I have mentioned Idealist on this blog more than once (e.g. here, here and here). It is a simple and very flexible textual database, which uses an index card metaphor. Because each entry looks like an index card, it presents a familiar, friendly face to old-fashioned academics like me. But each entry/card can have several different independently searchable fields; those fields are variable in length (you don’t have to define their size in advance); and you can even define new fields on the fly as and when you decide you need them. Add to that the fact that it automatically indexes the words in each field and that it possesses powerful search capabilities, and it is little wonder that I still find it more useful and usable than any of the alternatives I have experimented with over the past decade. The version I am currently using (version 3.0) is dated 1995, but it still works (at the moment, I’m running it on 32-bit Windows 7, but I have also run it successfully on Windows 3.11 for Workgroups, Windows 95, 98, 2000, NT, XP Professional and Vista, not to mention a brief experiment with Linux/Wine).
The main reason I like it so much (apart from its utter reliability over more than a decade of use) is that the card index interface fits perfectly into my workflow. My approach to research is a fairly simple-minded process of analysis followed by synthesis, and Idealist is the cornerstone of the analytical stage of the process. As I read, I capture individual ideas, quotes, etc. that seem relevant to what I am research. Each gets its own entry (with title, reference and associated notes/comments) in my Idealist Notes database and full bibliographical details go into the associated References database. The result is a vast soup of ideas (that particular database currently stands at about 25,000 entries) which I can search almost instantly.
The synthetic stage is usually a process of mind map construction during which I draw on repeated searches of Idealist. Sometimes I prepare the mind maps on paper, but more often these days (and certainly with more complex projects) I use XMind. The end result of the mind mapping is an outline that I can work up into an article or book. In the past, I have usually done this in a general purpose word processor (originally WordPerfect but more recently Word, not because I think it’s better but merely because most of my editorial clients require me to use it). However, I am currently experimenting with Scrivener for Windows for the final writing stage. And, of course, Idealist is still essential at this stage as I keep referring back to it for quotes, snippets of text and references.