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News, How-tos, and assorted Views on Accordance Bible Software.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006  

Paper vs. Electronic Note-Taking

Rick Mansfield is a doctoral candidate, collector of print Bibles, frequent blogger, and (his most prestigious credential) an Accordance user. Last week, Rick blogged about wide margin Bibles and talked a little about his method of marking up print Bibles and inscribing notes in the margins. Knowing that Rick is an Accordance user, I left a comment asking him to compare inscribing notes in a print Bible with taking notes in a Bible study program like Accordance. He responded with the admission that (gasp!) he hasn't really used the note-taking features of Accordance, and he invited me to write a guest blog on the subject. Before I'm ready to ask Rick to post anything to his site, I figure I'll post some initial thoughts about electronic note-taking here.

The first thing I want to consider are the advantages and disadvantages of each method of note-taking. In a future post, I'll go into the specifics of note-taking in Accordance.

Paper notes:

Portability is one of the primary advantages of scrawling notes in a paper Bible. Sure you can carry a laptop around with you, but it's hard not to look pretentious taking a PowerBook with you to church or synagogue. (Not that I haven't been known to do it, mind you, but I always feel self-conscious when I do!)

Another advantage of scrawling notes in a print Bible is that there is a tactile satisfaction associated with it. Let's face it, there's a certain feel to reading a well-made Bible and writing in the margins with a good pen—a feel which is impossible to duplicate with an LCD screen and a set of keys.

(Incidentally, this is one reason we're not interested in publishing an electronic version of every religious book known to man. There are certain books which translate well into electronic media, and some, such as Louw & Nida's Greek lexicon, which almost seem designed to be used electronically rather than in print. But there are other books which are just meant to be read, and turning the pages of a paper book is still preferable to using a scroll bar.)

Okay, those are the main pros of paper note-taking which I can think of, but there are also several cons.

The first is that ink notes and color highlighters are permanent. When you mark up a verse, those annotations are there every time you read that verse, and at times, your notes can distract from your reading. In my first Bible, I used a simple system of underlining verses of doctrinal importance in black, and application-oriented verses in red. But I soon found that when I read those passages again, my eye was immediately drawn to the underlined portions, and I began to suspect that my previous observations were forever "coloring" my understanding of those verses.

Another disadvantage of written notes and highlights is that they are not easily transferable from one Bible to the next. Notes written in ink are permanent, but Bibles wear out, and when a new Bible is purchased, those previous observations are largely banished to a shelf somewhere, or lost forever if that Bible gets discarded. Then, of course, should you decide to switch to a new translation, your notes don't get carried over. Unless you rewrite your notes in each Bible you purchase, written notes eventually get lost. And if you do copy your notes from one Bible to another, you no longer have room in the new Bible for future annotations.

Finally, the permanence of written annotations makes it difficult to switch to a different mark-up scheme mid-stream. I did this with my second Bible. I got four colored markers and assigned each color a certain theme. I even put a color-code legend in the front. After a while, however, I tired of this system, but switching to a different system seemed like a recipe for confusion.

Taking Notes in Accordance:

Taking notes in Accordance may not offer the tactile satisfaction and portability of paper notes, but it avoids all of the disadvantages just mentioned. Since you can hide your highlighting at any time, and you only need to view your user notes when you want them, it is easy to read the text of the Bible without your previous annotations directing your interpretation of the passage. Because you can create multiple note files and highlight sets, if you want to switch to a different mark-up scheme, or have different notes for different purposes, you can do it easily. And of course, through copy-and-paste, drag-and-drop, and export to text or rtf, it's relatively easy to transfer notes to other documents, other computers, even other Bible programs (though I can't imagine why you would ever want to do that!). Finally, user notes in Accordance are not dependent on a particular translation or Bible text. If you want to view your notes on text-critical issues in parallel with the Message, or your devotional notes in parallel with the Greek Septuagint, you can easily do so.

In a future post, I'll talk a little more specifically about how to do these kinds of things in Accordance; but if you haven't tried the note-taking and highlighting features of Accordance yet, I'd encourage you to take advantage of them.

The major satisfaction of making paper notes is that the scripture is right in front of you while taking notes- and oh how I wish it were so in Accordance as well. It would be incredibly awesome if notes could be directly added into my Notes in the main window. Having to keystroke the note into existence, type it, then save it, takes alot of time and blocks the main window- i.e. what you are trying to comment on!


If you're going to be commenting on a string of verses, you only need to "keystroke the note into existence" one time. Then just position the Edit window beside your main Search window or Workspace (or click on the Workspace window and do command-I to tile the windows), enter your first note, then option-click the down arrow button to save the current note and create a note on the next verse. There's no longer any need to lather, rinse, repeat. :-)

I don't know if I disagree with anything you write about here, David! I just never have made the jump to electronic note-taking.

Incidentally, the greatest downside to physical note-taking in a Bible in my experience is the long process of transferring notes to a new edition. Yes, I could simply abandon that old Bible to the shelf as you mention in your post--but I need my notes! I used the same NASB (1977 edition) wide-margin from 1990 to 2002. I finally broke down and bought the 1995 NASB in a wide-margin edition (seven years into it I guess) and began the long process of transferring my notes by hand. I worked on it a bit this morning. I'm still not through! Granted, I don't work on it every day, but I still want to finish the project. The only good news is that at least I'm finally in the New Testament, so the end is somewhere in sight. It's also been valuable to transfer those notes because occasionally I've found an error or just something that perhaps I wrote in the margin that I disagree with. I've been able to correct the mistakes or eliminate things I don't want in the transfer process.

And of course you also mentioned the downside of the permanency of such notes. One thing I mentioned in my original blog post was that I tend to use a pencil in my Greek new testament (psychologically more sacred), but I do indeed use ink in my translations. And what happens when I make a mistake? Well, I've actually applied white-out to my Bible before. One day, my wife caught me doing this. She asked, "Are you using white-out on your BIble?" I jokingly said I was removing the verses that made me uncomfortable. Not true, of course.

I use notes handwritten in my BIble for two purposes. Part of it is just something I do in my personal study which I enjoy. And yes, that physical touch of the Bible makes a difference. I agree with the Accordance philosophy that not everything needs to be in electronic form. But regarding this aspect of study, over the last few years, I more often than not have Accordance open in front of me, too, which I use for version comparison or a quick look up of a topic in a reference book (I have the Anchor Dictionary and the IVP Reference collection) or even occasionally the chance to cheat and look at a gloss in the GNT-T module when I don't know a word off the top of my head.

The second purpose for the notes I write in my BIble is that I often use them while I am teaching. Of course the obvious disadvantage to this is that I often have more that I want to write than I actually have room for. So, of course, I always have notes with me anyway. Also, because I no longer teach from the NASB and have been using the HCSB on Sunday mornings, I then write a subset of notes (just what I think I'll need) into the margins of my HCSB BIble. I suppose this is where taking notes electronically in Accordance would be an advantage. I could just print out a page with the biblical text and my notes.

All that to say, I am open to electronic note-taking, so maybe you'll convince me.

But then you know what I'll have to do. I'll have to transfer all my current notes into Accordance. How many years will that take me?

One more thing...

There's another hesitancy I have to using electronic notes and maybe this is a fear you'd want to address.

If I spend all this time keeping up with notes in Accordance, will I still be able to access them 20 or even 30 years from now?

I know, I know--we all say we will be using Accordance AND a Mac in 2036, but who knows what things will be like then.

I can't ever envision a time when those notes scrawled in the margins of my physical Bible won't be beneficial--let alone inaccessible.

Do I sound like a Luddite in this regard? But I do think it's a hesitancy in the back of my mind.


Good points, all. With respect to your last point about using Accordance notes in the future, that's why I mentioned the ability to export one's notes to other formats like text and RTF.

If the unthinkable happens, and Accordance or even Apple go the way of all flesh, you'll at least be able to export your notes in a form which can be imported into a word processor or other alternative.

I hate to even mention the possibility of fire to a bibliophile like yourself, but notes in a paper Bible can be just as ephemeral as electronic notes--and they're MUCH harder to back up! ;-)

so how about a quick overview in using the electronic notes and how you'd begin using the highlight functions (recently expanded in 7, no?) i've not explored it just because i've not really known how to move forward with it (and really don't think about it being there...)

I have to agree with Danny, even after reading david's comments. It would be very helpful to be able to input notes directly into the main window, rather than opening an edit window such as it is now. Also, when using the opt/click to go to the next verse, there is no way to see the previous entry; the new verse utilizes the whole edit window. This is unfortunate. Lastly, it would be really wonderful if some sort of spell-as-you-type spellchecker could be employed in the user notes.

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