Adventures in Nvivo (and using computers in general)

I’m coming to the end of a four-week trial of Nvivo.  Having tested it out, with the help of Bazeley and Jackson’s guidebook, on my notes from early-twentieth century psychology/sociology articles about only children, I’m going to keep it for my oral history and autobiography work.  This week’s blog is about my experiences of Nvivo, and using computers in my work in general.

The main thing I’ve found about Nvivo is that it does everything I need it to do.  I already have a huge list of research questions to attach to the information I’ve taken note of from my sources, and Nvivo’s coding system allows me to do that with a minimum of fuss - I don’t need to use numbers or formulae in order to code a bit of text, and can view everything I’ve assigned to a certain code very easily indeed.  The memo and dataset features will be useful in the extreme, for information about sources I need to keep in mind throughout, such as their family situation, class, schooling and so on.  It’s also really helpful that I can create ‘sets’, which will be useful for keeping nineteenth- and twentieth-century sources separate when I need to.  I also found the modelling feature surprisingly helpful - I wasn’t expecting there to be one, let alone use it, but it’s even better than making a mind map on paper - more colours and I can move the shapes around!  I didn’t really have any need of the advanced coding tools (word frequency and the like) or visualisation tools (graphs and what have you) as this was a particularly small and disparate set of sources, but it’s nice knowing they’re there if it turns out I need them later.

A couple of things did annoy me.  I would have liked to been able to ctrl+select different bits of text to be coded at the same time, as I often found I’d written something like ‘p. 104 - more self-sufficient and well-adjusted’ and would find myself just coding the word ‘well-adjusted’ for the ‘adjustment’ code rather than the whole sentence, so when I go back to it, it’s going to be a bit disjointed.  Another bugbear was that the only help Nvivo themselves seem to offer comes in the form of video chat - no, I’m too socially awkward for that!  I much preferred using the aforementioned book, I can read faster than someone can speak anyway.  But that’s more of a personal preference than anything else.

So, why do I need a program like Nvivo?  The simple answer is, I have A LOT of data - when I finish getting it all together, there looks to be 60+ autobiographies and about 66 oral histories to use.  Way more than I can reasonably expect to label with sticky notes.

Although, as a Millennial, I’m very at home with computers, I’ve never really used them a huge amount for the analysis side of my work, preferring to print my notes/sources out and highlight and label them.  Until this year I always wrote my secondary source notes by hand; now I have an awkward hybrid of computer- and hand-written notes, depending whether I read from a book or a screen.  I’ve also found myself using the computer a lot more since I’ve started using oral history in my work, for the obvious reason that it’s a hell of a lot easier to transcribe that way.  And it’s quicker when I go to places like the British Library and need to take copious notes from books, and gets me around the annoying problem of blunt/broken pencils.  In fact, I’ve typed rather than written all my autobiographical notes because there’s been a lot of verbatim quotation, and I knew I would probably be using Nvivo right from the start.  At home, I prefer to read the book first and put page markers in (and, if it’s my book, underline the passages I need to copy/take notes on) and type up the notes later, but at the BL I have to just type up things of interest as I go along.  It’s easier at the BL though because the desks are nice and big - at home I end up sort-of wedging the top of the book between my legs and the desk because there’s nowhere else to put it!

That’s not to say I won’t miss the joy and pain of extensive highligher and sticky-label use.  I expect I’ll still use them for bits of my thesis where I have a more easily manageable number of sources.  I’m also a big stationery enthusiast, so I don’t think I could ever go entirely digital.


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About Alice Violett

Reader of books, editor of web content, haver of PhD

Colchester, UK