Butler’s First Law of Research

Write it down.

No, seriously, write it down.

In the bibliography to my thesis I quote Walter Benjamin, “The only exact knowledge there is is the knowledge of the date of publication and the format of books”.

(Of course, date of publication isn’t always clear — see Endangering Science Fiction Film with its copyright date of 2016 that I got in 2015.)

Quoting this to other people, it occurred to me I didn’t have the source. Pah.

Ironic, but. Pah.

It seemed likely to be in Illuminations, if only because that’s the book I know best. But could I find it?

A year ago, perhaps reading about Benjamin, maybe for the stuff on special effects and Brecht, I relocated the quote.

But I still didn’t write it down.

Double pah.*

Last week I was talking to Rob McPherson about the materials he’s been turning up about pubs and brewing, and I was sat at my iPad, occasionally searching for webpages to clarify details. One of these was from the Canterbury Archaeological Trust and had an interesting quote which I want to follow to its source. There’s a copy of that book in Ashford Library. The quote related to a Canterbury family who either brewed or owned pubs or …

I still didn’t write it down.

Cue frantic searching through Kent County Council Libraries catalogue.

By a miracle, the name reappeared in my memory.**

I am the kind of person with a physical memory of the “it’s halfway down p. 222” type, but I should know not to rely on it.

* And ironically it turns out that I actually misremembered that. The quote is “‘The only exact knowledge there is’, said Anatole France, ‘is the knowledge of the date of publication and the format of books'”, complete with a reference. I clearly never thought to check.

** The Flint family, if you’re wondering. The volume is Brief Records of the Flint Family.


When I first used a word processor — possibly something like WordStar or Works or LocoScript and then eventually Word 2 — there were a couple of limitations. I recall having to carry six floppy disks around with me to run the programme, and I think that was in addition to the actual file you were working on.



And those 3 1/2 inch disks were somewhat new fangled.

The other thing was that filenames were of the type abdcefgh.123. Eight characters and a suffix — txt, doc, ps. My PHD thesis, which I have most of electronically was


No, don’t ask me why the naming convention isn’t consistent.

These days we don’t have to use eight characters and we’re much more used to having nested folders — but equally used to using several machines, pendrives, clouds and gdrives. We can be sensible in our naming conventions.

Let us imagine that I am working on a chapter for a Cambridge Companion.[1] I write a file and I save it as CAMBRIDGE.DOC. That’s nine characters. Living on the edge.

Professor Neil James is editing a Cambridge Companion which consists of twelve chapters. So far, the day after the deadline, he has seven files called CAMBRIDGE.DOC.[2] This, obviously, is aggrannoying, so he renames them by contributor and then I get back a file called BUTLER.DOC. To go with the fifty or so I already have of that name.

Now, what would be more sensible is to have a naming convention where the project and author is clear. So call it CAMBRIDGE BUTLER.DOC. Or, maybe, BUTLER CAMBRIDGE.DOC, but I reckon the first will alphabeticise better. Then go a stage further and add a date or a version.

This is a whole other bundle of fun – I have a file called CAMBRIDGE FINAL.DOC. Which is fine, until I come to rewrite the file or I spot something else to change or there’s a possible edit to make but I don’t want lose the other version. So try something like CAMBRIDGE SUBMITTED JUNE 2015.DOC.

Ah, dating conventions.[3] To my eyes small, medium, large is sensible. So, day/month/year is superior to month/day/year. Fourth of July, not July fourth.

But alphabeticisation means CAMBRIDGE SUBMITTED 2015 6 14.DOC is better than CAMBRIDGE SUBMITTED 15 6 2015.DOC.

I’m noting that increasingly whatever version of Word it is I’m on, it opens the file as Read-Only and when I try to save as, I’m told the file already exists so CAMBRIDGE SUBMITTED 2015 6 14.DOC becomes CAMBRIDGE SUBMITTED 2015 6 14a.DOC. But maybe an archive of each version per day you’ve done is useful, even if you need to tidy up every few days. You risk editing older files in error if you’ve not sorted properly.

The next trick is to start investigating the tags and comments functions, to help you find the file that you are after in Windows Explorer (or equivalent). And to make sure I put this into action myself.

1. In fact I’m writing for two, but that’s another story.
2. The other five have yet to be submitted.
3. Split the bill.