PhD Hacks: Creating a Secondary Sources Reading Journal

three notebooks stacked overlapping each other. The bottom one is open and reads 'reading journal - comics - criticism volume 1'

Secondary sources. Over the course of a PhD, chances are, you’ll read more articles, books, essays, reviews and blog posts than one would imagine humanely possible. GoodReads, eat your heart out. Enter the humble reading journal.

First off, yes, this is a slightly old-fashioned way of doing things when there’s so much by way of software for bibliographies and logging what you’ve read. However, there will be times when you’re without computer access, and there’s no guarantee you’ll remember exactly which quotes resonated and why later. Equally, if it’s a library book you’re working with, most libraries won’t be thrilled if you return the book with dog-earred pages and chunks of text covered in pink highlighter. As for e-books? Simply put, you can’t always copy and paste quotes. I personally hate trying to log quotes directly into Word or other software from a journal; I find it’s pretty easy to lose my place and the process becomes pretty time consuming in the long run.

As for transferring information from journal to thesis? Technically, I will be writing it out again. However, in my experience, I’m more likely to remember a source, its author and the specific section I want to reference having written it out by hand. Call it a decade of language oral exams talking, but paper beats a computer screen as far as memory games are concerned. Sometimes – and I can’t stress this enough – PhD candidates just need a break from a screen. Sitting in a cafe or the library or even just your couch, book and journal to hand with a mug of coffee? It’s a moment of quiet, and the break can help spark new ideas.

Two notebooks, the pages written on, overlapping

When it comes to set up, you don’t need anything fancy. I used the following headings:

Writer(s)/Editors (s) – important to distinguish, particularly if you’re working with multiple sources from an edited volume
Publication Details – self explanatory!
Synopsis – this is where your journal is a life-saver come lit review time! Even if you just copy a few lines from the blurb and then pepper in some of your own thoughts, this section is valuable. I tended to fill this bit in last, as it meant I could flag to myself whether the source was something I planned to reference, if it would be better suited to a paper than my thesis, or simply if it wasn’t what I had hoped for and therefore wouldn’t use just yet.
Quotes – I’m a lit grad, so my needs may vary to others, but finding quotes is hard-wired into me. I’d note down any lines that may support/refute whatever I was working on, as well as the page number.
Bibliography – Always check the bibliographies of books and papers you read, I can’t stress how useful this tip was for me. You never know if you’ll find something interesting or potentially of use. For the sake of making sure you remember it later, log it!

My headings worked for me, but there’s no reason why they can’t be customised to suit other priorities when it comes to secondary sources. Ultimately, this system helped me to log comic books, interviews, websites, reviews, theses, articles… No source was wasted either; months down the line, I would remember reading something, flip to it in my journal and find I’d already done the hard work of logging all the information I’d need. Sometimes I might reread the source as my priorities had changed, but every time, my wee journals came through for me. Whilst it may sound potentially time-consuming, it’s actually a brilliant time-saver and a calming process to boot. Is it old school? Yes. Is it an excuse to indulge in new pens and notebooks? Absolutely! Will it help you? I hope so. Oh, and at the end, when you’re finished? It’s nice having a physical log of all the work from behind the scenes!

Images copyright Cia Jackson 2020