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You can have a lot of fun with the tools you use for research. In school, I loved getting my supplies in order. Looking at the array of binders, notebooks, pens, and highlighters heightened my anticipation for the coming year. [I still thought the “Back to School Sale” signs showed up too early!]

There is no one-size-fits-all, silver-bullet setup that works equally well for everyone. If you know yourself or your student well, however, the following recommendations will allow you to “cut with the grain” of how God made them.

Determining the Right Tool for the Job

To build the best setup for yourself or your student, consider three things:

  1. The gifts you want to cultivate.
  2. The temptations you want to avoid.
  3. The disciplines you want to instill.


What do you enjoy?

  • Do you take pleasure in thumbing through old journals and notebooks, remembering the impact of a long-forgotten quotation?
  • Do you make every effort to stay on the bleeding-edge of technology, not minding if you have to troubleshoot a bit?
  • Do you like the freedom of paper for notes, with drawings and doodles?
  • Do friends and family remark on your personal organization?
  • Have you developed excellent handwriting?

You should build on the gifts God has given you.


To evaluate pitfalls, you may need the insight of another person you trust.

For instance, do you tend to procrastinate by “setting up for work” instead of actually doing the work?


If you are technology-averse, consider adding one element of digital system to your repertoire—facility with these tools can really pay off when you are in a pinch or need to work with someone else on a project.

If you consider pens and paper the fossils of a previous epoch, consider adding a small notebook and quality pen for notes on-the-go or with your morning tea or coffee.

What follows are recommendations of specific tools which we have used with success. You are not meant to need all of them, and you may have your own substitutions. If you have something of your own to recommend, do so in the Reference Library discussion group!

Physical Tools

Pen and Paper

In our day of software updates, wearable technology, and cloud syncing, analog (as opposed to digital) tools can seem humble replacements.

However, all it takes is one technological failure at a critical time to remind us just how fragile our setup can be: a discharged battery at the start of a presentation, a complicated password reset when you want to share a file, an impossible-to-find email thread when you want to look up a response.

As a former schoolteacher, I know that writing notes by hand keeps students more engaged than scrolling on a screen. I’ve read authors who argue that this happens because the brain is forced to make connections when you form letters, negotiate the blank space of your paper, etc. However, I have not done my own research on that subject.

Here’s the other thing: new technology often requires more of you than you anticipate. If you are a young person, it is highly likely that you can run circles around my manipulation of a given gadget or app of the last ten years. However, each time we commit to a new device, we learn how to work it and hardly—if ever—how it works. It changes our behavior, sometimes in ways we don’t anticipate.

Try this exercise: explain to someone how to work a toilet. Pretend he or she has never used one before (!!). Don’t forget any steps! Now, explain to someone how a toilet works. This is significantly more difficult, because we don’t have to know how it works in order to use it—or copy others’ use of it.

Sharpie S-Gel 0.7mm no-smear pens in multiple colors

Black n’ Red

Rhodia paper products


Commonplace Book

Further Reading