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From Analog Notebook to Digital Vault

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tags icon obsidian journaling

The third Dutch Obsidian meetup took place last Saturday. It was a lot of fun to see how others work in and manage their Obsidian Vault. I still need to process Roy Scholten’s Bildung blog where he writes about information visualization, design, and note-taking, his English translation of Johannes Schmidt’s Zettelkasten presentation, and Harold Jarche’s Personal Knowledge Management system—always great to get to know new things!

Ton’s summary of the meeting made me realize I might not have explained my analog-to-digital workflow well enough. A lot of it is, of course, scripted. I used to tag scanned images of notes in DEVONThink, unconsciously creating MacOS-specific tags coupled to the .jpg files that Obsidian cannot read, let alone find. I thought about creating a plugin that enables Obsidian to understand these as well, but instead, I opted for an accompanying .md file for each scanned image.

This is more or less the process:

  1. Scan an entire notebook (see my post on how to do that) in one huge .pdf;
  2. Split into separate .jpg files (relying on ImageMagick, see the above link);
  3. Manually tag images to make them searchable (this can be as quick or as painfully slow as you’d like it to be);
  4. Automatically convert images into Obsidian-compatible Markdown files.

Step four involves nothing more but a JS script—in the same vein as the Goodreads export method—that records the MacOS-specific tags (if any) and dumps them in a new file somewhere in my Vault. I use the NPM package osx-tag for that, combined with the template mechanism ejs:

tag.getTags(`${dir}/${path}`, function(err, tags) {
	if(!tags) tags = []
    if (err) throw err
	const mddata = ejs.render(templates.markdown, { item: {
		filename,
		tags: tags.map(function(t) { 
			return t.replace(/ /g, '-')
		}),
		text: tags.reduce(function(a, b) { return `${a} ${b}` }, "")
	} })
	writeFileSync(`${dir}/${filename}.md`, mddata, 'utf-8')
})

The actual scan is embedded in the template:

# [[<%- item.filename %>.jpg]]

![](<%- item.filename %>.jpg)

<% item.tags.forEach(function(tag){ %>
#<%- tag -%>
<% }); %>

<%- item.text -%>

Simple and effective, reducing my workload and still creating a file if no tags are found. Nowadays, I simply directly edit the generated .md file if I want to “annotate” the scanned image. These text-based files are searchable by both DEVONThink and Obsidian.

Also important to note: many Obsidian users are proud of their Vault graph—look at all those connections, it’s a neat constellation! It sure is, but who cares? Almost none of the above generated files are connected, unless I’m working with them. Many notes in my notebooks are tales, newspaper clippings, or photos, that don’t need to be connected.

Only when I’m looking to get something done, I’ll be able to find it again (thanks to the tags) and do something with them. Ideas noted using a pen should eventually end up in a new and separate digital note—with emphasis on eventually. Otherwise, I’m stuck linking and tagging stuff for a week without actually getting anything done. So no, this ain’t your typical Zettelkasten thing.

I also don’t care about TOCs or MOCs (index pages), although I could easily generate one for reach notebook, linking to every page of the notebook. They’re already stored in separate folders, that’s good enough: the index note will never be consulted or edited, so why bother? I have to admit that sometimes, my Vault is just a digital backup, and I use it to quickly find the page and book number, resorting to the analog book itself to re-read the note and get my thinking process going.

I noticed a lot of enthusiastic Obsidian users employ all kinds of cool plugins to create digital mind maps, schematics, and whatnot. Whatever floats your boat! To me, nothing beats pen & paper.

I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a level 36 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!