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Digitizing journals using DEVONthink

Migrating from Evernote to a secure and decentralized solution

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tags icon journaling privacy

In 2017, I wrote a practical guide to keeping a journal, which also contained a digitalizing part involving Evernote. Since then, a few things happened that ultimately made me close my Evernote account for good, and resort to other methods I’d like to explain here.

Why I Quit Evernote

1. Privacy and Security

The primary reason to quit Evernote was taking back control of my own data. I don’t want to throw my whole life on “the cloud” anymore - even if it’s encrypted at rest on Google Cloud servers - to which I do not have any key, by the way. Oh, and Evernote employees can read your notes? I’ve also heard stories of disappearing notes. Although that never happened here, it’s kind of scary.

So, I purposely looked for a decentralized solution that does not force me to store my very personal data somewhere else besides on my own hardware. With DEVONthink, you can still sync between multiple devices using Dropbox, with client-side encryption. Making backups is a simple matter of zipping a single directory, and doing whatever the hell I want with it. The note database can also be encrypted, although I simply rely on FileVault’s disk encryption instead.

2. Functionality

DEVONthink has so many bells and whistles that it is impossible for me to list them here. Take a look at the official website. Of course, if you’re a minimalist, that can also be a bad thing. Luckily, most features are discrete and the main UI is clean and can be customized to your liking. A few things I particularly liked, compared to the Evernote OSX application:

  • Proper Markdown support, custom CSS, WikiLinks, …
  • Smart AI that suggests related notes.
  • A scriptable interface using AppleScript (not great, but it works)
  • Smart Rules that lets you auto-tag, move, rename, …

3. Speed

DEVONthik is blazingly fast on my M1 MacBook Air. It literally takes a single second to boot, while the Electron-based Evernote app takes its sweet time. By then, I’m over the “quickly, jot that down or I’ll lose it!" pattern. Okay, that’s a lie, I only take notes in my analog journal, but still.

Disatvantages of DEVON Tech.

  • It’s expensive. True, but it’s a one-time cost, not a yearly one! With Evernote increasing its prices to $7 a month, after two years you’ve almost covered the Pro edition. However, what I actually like about the price is that it forces me to actually make use of it. After all, I paid quite a bit of money (at once) on a single product. Better make the most of it, then!
  • You’re limited to Mac tech. Also true. Although I don’t mind, I do wish I had an iPhone right now, because DEVONthink To Go is not available for Android, and that does sting. Avoiding vendor lock-in is important, especially as you want your note-taking system to last preferably your entire life. Export options are plenty, and notes are simply files in folders.

Migrating from Evernote to DEVONthink

My Evernote journal stack was easily exported into a weird .enex format that turned out to contain a simple XML structure. A few parsing gists helped me cook up a script to automatically import this data into DEVONthink. Yes, there’s a Import menu, but it requires Evernote to be installed, and by then, my account as already closed.

The DEVON community helped with tips on importing and image importing, and I ended up with a Python script that combines AppleScript (using appscript, which is deprecated and “unsupported”, but still works on Big Sur) to command DEVONthink and raw python to parse the XML structure:

    journaldb = self.devon.create_record_with({k.type:k.group,k.name: filename.replace(".enex", "")},in_=db)
    self.devon.create_record_with({k.type:k.picture, k.tags: tags, k.name: title, k.data: url},in_=journaldb)

In order to pass the URL, the Base64-encoded image data from the .enex export is first copied to a local file. The full gist code is available here.

How to Digitize Hand-written Journals

1. Scanning

Since the Android Evernote scanner app - which worked quite well, to be honest - isn’t an option for me anymore, I needed to find another way to efficiently digitize my stuff. After reading Mark Koester’s guide on digitalizing journals with a scanner app, I decided to give Genius Scan a try. Others I’ve tried are Adobe Scan (requires login, nope!) and Smart Doc Scanner (too clumsy to quickly scan multiple pages).

Scanning an entire journal (240 pages) took 20min. However, the app only managed to identify and properly cut the pages about 30% of the time, and regularly rotates scans even though I don’t want that. I do like writing with a lot of colors, pasting pieces of cut-out papers and images in-between. That might have confused it. Furthermore, the quality of the scans themselves isn’t great (even after selecting the “Highest” image quality), compared to the scans made by the Evernote app. I’m not sure whether I can recommend it, but it’s the best of the worst. I tried both scanning single pages and two pages at once (by opening up the journal) and the latter worked much better.

Although Genius Scan quickly lets you create a single PDF document for each journal, I don’t want a single file: I want separate files for each page to tag in DEVONthink. No problem: after transferring the PDF to your workstation, use ImageMagick: convert -density 150 journal.pdf -quality 90 journal.jpg creates journal-i.jpg for each page (48s for 248 pages on the Apple M1 - 300dpi creates blown-up 4MB files that I don’t need). Then, simply drag these into DEVONthink after creating a new group for the journal and the painful tagging process can begin…

As for note names, I used the pattern #XPYYY where X was the journal index and YYY was the page number. A very handy feature of DEVONthink is the Automatic WikiLinks one that creates linkks to journal pages if you mention them in a note. This does not work if a note starts with a hashtag. I converted these using the Script - Rename - Rename using RegEx menu. Do not rename them on disk: this will corrupt your note DB. I simply replaced # with b (for “book”). I’ve seen others use a timestamp in their filename, but that makes linking even more difficult.

Autocompleting links to journal pages in Markdown.

2. Tagging

Fast tagging is an art. With DEVONtink and a bit of shortcut trickery, you’ll do just fine. Select a scanned picture. Click on “Tags” on the right and add some. Press Enter. Use CTRL+TAB and DOWN to quickly go to the next. If you didn’t touch your trackpad, just click again to re-enter the next set of tags. I usually browse through the same physical journal in case I feel like re-reading or the scanned image is a bit blurry. This process takes about 1.5hrs per journal. A few more tips:

  • If you’re obsessed about structure: DEVONthink supports hierarchical tags.
  • Don’t overdo it. I used to tag way too much, or use too fine-grained things. If you, like me, use tags primarily to quickly find stuff, be mindful of the name and amount.

3. Other metadata

With Evernote, I used to annotate each individual note with the correct date as appearing on the physical paper. I stopped doing that because it takes too much time, and it is irrelevant: either the date stamp, positioned in a corner, is also scanned, or I can deduce the period by simply looking at the Location: each group is labeled as follows:

Book XX MMYYYY - MMYYYY

Where XX is a simple serial number and both dates denote the beginning and ending period of that particular notebook. If, for some reason, that still isn’t enough, I simply locate the physical copy and look at that one instead. For me, the digital versions are never meant to replace the originals: they are merely there as a backup and a quick way to find notes.

Tags (left), Journals (Middle), selected Page and tags (right).

If that is not enough for you, DEVONthink offers the ability to add custom metadata fields.

So I’m a DEVONthinker now. What’s next?

Customize your setup. Browse through online DEVONthink productivity tips. Read Stefan Imhoff’s Zettelkasten Note-taking Method with DEVONthink. I’m far from a note-taking ninja myself, and it’s very inspiring to read how others tackle this. As he put it:

Putting notes into folders is the beginners’ approach.

The Zettelkasten method basically equals to the practice of non-linear note-taking:

  1. You take notes. Good, but not great.
  2. You also tag notes. Better, as it groups them into clusters, but still not great.
  3. You create links between tags/notes. Congrats, you’re zettlekast-ing!

Remember, digitizing your journal is only the beginning. So we’re officially a note-taking newbie now. On to level 2!

A photo of Me!

I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a level 35 Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

If you found this article amusing and/or helpful, you can buy me a coffee - although I'm more of a tea fan myself. I also like to hear your feedback via Mastodon or e-mail. Thanks!