DEVONthink: evangelicalism and geekery (I)

twelve days since my last post. alas. I can only half blame Marco Polo; the remaining culpability must be roughly distributed between (a) manic funding and fieldwork administrative tasks, which I have been less-than-enthusiastically undertaking in preparation for my uncomfortably imminent departure from England at the end of this month; (b) the lovely National Archives @ Kew, which has sucked up most of this week, and (c) DEVONthink, which is all set to usurp my entire brain. (All are direct offshoots of the First Cause, viz. my own geekery).

The Wikipedia article for DEVONthink doesn’t do it an iota of justice, and actually, even a Google search, apart from the obvious links to the product website and a tantalizing write-up by DT evangelist Steven Johnson, doesn’t do much to entice, and it takes a little digging to get a really good sense of just what the program is capable of. DEVONthink is basically an intelligent database, with an [1] incredibly flexible filing structure, [2] script support, [3] spreadsheet and table/listing support, and comes with not only Spotlight search functionality but [4] inbuilt semantic concordance. Simply speaking, it sucks up your research (in all manner of file formats), lets you arrange it however you like, and spits out research connections you mightn’t even think existed.

I think writing comprehensively about DT is hard, partly because its richness is best appreciated through exploration, but also because it’s a database that ends up reflecting your brain, and everyone’s brain is different — organized differently, stimulated differently (I recommend doing the Google image search to see just how different). So I think doing a prescriptive write up, where I say “this is how you use DT” would somehow denigrate the wonderful diversity in brains-on-display. Nonetheless, when I first started trying to find out about DT, I found myself wishing there was more, in more detail, out there about it — I was curious to see how other people used it. So here’s my bit, which will be spread out over maybe two or three posts.

(I should mention that DevonThink is Mac-only, so statistically, around 80% of you can stop reading).

[1] Incredibly Flexible Filing Structure

upon first opening DT, you’re either met with the sullen, blank and intimidating gaze of an empty and wholly unhelpful database window, or with a vasty tabula rasa of infinite possibility — however your cup is filled. You can immediately start to import files (click-and-drag works best) and file them in any way that makes sense to you. For me, this works:

my DEVONthink database

The most self-explanatory ones are the Library and the Notebooks. In my library I have various category folders of books — as yet incomplete and understocked, because I’ve only just started with DT (6 novels? c’est absurde). Nested inside my general Library is my Research Library (that is to say, the PhD), divided into (for now) Books and Journals. Each book and article gets a citation folder, in which I keep notes, thoughts and extracted quotes and citations, in various individual RTF files.

research library

The Journal folder also contains, where possible, PDF files of the article in question, many of which are also searchable by text. A similar principle governs my general library — for example:

nietzsche folder

Notice that the main folder text is in red: this indicates that Nietzsche is replicated elsewhere in the database. Effectively, what this means is that unlike bookstore managers, DT-users no longer face the unconscionable choice of having to decide whether to place Foucault in sociology, philosophy or history; whether to place Alain de Botton in philosophy or self-help; whether L. Ron Hubbard should be placed in religion, science fiction or the bin. All things are possible. Replication means you can categorize, or in DT terms classify one file or folder in a dozen relevant places; updating one instance of it updates them all. Alternatively you can also duplicate rather than replicate, which allows you to make a copy of a file in another location that’s different from the original.

My notebooks are part of a longer term project — a place where every time a theme or topic comes up that I’m interested in, I open a folder into which I can create or classify thoughts, notes, files and even websites (yes, DT handles full web support) related to that topic. Or even just homeless quotes I pick up along the way that don’t (yet) have an associated Book in my library —


I’ve arranged these notebooks to accrue over time — if I am diligent in my accumulation & upkeep, I’m hoping they’ll age like fine wine, or, well, a lifetime of learning.

Tomorrow: script support. Stay tuned.


12 responses to “DEVONthink: evangelicalism and geekery (I)

  • Belle

    So does it eat up hard disk space? How fast? Are you keeping everything on your hard drive or do you have a backup? It looks wonderful and I’m wondering if it’s going to gobble up disk space as it grows.

  • DEVONthink: evangelicalism & geekery (II) « a historian’s craft

    […] September 15, 2008 by Rachel [2] Script support part of a series […]

  • Rachel

    if you’re worried about disk space, DT allows you to index rather than import things — this means you can keep things stored on an external hard drive, or even online in Google documents, and DT will index the files from there. and though it might start to gobble up disk space, I’m much more inclined to buy disk space than archives boxes for mountains of paper…:)

    if you download DEVONthink from their website you can have a free 150-hour trial to play about with it. do give it a shot if you’re interested.

  • Jason

    Hey Rachel,

    Thanks for these posts on DT. I’ve been on the lookout for a solid note-taking software package and it appears DT is that–and so much more. The only thing holding me back is my old, old iBook (I have the Panther 10.3.9 OS).


  • Brian

    Very cool — but it only runs on Mac OS.

  • Matt

    Great post. I’ve imported it into my own DEVONthink library under “DEVONthink Best Practices.”

  • Pascal Venier

    A great post. I have used Devonthink extensively for my own work as an historian, but have now moved on to use PersonalBrain as my main knowledge management software. I tend to only use DT these days to store articles and process pdf files, which I turn into rtf files (Jstor articles for instance)

    There are however features available in DT which are not available in PB, and vice-versa. I remember that several years ago there were talks of DT introducing a form of mind-mapping, but this does not seem to have materialised.

    I had in 2005 created a little template to implement Getting Things Done in DevonThink, which I think is still made available with the software.
    Getting things done on Devonthink

  • Steven

    A beta of DT Pro 2.0 is out. Nice interface and much, much faster. Only been waiting two years or so for this update. Very useful for research, especially the concordance and “AI” features.

  • ryannagy

    Great article. Thanks for posting screenshots of your DevonThink set-up. I am a new DT user and trying to wrap my brain around the whole set-up.

    And this comment:

    “it’s a database that ends up reflecting your brain, and everyone’s brain is different — organized differently, stimulated differently”

    Is a brilliant observation.

    Thanks! – Ryan

  • Nestor

    I’m interested in your organization of the DT database, could you develop a bit more the “+ groups” and what script it is attached to?

  • on DevonThink and history research (I) « a historian’s craft

    […] you know, I am a loyal devotee of DevonThink, and was fortunate enough to have found out about it early on in my research. For four years, over the course of my PhD, I mucked about with it: exploring, optimizing, and […]

  • Resource Management + Note-taking – Words In Space

    […] have to settle for a post about the post), and again in the New York Times Book Review (See also Rachel Leow‘s and Chad Black‘s discussions of how they use the software, and various other […]

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