FAQs on DevonThink

It’s been far too long since I’ve written something, but life has been clamorous and manic in the best possible way. Academic life here is thrilling & overwhelming. Every day brings new ideas, new opportunities, new conversations — this tiny town is teeming with remarkable people, and I am frequently bewildered that I should be here, astonished at & thankful for my good fortune. I’ve also found that my reading horizons have been abruptly prised open. In spending most of my academic life in one (wonderful) milieu, I’ve gotten to know a given constellation of authors by whose familiar lights I navigated my intellectual world. Now I walk under stranger stars, and it’s exciting to be here with an armful of uncharted books.

I wanted to briefly answer a few questions I’ve been getting in response to my series on DevonThink [1] [2] [3].

Files in DT

Many people have asked how I store files in DT. My general principle is to store archive material directly in the database, but to index (i.e. link externally to) PDFs of journal articles, which I store in the “Attachments” folder in Bookends (my preferred citation management software). You can do this by clicking and dragging a PDF into the database while holding Cmd+ option. This makes the article searchable within DT without duplicating it in both applications.

Web bookmarks

I don’t tend to use the RSS or web bookmarking features in DT, because I prefer to have all my material available with or without an Internet connection. If I want to use a web article, I tend to PDF it. YMMV according to how much of your research is based on web materials — for me, almost none.


I do use the wonderful Scrivener, and some of you noticed that my seventh label is in fact called “Scrivener”. I use this to mark documents in my database which I have copied into Scrivener’s research folder. I had one Scrivener project per thesis chapter, and extracted documents relevant to that chapter from DT into Scrivener. Labelling them in DT helped me avoid accidental duplication. This was more of a hack than a strategy — tedious, but it was late enough in the thesis game that it did what it needed to do. I need to think more about this, but a future post on Scrivener is definitely in order.

Other apps

I’ve never used Sente or Papers (on the former, see the interesting exchange between Bruce Williamson and Peter Medway in the comments) but I did experiment with Evernote, and found it not quite to my liking. I’m not sure why — perhaps the lack of structure, or haphazardness, or the fact that for some reason uploading pictures from my iPhone just didn’t seem to work all that well for me. But I know many for whom it is an indispensable part of their workflow, so I’d still encourage anyone thinking about their research systems to give both a go. Finally, I gave up on Microsoft Word for Macs a long time ago, switched to the glorious Mellel (which integrates with Bookends), and never looked back.

7 responses to “FAQs on DevonThink

  • Bridie

    rachel! what’s your email address? We should have lunch…

  • PhilosopherInAcademia

    Hello. I would love to hear more about how you integrate DevonThink and Scrivener. I love Scrivener’s index card method of laying out and organizing info, and DT’s ability to find related documents is incredible. What I haven’t figured out is how to keep these things in sync: if I try to take notes in Scrivener, there’s not an easy way to move new notes to DevonThink, but if I write in DevonThink, I lose the ability of spatially organizing materials until the very last stage in my writing. How do you use these programs together?

  • Henry Cowles

    Hi Rachel,

    I’m also looking forward to a post on integrating Devonthink and Scrivener (besides the labels in DT). I was also wondering: are the features you’ve highlighted as useful in DT specific to DT *PRO*, or are they available in the cheaper ($40, App Store) version as well? Any comments you have on this will help me move in this direction..

  • Liz Marks

    Just curious- which do you end up using more for writing? Scrivener or Mellel? I’m in the early stage of dissertating and want to nail down my system soon, so I am hungrily gathering information. Cheers!

  • Tom Fasano (@yourenglishclas)

    Thanks for your comments on DEVONthink. I’ve just started using it in my own research and am now just beginning to understand how powerful a tool it is.

  • jostwald

    Glad to see you’re discussing these methodological issues. I went through it myself in grad school far too long ago. I ended up creating my own MS Access database from scratch, discussed at http://www.jostwald.com/Research/DatabaseNotesScreen.shtml if you’re interested in more general discussion of design. I’ll also be posting a few posts on the topic on my Skulking in Holes and Corners blog as well, including the design decisions behind my impending switch to the personal wiki ConnectedText. If I had a Mac I’d probably be using DevonThink.

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