Though I continue to enjoy using the excellent software Scrivener to compose my dissertation, I am still unhappy with my note taking strategies and how I collect and organize this information digitally. After writing several postings on what I wish existed in terms of a software solution for doing research for a book or dissertation (1,2,3) and writing a little script to help improve the imperfect solution I have been using, I still find myself frustrated.
To summarize what I wish I had again in terms of a knowledge database:
As I make a note on a source, e.g. recording a single fact, fragment of information, observation, or summary of an idea from a work I want that piece of information to be taggable so that it can be easily found in the future when searching for that tag. I want to be able to add and tag many such notes quickly and efficiently, some of which are “under” others in the form of a hierarchical order, and which then inherit the tags of their parent notes so that I am saved a lot of repetitive tagging. Every single fragment or note must also contain some link, tag, or meta-data which indicates the source it came from (a book, article, archival document, interview, etc.) so that when I use that note in my dissertation or book, I can easily find the source it came from.1
I am in the process of shifting my note taking to a powerful knowledge database program called DEVONthink Pro. I was impressed at how quickly and easily I could import all of my nearly one thousand OmniOutliner documents, which I can now preview, search, tag, and group within DEVONthink. I don’t just want to reproduce my existing source-based note structure. I want to experiment with using this application to get just a little closer to my dream knowledge database described above. How am I doing this?
In DEVONthink, I create a group (which is what DEVONthink calls folders) for Sources.
Add a Group for a New Source – Each time I take notes on a new source (a book, movie, archive document, etc.), I create a group for it within this Source folder with the title of the source.
Create and Tag an Overview Document for the Source – In this newly created group I create a new text document with the name of the source in which I give some general information about that source (an overall description or summary) and give it some general tags that well represent the whole source.
Because DEVONthink also creates a gray colored pseudo-tag to every member of a group with the name of the group, any notes that go into this source group will contain a pseudo-tag indicating what source it is from.
Add Notes Using Customized Template Script – After creating and tagging the overview document, every time I want to add a note from this source, I select the overview document and invoke a keyboard shortcut connected to a DEVONthink template I have called “Note On Source” (I’m using Ctrl-Cmd-M) This invokes the creation of a hacked version of an existing template that comes with DEVONthink called “Annotation” written by Eric Böhnisch-Volkmann and modified by Christian Grunenberg. In its modified form the new template script does the following:
a. A new note is created in the source’s group
b. The new note gets a link created by the template script which links to it back to the overview document for the source (assuming it was selected when invoking the script).
c. The new note is then automatically tagged with whatever tags the overview document contained. I can then, of course, add further tags or delete any that may not be relevant to this particular fragment or note.
So what does this method accomplish?
Well, using this method, all my fragments, quotes, and notes from a particular source are together in its own folder, a typical default way of organizing one’s notes. However, every single note can also be found by searching for a particular combination of tags using DEVONthink’s various methods for looking up tagged items. Alternatively, one can create “Smart Groups” that include notes using certain tags. Every note contains a link back to its source, however, both through a direct link in the document, and through its pseudo-tag attached to the originating group. In short, one can find all notes related to certain tags without losing their source (or needing to input it manually in the note), and all notes related to a particular source. The default tagging of new notes on a source saves me a lot of typing, and I can just add any more specific tags relevant for that specific note.
Although I’m really impressed with the new 2.x version of the application, there are still a few things that I find less than ideal with DEVONthink to work in, some of which are no fault of the designers, but merely are a result of its developers not having the same specific goals that I have when they created the application.
1. Unlike Yojimbo or Evernote, DEVONthink supports hierarchical groups/folders. This is wonderful, and makes a lot of things possible. However, when selected, parent groups do not list contents of its child groups. Thus if I have a group called “Sources” and a sub-group called “Movies” inside of which I have files or groups related to individual movies, clicking on Sources reveals only an empty folder/group in the standard three pane view (or in icon view, a list of the folders that are in it) instead of all files under it in the hierarchy. Of course, the Finder and other applications often work the same way but it would be fantastic if there was an option to be able to “Go Deep” as one can when viewing folder contents in an application like Leap
2. Although I think someone could further modify the script I hacked to make this work, currently the system as I have it now does not permit no cascading notes: all notes are children of the original source, there aren’t any children notes of notes on a source. Thus the benefits of the kind of hierarchy of bullet points one is used to seeing in a note file is lost.
3. Because almost everything that was originally (in a note taking app like OmniOutliner) fragments that take form as hierarchical bullet points in single document are now fragment files in a hierarchy of folders, much of the power of viewing all of the content of these various fragments together at once is lost. DEVONthink lists all notes as files with single-line names. Ideally my dream note-taking software wouldn’t even need names for the fragments (my hacked version of the script just names them the date plus the name of the source) and would merely directly display the contents of notes so they can be seen juxtaposed with whatever other notes are in the list.
Downloading and Using the “Note on Source” Template
Again, I didn’t write this from scratch, but modified an existing template that comes with DEVONthink Pro. To use it, follow the instructions above. To install it:
1. Download the Script: Note on Source
2. Unzip the script and double click on the _Note on Source___Cmd-Ctrl-M.templatescriptd file inside. DEVONthink Pro will ask you if you want to import or install the template. Choose “Install” and it should now be active with the Cmd-Ctrl-M shortcut or directly in the menu at Data->New from Template->Note on Source