Mindhacks for the fingertips

by John Holbo on October 5, 2009

I’m an undisciplined note-taker. I like to read a lot, putting post-its or other suitable markers in the pages as I go, and planning with the best of wills to take notes later. (I type very quickly, after all. I should be able to take notes even though I use so many post-its.) But then I just never get around to the sloggy, typing-it-all-in part. Recently I’ve tried to change things up. I sit down with a stack of books full of post-its and scan in just the post-it’ed bits, plucking the fluttering yellow feathers from these literary birds as I go, until I could stuff a whole pillow with used post-its by the time the night is over. I turn all the scans from any given book or article into one PDF, and I use Acrobat’s OCR capacity to make it semi-searchable. I can do something else while I work, like listen to an audiobook or podcast. I find this semi-mindless tidying of the aftermath of my reading mind’s life to be relatively pleasant activity. Now I want to take it to the next level, making the most of all my PDF’s (and docs in other formats, too, of course): does anyone here use, for example, DEVONthink, which some people have told me is good and useful. (But I am suspicious that these people are more obsessive than I about this sort of thing. I’m not a database-devotee by nature. I’m not going to go scripting stuff for DEVONthink. I know I won’t.) DEVONthink seems like a good deal because it has OCR based on ABBYYFineReader. And DEVONthink doesn’t even cost more than FineReader. Acrobat’s OCR, although adequate for basic purposes, is not great, and FineReader is supposed to be pretty good. So even if that was all I used it for …

Tell me of your time-saving note-taking methods, but don’t tell me to type it all in. What are good scanning products and OCR software suites and notetaking software. I’ve been using Zotero and I like it just fine. But maybe DEVONthink is better enough to be worth paying for, especially with the OCR?



Jake 10.05.09 at 7:48 am

I have no further comment on notetaking because it’s 1:00 a.m. and I’m tired yet can’t sleep, but I can say that any mention of DevonThink should have a mandatory link to Steven Berlin Johnson’s piece about how he uses the program, which is among the most enlightening intellectual productivity essays I’ve read. Or, without all those qualifiers, I’ll just say it’s a really cool essay.


magistra 10.05.09 at 10:52 am

Any company (like the people behind DevonThink) that starts by telling you that if you want to run their product you should get an entirely new computer, unless you’re enlightened enough to use a Mac already, is not going to get me as a customer anytime soon. (I don’t want this to degenerate into a Mac v Windows thread, but the tone on their front page is peculiarly aggressive).

I think how it’s best to work depends a lot on what subject you do (it depends crucially, for example, how much of your secondary literature is digitized already, how much is in English versus a foreign language, what the half-life of articles is, etc). But speaking as a medieval historian I’d mention two useful things I’ve found. One is that Google Books can increasingly be used as a mass index to books in your own collection (I will often find with specific keywords that it’ll pick up things I had on my shelf but hadn’t thought to look at). Secondly, if you are quoting from a source that you don’t have permanently (book borrowed from the library etc), it’s worth taking either a photocopy or a un-OCRd scan of the key pages. If you type up the quote or OCR it, the likelihood is that some minor error will creep in, and at the end of writing the book/article etc, you either have to go back to the original source and check it or else let a lot of unnecessary errors through.


sunship 10.05.09 at 11:47 am

I recently bought a livescribe pen. The task you’re seeking is nested within its many other wonderful features.


Lee 10.05.09 at 1:20 pm

I have experimented with taking photos of passages with my iphone (it’s always in my pocket), but with poor results, probably not OCR-able, though I’ve been planning to try the Evernote app out on them. Maybe Google will one day match blurry page-grabs with the original passage from a book in their database. Another phone trick I use when reading on the couch / subway is to record cites I wanna follow up on in Simplenote, which does a no-fuss live-sync of my plain text notes to the web.

AND SINCE you mention audiobooks—yes, this is off-topic—John, can you please do a post on some you’ve recently enjoyed? Michael Sandel did the narration for his excellent new book *Justice*, and it was released to Audible with zero fanfare. No one is talking about intelligent audiobooks.


John Holbo 10.05.09 at 1:30 pm

Hey Lee, I’ve been listening to a lot of Dickens recently. “Great Expectations” and “Bleak House” and (Mervyn Peake, but very Dickens-y) starting “Titus Groan”. That’s a lot of hours on the bus and toiling over a hot scanner. Oh, and Temeraire books and the Dresden Files. I haven’t been listening to a lot of nonfiction – apart from a few political podcasts – because I’m usually doing something else and would find it it hard to devote quite enough mental attention to something like “Justice”. But it does sound like the sort of thing I might like to check out.


Lee 10.05.09 at 2:31 pm

Thanks! Interesting that you find fiction to be easier listening: I’m the opposite. To really get a thrill from a story, I pretty much have to sit still in my bus seat. But most nonfiction I can follow while scrambling eggs and brewing coffee. (Sandel’s chapter on Kant does stress the listening lobe, though.) While I’m still off-topic, I will recommend another political nonfic audiobook I think you might enjoy: Colin Ward’s “Anarchy”.


Ginger Yellow 10.05.09 at 4:49 pm

Well, I was going to suggest Zotero, but then I read your penultimate sentence, so it would be a bit redundant. It’s great, though – one of the few productivity apps that actually does something really useful for journalists. Why aren’t there more like that? When we ran Macs in our office (for editorial – we still do for production) I was very tempted by DevonThink, but it wouldn’t run on our ancient version of MacOS. Plus it’s bloody expensive.


Barry 10.05.09 at 6:47 pm


nick s 10.05.09 at 8:26 pm

I sympathise with magistra (and agree on keeping scans), but with regard to the Mac thing, truth is that most of the decent generalist software for research, writing and overall text-driven productivity is being made for OS X only: DEVONthink, Yojimbo, Scrivener, Ulysses, Nisus Writer Pro, the various bibliography tools, etc. That’s not likely to change any time soon, as the presence of an active development community creates an incentive for writers and researchers to switch.


David 10.05.09 at 8:39 pm

I think magistra is a trifle touchy here. The front page for DevonThink states, in no way aggressively, that it is built for Mac OS X. Farther down the page is an equally low-key observation that one can run Windows on a modern Mac. No breast beating, crowing or hipper-than-thou proclamations.


Mark G 10.05.09 at 9:37 pm

I tend to use Evernote just for web clipping, but Evernote has OCR abilities and fairly nifty iPhone/mobile device integration. It’s free unless you use more than 40 MB/month on uploads, and has both “cloud” and standalone versions. I’m not sure, however, that they can actually display PDFs–using the Windows version I was able to search the text of various PDFs but not to view the finds directly within Evernote. They do seem to do a better job developing the Mac version; my sense is that PDF abilities may be more advanced on that side.

Anyone know if OneNote does a better job?


Alan S 10.05.09 at 10:39 pm

I’m a devotee of Zotero, and have been trying to move to it more and more for my reading and note-taking. Of course, in practice I have a mish-mash of paper, PDF, post-it and backs of envelopes :-) But the 2.0 version of Zotero (though labelled Beta, I’ve found it very stable for all of the “local” – non-synchronising – features) has lots of useful tools for dealing with PDF’s – renaming from the database attributes e.g. author-year-title, retrieving PDF metadata (great for those files you collected and ddin’t index), rich-text notes, PDF indexing and full-text search etc.

But with regard to John’s elaborate and impressive “workflow”, I think this poster to the Zotero support-forums has good claim to have developed an even more complicated set-up:

BTW, the author seems to like a tool called “bluebeam”(http://www.bluebeam.com/web07/us/products/revu/standard/).


Barry 10.05.09 at 11:04 pm

Perhaps it’s time for the other John (Q, that is) to run an updated version of his productivity post.


Ben Alpers 10.06.09 at 3:04 am

I have DEVONthink but I don’t use it as regularly as I should. My go-to program for note keeping (though I don’t use it to organize .pdfs) is Tinderbox.


John Holbo 10.06.09 at 5:23 am

RE: the scanning point. One reason my new system works is precisely that I keep the scan itself. I have the OCR for searching and it does make it easy to pluck a quote out and have it be almost typo free. But I don’t risk losing the original, or inadvertenly importing an OCR error into my scholarship, because I can always just visually verify what I’ve got if the OCR is dicey.


Jon H 10.08.09 at 6:19 pm

At our lab the researchers keep stuff in Circus Ponies’ NoteBook.


Evelyn Jarmel 10.12.09 at 1:49 am

magistra, that text on the DevonThink homepage only appears if you visit from Windows computer. When visiting with a Mac, that text doesn’t appear. Of course, since your chief complaint was the unappealing nature of their evangelization efforts towards Windows users, I don’t think this minor point really matters to you.

David, as a Mac user, I still feel that the folks at DevonThink are coming on a bit too strong. The line I would encourage them to take is to state the strengths of the application, and leave the fact that it’s a Mac-only application in the “system requirements” section.

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