The Grad Student’s Guide to Creating a Scientific Library in Evernote

Like I said in my last post, I absolutely love what I can do with Evernote. I am going to tell you exactly how I create a searchable library with Evernote. This is one of the most powerful tools I have for creating reference-rich writing. I love processes, and I love organizing. Every part of this process is in a way cathartic for me. Now is the time to sift through the mountains of information and create an intellectual space that is all yours.

You will need an Evernote account for this. If you do not have one, sign up for a free account here.


Four reasons why you never want to use anything other than PDFs in your library

First things first. We’re dealing with PDFs of scientific articles, the portable document format. Yes, you may think it’s enough to bookmark the link to a journal article and look it up whenever you want. There are a few inconvenient things with this approach.

  1. You will not always have an internet connection. Whether you are in the field for 2 months or some budget person thought it was too expensive to install a router in your wing of the building, there will be some time in your graduate life when you will not have internet access.
  2. Most journals restrict access to their articles. Your university probably (hopefully) has agreements with major journals so that you can access their content from the university library or a university internet connection. Download the PDF while you can.
  3. It is really annoying to click through links every time you want to look something up.
  4. It’s bad form to send a link of a paper to a colleague. Do the leg work for them, and attach the PDF.

PDFs are the currency of grad school. When you checked out prospective mentors, you looked at PDFs of their recent publications. Within days of arriving (or even being accepted), your advisor or labmates start sending you PDFs of relevant articles to bring you up to speed. Graduate level coursework rarely uses books and instead relies on PDFs from current journals. You are a considered a “rock star” when you can name the author and provide the PDF for the article that your labmate read months or years ago and found soooooo helpful but just can’t seem to remember. By the end of your first year, you will have saved or been emailed dozens (hundreds, maybe) of PDFs.

Anyways, back on track. We want PDFs. And we want them in our Evernote in a way that we can search every single piece of text in them.

Working with the Desktop Client to import all of your precious PDFs

First let’s address that file of PDFs you have on your computer somewhere. For files that you have on your computer already, it is easiest to use the Evernote Desktop Client (or whatever it is called). Open this in Windows by going to Start > All Programs >Evernote.

You’ll see something like this:

The left-hand column lists your Notebooks which are just collections of notes. I have three notebooks (you can’t see them here): Lab Notebook, Lectures, and My Stuff.  The little arrow next to My Stuff indicates that it is my default notebook. This is where notes get put if I do not specify otherwise. If I wanted to change my default notebook to Lab Notebook, I would right click on Lab Notebook, go to Properties, and click the checked box. To create a notebook, go to File > New Notebook or hit Ctl-Shift-N. Make sure the Snychronized box is checked. This way it automatically connects with your account.

The middle column says something like “No Notes were found”. The final column will display any selected note. This is also where you can edit the text of the note.

Now open up your file of PDFs. I don’t know where you keep them, so you’re on your own with this step.

Now simply drag and drop a PDF from your file to the middle column of Evernote.

Like this.

Note: Make sure to do this one at a time. If you drag more than one file at a time, Evernote will attach all of the PDFs to one note. This is fine if it is what you want, but it does not work with what I want to show you.

You will see a new note pop up in the middle column with a preview of the PDF you just dropped. Go ahead and drop all your files into your library. Evernote has a monthly upload limit of 60MB for the free account. Depending on the size of your library, you may need to upload it in batches. I have never exceeded the limit, but I’m sure mine is not the biggest PDF library out there.

The PDF notes will be have the same title as the files that you input. Having all of your notes labeled things like Lecture1.pdf or AmJNut2007.pdf or 9383333000044.pdf is not going to help you. It is vastly important to have a consistent naming scheme. It does not have to be complicated. I just use the title of the article as the note title.

So instead of “Tucker2007.pdf” I will have “Assessment of usual dietary intake in population studies of gene-diet interaction”.

Notice the search bar at the top of the middle column. Go ahead and take it for a test drive. Type in a keyword or phrase and watch as every PDF with that phrase shows up. I type in “children” and 16 papers show up. “Children BMI” turns up only two. This dramatically saves me time when I am honing in on a topic to write.

Take a moment to appreciate the birth of your library and feel empowered with the amount of information you can access. I am just as proud of my electronic Evernote library as I am of the physical library I have touted with me from California to Texas to New York. I get all tingly just thinking about how I get harness information from all over the world.

How to make your library even fancier on

Technically, you have all you need to take advantage of the incredible search powers of Evernote, but I like to spruce things up a bit by including my personal notes along with the PDFs. To do this we need to switch over to the online version of Evernote at Sign in with your name and password. You should see all of your PDFs neatly titled and ready to go. You now have access to them wherever you get online.

Click on the first PDF. Unlike the desktop version of Evernote, the online version displays the PDF as an attachment much like an email would embedded in a blank white space. Click on the pencil to add your notes, thoughts, plans, and anything useful regarding this paper. I like to include the full citation in APA format, the abstract, and a paragraph or two of notes. I treat this like an annotated bibliography.

Don’t know what to write? Download my PDF template of Useful Things to Know about a Paper. Remember, you have access to the PDF right there. You don’t have to summarize the whole thing. Instead think about what you will want to know years from now when you finally sit down to write your dissertation. Why did you include this particular paper in your library?

Keeping your Library Up-To-Date with Email: how to send PDFs to your Evernote

This is the ultimate in convenience. You may have noticed that the notes in are structured a lot like emails. It is possible (and highly recommended) to take advantage of email when creating your notes. Evernote provides an email address for your new account. Click on your username in the top right corner; then click Settings. In the Account Settings Menu, you will see Email notes to [email address]. 

Copy your personal Evernote email, and put it in the contacts list for both your personal email account (I use Gmail) and your professional email account (whatever your University uses) and give it an alias like “Evernote”.

Ok, say you have an email from your advisor with a PDF of an article attached. (Surely it is safe to assume that.) Go ahead and click the Forward button. Replace whatever email title was there with the title of the article. If you want to send it to a particular notebook, append @[Notebook name here] to the title. If you want to tag it, add #[tag] after the notebook.

For example, the email title “Assessment of usual dietary intake in population studies of gene-diet interaction @Lab Notebook #required reading” creates a note titled “Assessment of usual dietary intake in population studies of gene-diet interaction” in Lab Notebook with the tag “required reading”.

Include the citation, abstract, and your notes (or advisor’s reasons for sending this to you) in the body. Make sure the PDF is still attached. Click send and then rush to to see your lovely new note. Going back to the Desktop Client, click Sync and see it magically appear on your personal computer.

Now isn’t that so much better than simply downloading it and losing track of it?

Congratulations! You now have a mobile, manageable, updatable, searchable library complete with your notes. You can access this library on your personal computer, lab computer, iPhone, or iPad.

If you have any questions about setting up your very own Evernote library, feel free to email me or leave a comment below.

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3 thoughts on “The Grad Student’s Guide to Creating a Scientific Library in Evernote

  1. Sarah, thanks so much for writing this up! I downloaded Evernote and started using it per your suggestion and these guidelines and tips are definitely helpful. I think this will be a great tool to use in my own grad school years. Thanks again!

    1. I’m so glad that you find this helpful! Evernote is an incredible yet little known resource. Most of the people I tell about Evernote think that it sounds great but would take too long to implement. I hope this guide can ease that process.

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