpass, and it remembers all your other passwords for everything from your email to your internet banking. It can also generate passwords for you at random, according to parameters like the number of characters, whether to include numbers or special characters, and whether the password should be pronounceable. Since you don’t have to remember them, you can have really long, weird passwords, and different passwords for all your online activities, both of which greatly increase your online security. The only slight problem is it apparently doesn’t work on iPhones…

A while ago this article appeared on the website of The Age, one of the Melbourne dailies. It discusses how this image found its way onto the official final high school History exam for Victorian students in 2012:

Anonymous, after Nikolai Kochergin’s “Storming the Winter Palace, 25 October 1917”. Source: DarkRoastedBlend

Now, looking carefully, you will see a giant robot assisting the Bolshevik forces from behind an ornate fence. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t recall any cybermen or transformers being part of the curriculum when I took this unit on The Age of Revolutions. (OK, it was a long time ago, but I doubt *that* kind of new material has since come to light!)

In this case, we’re assured that students (a) weren’t asked any questions to which this interloper in the image could have introduced confusion (which rather implies they weren’t asked any questions about the image, and that leads me to wonder why the hell it was there in the first place… but aaaaaanyway), and (b) if any confusion or distraction attributable to the image is ‘detected’ in student answers, somehow something will be done to make sure they are not disadvantaged. God knows how *that’s* supposed to work.[1] I remember I once applied for my own final history exam to be remarked (I had received a D, and for the record, it went up to A- upon review) but there wasn’t any sort of confusion on the paper, merely in the examiner’s mind: let’s hope this bunch were more on the ball.

The online news on the day was having a giggle at the expense of the examinations board at the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA), and we, the readers, were invited to scoff along — ‘How silly! What kind of morons do they hire there these days? *Snort* Fancy not noticing a giant robot!’ — before moving on with our self-satisfied surfing. Indeed, twitter briefly lit up with guffaws and virtual finger-pointing. And to an extent, yes: people whose job it is to set exams, one would assume, have something of a moral obligation to ensure that they are providing tests which give accurate information, and ask questions to which answers can reasonably be expected. The obligation of examination boards presumably extends to them not just shoving in an image they’ve scooped from the top of a list generated by the black box of their online search engine of choice. Yet that is what we must suspect occurred in this case. According to The Age, “a search for the image in Google brings up the robot version as the first result“.[2] This incident has therefore prompted me to reflect on the often unrecognized influence of, particularly, Google’s search algorithm on our thinking.[3] Read the rest of this entry »

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I teach and research at the Centre for Medieval & Renaissance Studies in the School of Philosophical, Historial and International Studies, Monash University (Australia). Views expressed here are my own and not representative of the CMRS, SOPHIS or Monash.

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