The iPad Pro: Library Research & Article Annotation

I am a university CIO who began as a tech-oriented librarian. I now get to dream about innovative ways that libraries (information resources) and campus technology (information systems and services) can collaborate and collide to make new things possible.

But I also retain a foot in the academic world as I try (emphasize on try) to make progress on my doctoral work in historical theology.

The confluence of academic research in the humanities with innovative technology is a really cool place to be. My only concern is that when people hear me talk about the library becoming a technologically innovative place with an imaginative set of services, they immediately think I intend to lessen the importance of a student’s knowledge and skill in “doing” research.  Au contraire, señor.

So two things need to be reviewed regarding the research process: first, using the iPad Pro and iOS apps for research, and by that I mean the entire flow of research from information discovery, to retrieval, to annotation, to storage and organization; second, using the iPad Pro and iOS apps for academic writing, which will be in my next post. Only apps that support extensive footnoting and citation along with control over format will work for academics, so I limit my comments to apps that I hoped would meet this need.

Article Discovery and Retrieval

imageMost academic secondary literature is buried in subscribed databases that require proxied access through a university.  It’s this proxied access, I suspect, that underlies the lack of apps associated with the major vendors for these databases: EBSCO, ProQuest, OCLC, etc.  A few apps are floating around out there, but they have for the most part been supplanted with mobile interfaces for browsers rather than access through the app.  The EBSCO ebook app for iPad, for example, was worthless outside of the proxy settings that I could’t successfully configure, but probably only because my thought process was — “Forget it, it’s faster just to use Safari.”  And so I did. You could, of course, use your browser of choice. Firefox and others have apps for iPad.

OCLC still has a WorldCat app floating around somewhere for iPhone, but again, it’s a better user experience just to use Safari and There are a few others—EBSCO’s PEMSoft Mobile for pediatric medical information,  DynaMed Mobile for clinical information for physicians, and Flipster for digital magazines, none of which meet my niche in the humanities. EBSCO is at least offering a few apps, or should I say, “EBSCO is still offering apps?”

ProQuest has something called DoubleDutch for their conferences but not their content. Bowker offers Bookwire for searching books in print and availability in university libraries, but I suspect it just uses WorldCat for the latter.

My point is that the workflow for identifying secondary literature in the research process is exactly the same as with a Mac or PC.  And that’s a good thing for a number of reasons.  There’s no unwieldy combination of unrelated apps in which to replicate searches and weed out redundant results. Well, at least not any more so than a researcher already has to do if he/she uses the vendor’s platform for keeping up with those things.  This also means that you can still use your library’s discovery platform, be it EBSCO Discovery, Ex Libris Primo, OCLC WorldCat Discovery, or any of the rest.

Conclusion: use Safari and search as you normally would. Don’t worry about the lack of apps to assist with this. You wouldn’t want them anyway.

The only part of using Safari for proxied database searching that I found frustrating was in accessing the PDF of articles available in full text.  In EBSCO’s ATLA Religion Database, for example, the PDF sometimes struggled to render in the online view. Downloading the PDF, as one then does if the article looks helpful, then opens automatically in a new tab but still in Safari.  To save the article, you would think that tapping the “sharrow” and then selecting your app of choice (Evernote, Notability, OneNote…) would be the right workflow.  For me, this results in an empty ContentServer.PDF with absolutely no text.  Rather, you have to tap in the empty space in the header area of the PDF as you are viewing it in Safari, then tap “Open in…” and select “Copy to Notability” (or your app of choice).  This “Open in…” dialogue gives two options for each app in which you can open the PDF.  You want the one that says “Copy to.” Not a big deal once you learn the process. This video shows you more clearly:


Article Annotation and Storage

My print workflow, but as it turns out maybe not the best practice in regard to copyright law, has been to take my final manuscript and spiral- or coil-bind it together with the articles I mark up, annotate, and cite in that paper at Kinkos or at my campus print shop. Moving to a completely digital environment means that I replicate that workflow with folders in cloud storage like Dropbox or OneDrive. I have folders dedicated to pretty much every major research and writing project from the last ten years in Dropbox.

Thankfully, the workflow I’ve adopted with the iPad Pro replicates this process.

The obvious route is also quite simple now that Dropbox and Adobe both have such robust iPad-friendly features. The Dropbox app allows for editing of PDF documents by giving access to the Adobe Reader app for markup—highlighting, commenting, drawing, and signatures, all with author-tracking for documents in shared Dropbox folders.  Quite nice, easy, and straightforward, and with seamless interoperability with the other apps in the Adobe suite. The Adobe suite of tools has become my go-to set of applications in my work as a university administrator, but not as a researcher. I’ll come back to that in a future post.

Apple Education recommended Notability to me about a year ago and last month’s iPad Institute at Lynn University included it in the participant’s bundle of apps as well. I have been (and remain) an Evernote devotee and so was hesitant to consider Notability as a major part of my workflow, but in doing my do diligence to prepare for this review I spent quite a bit of time with it. I’m glad I did.

I tried LiquidText, which bills itself as a PDF and document reader for longer texts and claims as its most unique feature the ability to highlight portions of a document which may then be “collapsed” to show just those highlighted portions.  Helpful in some ways, I’m sure, but not all that helpful for my purposes since I could not make drawn annotations with the pencil. Give it a try.

Notepad+ was a decent note taking and doodling app for brainstorming ideas, as were a plethora of similar and better options: Penultimate, Paper, Adobe Draw/Sketch. Again, though, not what I was looking for.

So I came back to Notability.  With the ability to open documents from Dropbox, Google Drive, Box, or WebDAV, and with a cloud storage of its own, Notability integrated the annotation abilities that I wanted with the integration and storage abilities I needed.  The Adobe Reader app offers annotations as well, but the author tracking abilities it provides makes quick comments and edits more cumbersome.  I did not want to be slowed down by the extra step here and there, at least not for my private academic research.  If co-authoring a text, sure.  But not for my immediate purpose.

Notability let me switch between text and free-hand writing, pasting and inserting text, highlighting, commenting.  It’s easy and intuitive. I even used it for my sermon preparation work at my church, but again, that’s for another post.  Notability works will with the iPad Pro’s multi-tasking split screen, which meant I could have my manuscript open on the right side of the screen and an annotated article open on the left.  Very, very, very helpful.  This in itself comes close to convincing me that the iPad Pro has the potential to be an MBP replacement.  I should, however, note here that Notability is the only paid app ($5.99) that I tested and it may not be fair to expect a free app to offer what a paid app can offer.

So there’s my workflow for academic research: Safari for article discovery in subscribed and proxied academic databases, Dropbox or OneDrive for cloud storage, Notability for annotation.  But what about writing, word processors, and reference management? That’s next.

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