on DevonThink and history research (III): Chronologies and Bridges

This is the last (and much delayed) installment in my short series on using DevonThink for research (See parts 1 and 2).

My previous installment was about database meta-structures, in the context of which I discussed using labels for GTD. This post is about using labels for content-management. Over the course of my PhD research, I made two improvements (read: hacks) to my labels which turned out to be very useful to me. The first hack concerns timelines; the second became a substantial aid to writing up my thesis.

Fig. 1: Labels

Hack #1: Chronologies

Somewhere along the line, I decided that I needed a system of chronological organization, and came up with a folder I called Chronologies.

Fig. 2: Chronologies

This is basically a collection of smart groups, each of which contains all source documents and notes pertaining to a single year. As I worked on the period from roughly 1920 until 1965, I made one smart group for each year according to the following parameters:

Fig. 3: Chronologies parameters

The most important tweak which made this work was that I started and stuck to a system of naming my files. Every time I wrote or imported a time-sensitive document into my database, I would name it according to a strict YYYY.MM.DD format. So for example, in the screenshot above, the file highlighted green is a letter to the colonial office dated 14 May 1948. This file was automatically included in my 1948 smart group because it met one of the boolean criteria (its name matches the string “1948”). And because all files are named according to the same format, with the date first, I can sort them alphabetically and get a list of documents in ascending chronological order over the course of a single year (see Fig. 2).

Much later — almost too much later — I made a second improvement to my Chronologies group which I also found helpful and wished I’d started earlier. This was my Events group: a collection of text files whose file names detailed major, time-sensitive events.

Fig. 4: Events group

Most of the text files were empty: the important information was always in their titles, though occasionally I would add explanatory notes in the body of the text file. All events were labelled, and thus highlighted orange. Because their name format was the same as other time-sensitive documents, they show up in my Chronologies group, thus giving me a timeline of source documents which was punctuated by important contemporary events highlighted in orange (see Fig. 2). I found this really useful when revisiting and analyzing documents, and wish I’d started it earlier.

For my next database, however, I’d like to implement some method of streamlining my chronologies file (probably with tags) according to theme, biography, country or some other variable. This way, I’d have a series of fine-tuned chronologies rather than working with one gigantic all-encompassing timeline.

Hack #2: Bridges

My second hack used another label to generate a smart group I called, for want of a better name, ‘Bridges’.

Fig. 5: Bridges

This was basically an aid to writing. I started this group during my fieldwork year. Every so often, after some weeks in the archive, I tried to step back from the sources I’d been looking at in order to write and think thematically about them: in other words, to create prose ‘bridges’ between my sources. I used DevonThink’s internal hyperlinking to draft chunks of thematic prose which linked directly to the source files from which I got my ideas and information. In the example above (Fig. 5), I’d just gone through a whole clutch of booklists from the 1930s, and that paragraph was an early and roughshod attempt to think through some of the trends I’d noticed from the archive. A lot of this prose ended up directly in the thesis: what you see remaining in the Bridges group above is detritus, the stuff which didn’t make it in.

The reason I used labels and smart groups, rather than creating an ordinary group for these ‘bridge’ notes, is because they’re located all over my database. I tended to write them directly into the folders which contained the sources on which they drew; or they might reside in a folder containing articles which had stimulated those thoughts. Labelling them and collecting them into a smart group simply made them easier to find and manage.

I found this practice extremely helpful in keeping me mindful of larger themes even as I was mired in archival minutiae — why exactly I was looking at a particular run of sources, what sort of questions I should be asking of them, what I was getting out of looking at them. Hyperlinking to the notes I’d made kept their contents and insights fresh and readily accessible, rather than sinking out of sight, and out of mind, into the deep recesses of my database.

So that concludes my three-part series on DevonThink for history research. I learned an enormous amount from doing this on the fly over the course of my PhD. For my next project, which I am just about to start, I’ll undoubtedly dream up even more improvements, and generate still more shortfalls, on this most circuitous road towards a more perfect research system.

15 responses to “on DevonThink and history research (III): Chronologies and Bridges

  • Timothy Roes

    Extremely useful — I am developing my own research system (involving DevonThink, Papers 2 and Scrivener) as well and this is an eye-opener!

  • Rachel

    I use Scrivener too, and love it! I’ll get around to writing about it some day…

  • Hank

    I’d love to see your thoughts on linking DevonThink to Scrivener. I’ve been using the latter – after importing notes from various other formats a few weeks ago – and the file’s already growing cumbersome. Ideas on linking it’s content-generation with DT’s database capabilities will be much appreciated!

  • Rachel

    I’ve also run into a little trouble reconciling the two, though I use both avidly. I’ve been meaning to write something on this for a while, so perhaps I’ll bump it up my list 🙂

  • Ivy Lim

    Hi, thanks so much for your Devonthink pieces. I’ve been trying to work out a meaningful way to use it but have actually found Sente more user-friendly for me at the moment. Your idea of the chronologies is actually very useful, and I really appreciate your sharing!

    Thanks again!

  • Peter Medway

    Went to your blog because of the email from Devonthink. I’ve been using DTP for less than a year, also on a history project, but am sure I haven’t yet found the optimal way of using it and found your posts useful and suggestive — thanks for doing it. I see others have noted that one of your Labels means Scrivener, which I use too: might you add a post on that, please? (I looked at Sente and it looked hopeless for humanities work.)

    • Bruce Williamson

      @Peter, I am just learning Sente 6 myself so I am greatly curious about what it was specifically about Sente that led to your assessment that “. . . it looked hopeless for humanities work.” Thanks.

  • robags

    Hi Rachel.

    Thanks for your run-through.

    A question – in the first image the pdf of the article seems to be linked rather than in the db – can you elaborate on where you store pdfs, how you link / import them etc?


  • Peter Medway

    Bruce, it’s some time ago now and I don’t remember very precisely, though I recall other people on various forums reaching the same conclusion. Sente seemed geared to science in that it seemed to assume all the material you’d be working with was pdfs, whereas I use material like interview transcripts in rtf form. I found it very difficult simply to understand how to do things in Sente.

    Here’s a post I wrote somewhere a couple of years ago — not sure I still understand it fully myself, but you might be able to make some sense of it:

    Say I want to take one of the notes-with-a-quote that’s attached to a particular item in my Sente database, and transfer it to somewhere else, like a word processor or DevonThink.  The note would need to have its reference (the names or identifier for the source) automatically incorporated so it would stay with the note when moved across.  Sente didn’t seem to do this.

Moreover, the Sente procedure for making notes on an item — putting the information in the fields they provide — is far from intuitive.  The notes on the items in their sample Library seem to be basically single words or one-liners, whereas my notes are often pages long and fitting them into the Sente format would be an awkward and unfriendly process, if possible at all.  And to get the notes to appear in a form in which they could be copied and pasted into another app, you have to, strangely, generate a ‘preview’ bibliography in which the way the notes appear isn’t at all convenient for my purposes.

Nor is it clear how I’d cope in Sente with a 50-page interview transcript — typically in Word or some other word processor, and not in pdf.  I’ve seen postings on forums that say Sente doesn’t cope well with long documents.

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  • Michael Lever

    Very useful thank you. I’m creating an encyclopaedia of local history of the town I live in – http://www.ledburyhistorysociety.co.uk – and use a combination of DP Pro Office and Scrivener. I’m a commercial property surveyor – in England UK – and the advantage to me in using DPO is to synchronise emails, also I enter all calls. Using a combination of tags and groups and importing into the group PDFs of letters etc I can when a client telephones open a group and have all the info in front of me.

  • em

    I have found a way to string all your Notes together thematically, if you are disciplined when you set them up about titles, as you suggest. The way I propose to do it is laid out below. I am a lawyer, so the written product is differently geared, but I am sure historians could work along similar lines. This is an extract from the Dt manual we work from, a work very much in progress, so suggestions very welcome. I have changed the legal output term to “Report”, to make it at least appear more applicable to other work.


    A Note is text written by you in Dt, using the Note function. Notes can be Tagged. This is where you write your arguments about the document you are viewing, and quote from it, as you can then export your notes on a given Tag to a Word document and use this as the basis for that section of your Report.

    In DEVONthink, rather than copying out the bits of (OCR-ed) text in a document that you want to quote directly as they are key, you simply highlight them with your mouse and paste them into a Note (titled with the * format, which is *. Argumentative heading, ie, “ *. The witness was lying about what she saw”), add your own commentary, plus a Link to the page of the original document as your citation.

    All your Notes in this format can then be gathered in a Smart Group in Tag order, Exported into Word, and thus form your final Report.

    Notes that are to end up in the Report are titled thus:

    *. The prosecution’s only witness was concealing a criminal conviction

    (where everything after the “.” is free text that reads as an argument, which can thus be used as a heading in the Report.)

    To get the Notes out, create a Smart Group that grabs all your * Notes, sort them by Tag, highlight the list created and click on Data / Export ? Word and give your new document a name. You then work on that Document in Word or Pages or whatever, either as a Chapter for that Tag, or by pasting all the Word documents together.

    For a comprehensive Chronology, you need to make a Note of each date and time, and ask Devonthink to isolate and sort those Notes for you using Smart Groups.

    To enable Devonthink to give you a chronology of events, create a New RTF note (“T” button on ruler”) each time you see a date you want to note. Give the Note a title that begins with the “=” symbol followed by the date and time plus a short description of the event. Add a link to the source document in the Note yourself, and a further description of the event if you wish.

    Notes that are to end up in a Chronology are titled thus:

    =.2014.01.11.0915_Client was at home with wife

    Then you can use Smart Groups to collate all the Notes that you have effectively labelled with the “=” symbol in chronological order, or even narrowed to a particular year. That list of Notes then IS your chronology.

    When making Notes for both the Report and the Chronology, its useful to create a citation for internal use in Dt, which you can paste into your Note. To make the link, highlight the text you want to link to, and then CTRL CLICK to bring up the contextual menu that has “Copy Link” on it, then paste the link into the Note.

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