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Analyzing books in NVivo

07 June 2017 - BY Kath McNiff

This post outlines ways you can get the valuable content from books into your NVivo project.

Along with interview transcripts and online journal articles, published books are a key data source for qualitative researchers - especially for those who are knee-deep in a literature review.

In NVivo, working with interview transcripts or journal articles is straightforward. You import your Word Documents or PDF files and code the content to organize it by theme.

But what if you’re working with printed books? 

How do you get that crucial content into NVivo and organize it so that nothing falls through the cracks?

This post explores a few options and opens the door to further suggestions and ideas from the NVivo community (that’s you!)

Use Externals to make notes about a book

In NVivo, you can create ‘externals’ to represent your hardcopy books:


Externals in NVivo

Basically, an external is a type of document that acts as a stand-in for your book.

As you read, you can work in the external - jotting down quotes, ideas and summaries of what you’re finding.

This external document supports the vital process of active reading but it also becomes a useful source of data that you can code – just like other documents in NVivo.

For example, let’s say you’re reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, and you want to take some notes.

Here are the steps you would follow in NVivo:

1.  Create an external to represent the book:


2.  Tell NVivo where the book is kept and setup some basic formatting for organizing notes and summaries:



3.  Keep track of the bibliographical details for citing the book:



4.  Summarize chapters, pose questions or take notes as you read:


You could also take photos of the significant passages and insert them in the body of the external. 

This is handy because you can code the photos but there’s a limitation – images are excluded from text searches in NVivo. So, if you were to look for all mentions of 'human', for example, the text in images would not be retrieved.

Work with reference management tools

If you use reference management tools like EndNote or Mendeley - you can import your reference library into NVivo.

NVivo automatically creates an external for each book and applies the bibliographical attributes.

As you read a book, just open its associated external and get started with note taking.

This also works the other way around - you can export bibliographical details out of NVivo and into a reference management tool like EndNote. This is useful during write-up when you want to insert citations and format references.

Import your notes from Evernote or OneNote

There are some great note-taking tools out there.

Maybe you already use Evernote or Microsoft OneNote to organize your reading?

If so, you can easily connect to your account online and bring the notes into NVivo for analysis:

Note-taking tools and NVivo

Once you have the notes in NVivo, you can code the content and make use of queries and visualizations to find patterns or connections.

Working with Kindle books 

No matter how passionate you are about the feel of paper, it’s hard to dismiss the utility and convenience of the Kindle when it comes to reading research-related books. 

Since you can download the Kindle App on almost any device, it means your library is always at hand. Gone are the days of carrying heavy texts or being in the office while the book you need is at home. Plus, there are all sorts of goodies you can download for free.

While these perks are nice, the analytical benefits are even more enticing.

Using the Kindle, you can easily search for particular terms or highlight and annotate the content as you read:

Reading books on a Kindle

Then, at the end of a chapter (or other reading milestone) you can go to the Amazon website and see all your highlighted passages gathered in one place.

From there, you can use the NCapture plugin to capture the page and bring it into NVivo for coding and further analysis.

View your Kindle highlights

Using some versions of the Kindle App, you can also copy and paste text – this is especially useful for capturing illustrative quotes and pasting them into an NVivo ‘external’ document (as described above).

Let the analysis begin

Having your books represented in NVivo helps you to keep all your data is one place and can lead to a more robust literature review.

For example, you can use queries to compare the work of various authors or to look for gaps that you can address in your own research.

If you're thinking about using NVivo for your literature review, this video is a great place to start:

What are your tips for handling books in NVivo?

Do you have other strategies for analyzing books as part of a literature review?

What’s your approach to note taking?

We’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below.