Using Devonthink: What you can’t use it for

More on note-taking – hooray! I already gave a brief introduction narrating my jumping on the Devonthink bandwagon, as well as what it needs to do. So if you need context, start there. Now onto the details of how I use it, with several months of use under my belt. This post was originally 7500+ words, but for your sanity I’m breaking it up into several separate posts. The posts address the following topics:

What DTPO is not – lest you think DTPO is the ultimate in note-taking technology.
The advantages of DTPO and how to most efficiently organize your notes.
Documents in DTPO – the types of sources I store in DTPO.
Entering data into DTPO – mind-numbing details on the ways in which I enter information into DTPO. All in the name of efficiency.
Finding things in DTPO – payoff.

What DTPO cannot do:

  • It’s a text database, not a relational database. You cannot manually define relationships between groups, other than to create hierarchies, or to create hyperlinks within one document to another. The AI uses the textual content of the documents to define relationships between documents, based off of the groupings you have created (or groupings it ‘sees’ according to word patterns). Nor is it easy to make massive changes, e.g. there is no global find-replace feature for the content of documents. If you’re used to using a relational database with queries (like I was), you need to ratchet down your expectations as far as customizability is concerned.
  • It’s a text database, not sophisticated textual analysis software. If you want KWIC, co-occurrence lists, topic modeling and so on, look elsewhere.
  • It’s a text database, not a spreadsheet. It can open Excel files and create tables, but it has no real mathematical capabilities. It can tell you how many results it finds and has several optional scripts, but that’s about the extent of its math. It also lacks any custom date fields, which means it’s unable to manipulate dates (e.g. convert Old Style to New Style dates).
  • It’s a text database, not a word processor. It can serve in the early phases of drafting, but it is not MS Word. It does not, for example, do footnotes. You can, however, export any number of documents to a word processor.
  • It’s a text database, not a photo organizer à la Picasa. You can view images and you can group/tag them, even do some simple editing, but that’s about it.
  • It’s a text database, not a bibliographic database. You can manually create folders for each document, but it doesn’t have Zotero’s ability to download all the metadata. In theory you should be able to index your Zotero databases – something for the future perhaps.
  • It’s a text database, not One-App-To-Rule-Them-All. It can handle dozens of file types, but it treats them all a bit differently, especially regarding the metadata. Therefore, rich text files are your best bet for text documents (most flexible, most editable) while PDFs seem best for images.

In other words, it will not be the only program you use, but it might be a very important one.

Next up: Organizing your Devonthink database.


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