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Research indicates that taking notes by hand is better than using a computer, for long-term comprehension (source). As an engineering grad student, I also find that using pencil and paper for graphs, diagrams, and tables is much quicker and easier than keyboard/mouse (or even stylus).

To circumvent the issue of losing my notes, I take them on loose sheets of letter paper, then drop the stack in a feed scanner every week or so, and the file to a backed up folder on my laptop.

But here is my issue: later on, when looking for specific items in my notes, it is hard to find things without scrolling through the whole PDF. Even if OCR was reliable with handwriting, it would be little use or circuits, diagrams, complex equations, etc.

So, is there a quick and easy way to index these notes, perhaps adding something like bookmarks or an index?

  • My wife got me this device years ago that has a slot for a notepad. You write on the notepad and it records the writing digitally. It was a waste for me because I never look at the notes I take ever again, but it sounds like just what you need. – Matt Samuel Oct 29 '16 at 2:28
  • The pdf reader I use, foxit, allows for making bookmarks. However, it might be easier to type up a detailed table of contents in MS Word as a companion document. If you use the built-in Heading 1, Heading 2, etc., you can look at the Outline view and you can make an automatic Table of Contents and Index. – aparente001 Oct 29 '16 at 3:37
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The professional version of Adobe Acrobat provides advanced functions like commenting and indexing, but it's not cheap.

The free PDFOnlineReader enables annotations and bookmarks and works well. It's quick, easy, and I can save the updated versions and access the bookmarks, etc in free Adobe Reader.

Writing some big keywords in black Sharpie on my written notes (before scanning) has been a big help.

  • 1
    Simple and easy... adding keywords in bold and/or color sounds like a good idea, as well as building a TOC to the scanned PDF. – LShaver Oct 31 '16 at 20:38
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Disclaimer: I do not endorse any of the products in this answer, nor have I necessarily used them in the past.

I've circumvented this problem largely by switching to Microsoft OneNote on a Lenovo Thinkpad Yoga with a stylus. For me, it gives me the best of both worlds: highly-accurate handwritten notes on a digital platform. (I only wish it was an open-source solution!)

That said, if you aren't interested in using a stylus/electronic means of taking notes, here's a couple of suggestions:

  • Check out a product like the Livescribe Echo pen. Using their special paper, you can take paper notes, get a digital copy stored on the pen, and record the audio of the lecture (synced with the notes themselves). There's also the Evernote Moleskin notebooks, which are specially-designed for OCR.
  • Before (or after) each diagram, provide a little description of the diagram itself. That way, if you use OCR, you can search for the description instead of the diagram/equation itself.
  • Learn LaTeX (for the equations, at least). It's not perfect, but once you've got a good idea of how to write an equation in LaTeX, you'd be surprised as to how quickly you can type them in.
  • As you pointed out -- after scanning the notes in, annotate them yourself using an electronic PDF tool. Most of them let you add comments that can then be saved (and searched).
  • I love the Samsung Note 10.1 (and /or the 12.2) with its s-pen, extremely fine input resolution. I also rely on 'Lecture Notes' by acadoid and all their addons (recordings, etc) but the idea is much the same as @tonysdg answer suggests - we live in pretty amazing times and while it seems a small market niche still - various tablets/digitial solutions have only been getting better the last few years- and are really quite good for this purpose - keeping the 'natural' handwriting/drawings combined with easy adding of text,indexing,searching and even a bit of writing/voice recognition. – Carol Oct 29 '16 at 22:03
  • But of course, my comment doesn't help add to answer with respect to how best (and least painfully!) to index existing notes. – Carol Oct 29 '16 at 22:08
  • @Carol: I used a Note 10.1 (first edition) for a while too :-) Just got frustrated by Samsung's lackluster support in the end. – tonysdg Oct 29 '16 at 22:10
  • @tonysdg, a couple of your suggestions wouldn't help with notes I've already got, but adding description diagrams and annotating the PDFs seems like the best way to go. – LShaver Oct 31 '16 at 20:39

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