Publishing. It’s one of the most important parts of research in academia. Yet not many programs cater to the specific needs of academics in the humanities. Sure, there’s a plethora of solid word-processing software available. But they’re often insufficient for the humanities’ idiosyncrasies, particularly writing or citing in multiple languages, using bibliographies, and academic stylesheets. Often third-party programs that integrate bibliographic tools into word-processing software can fill these lacunae. But relying on them further complicates the workflow of composing academic prose and increases the learning curve for the software elements. And even these combinations can still fail to fulfill the needs of scholars in such niche fields as biblical studies—my field of research and study—and cognate fields. In this post, I will overview one option that I have been using for many years: Nota Bene. The opinions in this piece are entirely my own and based on my experiences, and I have received no compensation in any form, implicit or explicit, for the views I express here.
I tested Nota Bene at a booth in the publishers’ hall at one of my first academic conferences, almost fifteen years ago when I was just beginning to write my dissertation. My dream was having a single piece of software that could deal with writing in languages whose scripts follow more than one direction, and that handles multiple alphabets and assists with the bibliography, index, style sheet. That’s the basis of what anyone needs for publishing in biblical studies. Nota Bene checked those boxes. That’s the opinion I developed over the course of composing two monographs, editing three others, and writing several academic articles with the software.
Here’s a brief overview featuring some of its key features for biblical studies:
It’s Word-Processing Software
If you are familiar with typical word-processing software (Microsoft Word, Pages from Apple, Open Office, etc.), you can easily adapt to using Nota Bene for typing and simple formatting, saving and editing, printing and exporting, spell-checking and proofing. You get the idea. Rather exceptionally, Nota Bene allows users to have up to four different sets of footnotes in a document. Useful for scholars working on critical editions, for example.
Language Support for Non-Latin Scripts
Keyboard shortcuts allow users to quickly change between languages, even those without Latin script. Users who prefer the mouse can also use that, but—personally—I don’t have time for that. The combination ctrl+shift+k will open the on-screen keyboard display for the active keyboard in any language, for users unfamiliar with the letters’ placement.
Keyboards can be edited or swapped. For example, I write most of my academic prose in English, but on a German keyboard—so that’s my default input for both English and German in Nota Bene. Nota Bene supports a variety of languages (with an essentially exhaustive set of diacriticals) and writing systems relevant for biblical studies and related fields. These include Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, Cyrillic, Arabic, Coptic, and cuneiform—both Ugaritic and Akkadian. And these languages work well, irrespective of their written direction. Nota Bene transitions smoothly between languages in different directions, even in the middle of line and without errors in line or page breaks. This works without superfluous additional spaces (common in other software when a line includes left-to-right text that ends with a space before right-to-left text that continues onto the next line, leaving a space after the last right-to-left word on the line.
Nota Bene offers users three primary ways to view their composition:
1) A standard “page” view (see the first image), showing what the document would look like printed (a feature to toggle formatting markers [e.g., tabs, language markers, etc.] off and on is available);
2) The second view, “draft,” visualizes the text as well as the formatting markers and permits easier editing of the formatting markers, in addition to working on the text itself.
3) The “code” view shows you all of the document’s code. This permits editing down to the finest detail.
The “Regularize Document” feature (available in all views) permits the easy removal of extraneous formatting commands that have crept into the document through input errors (such as multiple language markers).
Distinct Chapter and Manuscript Files
When working on larger publications like monographs, Nota Bene distinguishes between “chapter” and “manuscript” files. A manuscript file consists of several chapter files. It aids stylistic consistency between the chapters, and editing the manuscript file makes global changes in the chapter files. This is important for dynamic bibliographic citations, for example (see below). A chapter file is like a more traditional word document of about article length. Should any errors or corruption occur in a single chapter file, they will only affect that chapter and not the whole monograph, as it might if one were using a single document for the whole monograph.
Log and Resume
The program contains a “Log” function that saves the program’s status, including every open document and dialog box. By using the “Resume” function, the program reopens everything just as it was saved via the log function, from every file open to the cursor’s precise location. This is particularly useful for picking up precisely where you were previously working. A separate feature permits opening a document’s older and auto-saved versions.
Integrated Academic Manuals of Style
For both shorter and longer compositions, Nota Bene offers a number of integrated academic style manuals. For biblical studies, the most important one is SBL, which is available. From my experience, I would double check the formatting according to the second edition of SBL, which as far as I can tell has not been fully implemented in Nota Bene yet, even though it is available there.
Natively Integrated Literature Management and Note Taking
Fully integrated into Nota Bene’s word-processing software is Ibidem—its reference program. Ibidem stores bibliographic data for each work in the user’s bibliography. It permits the creation of subsets within one’s general bibliography or the management of several bibliographies (if you work in different fields, for example, and want to keep your Near Eastern studies materials separate from your New Testament textual criticism or your Star Wars novels or whatever). You can add the information manually or via ISBN or from other sources (even an ISBN scanner). Within Ibidem, Nota Bene allows the creation of note-taking files for your literature that links to its bibliographic entry. While making notes and writing quotes from the literature in the note-taking file, an easy keyboard combination permits the insertion of a dynamic reference to the cited page etc. Copying from the note-taking file into a document automatically appends the reference in the document’s chosen style. That’s convenient. And it also works when moving a citation from any document to another, not just from a note-taking file. Changing a document’s manual of style also changes the dynamic citations in order to match the updated manual. Changing the context of a citation from within an individual chapter to within a monograph also updates it to match the new context. That is also quite convenient.
An integrated program for indexing and researching your work is available. Orbis, as it is called, can index your files, as many as you choose to incorporate, and permits searching within your files, presenting results in the style of a concordance. This indexing feature accepts not only the associated Nota Bene file types, but also doc and docx, rtf, html, and pdf (!) in the full version. This makes your data and digital library much more accessible.
Integrated Research Software
A final component of Nota Bene, Archiva, aids in identifying literature online and incorporating it into your bibliographic data. Through Archiva, users can search libraries online, capture bibliographic data from websites, convert bibliographic data from other sources, and look up ISBNs. Ibidem, the bibliography management system, seamlessly imports this data when commanded. Quite useful for quickly gleaning bibliographic data from many sources or even theoretically importing the data from your university’s library (even including LoC data or shelf reference, etc., if you like).
But What Are the Downsides?
This all sounds great, right? And it is. But it isn’t perfect. Here are some things to consider, from my experience, before switching to Nota Bene.
The price point. The full version described here comes in at around 700 USD. There are discounts available for students and faculty. For what you get, I find that quite competitive. If you don’t need all of those alphabets, leaving out Syriac, Coptic, Ugaritic, and Akkadian can save you about 200 USD. It’s also worth considering that the license belongs to the user, who can install it on any number of machines for their own personal use (i.e., one license covers the same user’s private home computer, laptop, and office computer).
Compatibility. Nota Bene operates with its own proprietary file formats that are incompatible with other software. You can save your files as an .rtf or as .pdf, so that helps. But particularly with .rtf files conversion, you have to check that the formatting was maintained. This isn’t a deal-breaker, as far as I’m concerned, but it is something to be aware of if you often collaborate with others who don’t use this software.
Tables and graphics. I do not work with many graphics, but I do use tables often in my publications. Inputting or inserting these in Nota Bene is not as easy as in programs like Word. If you do use them, you should use the trial version of Nota Bene and consider how you can integrate your graphics or tables before going for the full version.
Its appearance. Nota Bene looks like an old, basic writing program. And that may turn some people away. It does not have the glossy finish of something developed natively for a contemporary Apple device. But it is really powerful, and does not waste time or energy on fluff (which I think is more of a feature than a bug).
Formatting. This generally works well, but it can be tricky. However, I note here that Nota Bene has very helpful support staff, who have always been able to take care of my needs on the few occasions when I’ve needed them.
The learning curve. If you’ve already got a system in place that works for you, you may be unwilling to put in the time and effort to learn something new. That’s logical. But if your system isn’t efficient or you don’t even have one, it might be worth your time to investigate whether Nota Bene satisfies your needs.
So that’s my opinion on Nota Bene. It’s likely not a program for everyone, but it has a number of serious advantages for scholars in the field of biblical studies and related fields. It has a slight learning curve, but with some early, repeated practice, most will quickly get the hang of it.