Devonthink and other Mac Apps for History and Humanities Research

One of the great pleasures in getting a job with a modest tech start-up fund has been getting someone else to pay for my migration from Microsoft to Macintosh. The idea always daunted me in graduate school as I felt vested in the research tech choices I had made at the time (WordPerfect, and then Word + a research database and bibliographic program called Scholar’s Aid), and put off by the $$. I’ve always been willing to try programs and approaches that digitally enhanced my research abilities, and once really loved Scholar’s Aid. The drawback to that program, and to many like it, is the shelf life of support and development and the dangers of proprietary file structures. Scholar’s Aid does enable rich text file exports and .doc exports, so a proper and regular backup procedure can make one’s data universally available over time. 

In addition to looking for affordable research database solutions, I was immediately entranced by the voluminous (literally) possibilities of digital photography in the Archive. I spent about nine months in 2002 and 2003 in Quito, Ecuador working at the Archivo Nacional del Ecuador, and was immediately overwhelmed by the documentary record available in the parameters I had initially established for my project. The Audiencia of Quito was a rather litigious place at the end of the 18th cent., so I was faced with the daunting task of culling through literally thousands of criminal and civil cases, with much greater participation rates by women than I had initially anticipated.  After about a month of reading, I decided  the relative procedural predictability of judicial cases lent itself particularly to broad-based collecting. But how to do it? After experimenting with a friend’s camera, I bought a 5MP digital point and shoot that took great pictures, even if it was ill-suited for the volume I put it through. On the most prolific days, I took more than 1000 folio pictures (facing pages), and 2 cameras and many months later was left with 70 CDRs filled with photographs– for zero charge by the Archive. For the funded, yet still poor graduate student, this was the perfect solution. I lost count along the way, but I have on two separate CD copies and an external hard drive, literally hundreds of thousands of manuscript pages, and this taken from alternating decades (1765-1774, 1785-1794, 1805-1814, 1825-1834, 1845-1854) and culled from the Criminales, Civiles, and 1st Notary sections of the archive. I managed to collect, within those years, every case involving a woman as a primary litigant within the Corregimiento of Quito (not the whole of the Audiencia, but the city and its immediate hinterland) that existed in the sections of the Archive I chose.

The volume of information turned out to be key, as immersing myself in the cases drew my attention eventually (after months of reading!) to slight changes in boilerplate and subtle differences in the deployment of codified law in both the late colonial and early republican periods. 

So, what does all that have to do with Macs? When Jobs and Co. decided to move to Intel chips, the barriers to moving platforms seemed greatly reduced to me. I figured I could use the programs I really liked if I couldn’t find a satisfactory replacement through something like Parallels or Boot Camp. To my pleasant surprise, I found in the Apple community a variety of software applications well suited to the qualitative academic’s endeavor, and have been slowly developing workflows for myself that are both productive and enjoyable. The key programs have become DevonThink Pro Office, Bookends, Scrivener, and some combination of Mellel or Pages. I’m not completely anti-Microsoft, and given the ubiquity of Word in the academic and publishing world, I will still often use Word 2004 for Mac (not the newest) for final editing so as not to risk problems in file conversion. (More on academic workflow with Mac Apps is available here and here at Kerry Magruder’s very  helpful site).  I’ve also played around quite a bit with pdf applications for OCR, notetaking, and mark-up, including DevonThink, Adobe, Skim, and Apple’s own Preview. The availability of pdf-form articles, books, and even manuscripts are promising, but I haven’t yet settled on one of these programs. OCR can be frustrating at times as well. I’ve also used a number of free and low-cost photo programs for viewing my pics for transcriptions. For me, technology has become central to the research endeavor

By the way, I’m actually writing this post using the simple app, TextEdit while flying from Knoxville to Eugene for the American Society for Ethnohistory’s annual conference, where I’ll be giving a paper on adultery and normative sexuality in late colonial Quito. One of the more interesting experiences in converting to Mac has been realizing that writing tools don’t have to be one size fits all, and that certain apps do certain things better than others.

I’m in the process now of writing and finishing the last two chapters of my book manuscript, and implementing these new research database and writing tools for the first time. I’ve spent more than a year migrating to DevonThink and building new sections of my database, and need to get on with the work of narrativization, because the collecting and the analysis is done. So, over the next week or two, as I put into practice the writing end of new workflows. Over the next couple of days/weeks I’m going to put together, replete with screenshots, how I’m using these programs. I’d be interested in any feedback on better means to do the particular things I’m doing, the way I want and need to use these tools as recs for wintel options I can suggest to my students.


Associate Professor of Early Latin America Department of History University of Tennessee-Knoxville

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9 comments on “Devonthink and other Mac Apps for History and Humanities Research
  1. Laurie says:

    Hi Chad;

    I’m a fair newbie to Mac, and I just upgraded to DTPO yesterday. Your posts on your research methods are very very interesting. I’m intrigued by the idea of importing digital photos into DTPO for ocr. What a wonderful way to cite quotes from books I read! Could you expand on your method a bit?

  2. Chad Black says:

    Hi Laurie–

    Most academic journal articles are available now through databases like JSTOR and Project MUSE. I import PDFs of journal articles directly from these sites, and most of which already have a text layer. If they don’t, I’ll OCR the article with devonthink. For books and book chapters– it depends on the piece and its importance for me. I may take notes directly into devonthink. Or, one can take notes with whatever word processor works for them, and then import those notes into the database. Or, I will photocopy and scan the chapter or book, and then OCR the resulting pdf. If I download a book off of, I’ll usually break it into smaller pieces, and OCR and store.

    I find that if you want to be able to highlight, and then drag-and-drop those highlighted sections into your database, the results are better if each pdf page is equal to one page of text (ie, not duplex). With a flatbed scanner, you can skip the photocopying phase and go directly.

    For what it’s worth, I usually highlight/mark up with Apple’s Preview. Though I own a copy full copy of Acrobat, I find it’s clunky on my Mac. I’ve also used Skim, and I understand Skim’s markup will be supported in DT 2.0.

    Thanks for reading!

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  6. […] methods — particularly archival research methods. I had been using a citation manager; maintaining a database of notes; evolving a system for storing and classifying my pdfs, images, etc. The first “Making […]

  7. […] I’ve written about on a number of other occasions (here and here), I love using a digital camera for archival research. I’m an evangelist with graduate […]

  8. Dellu says:

    I have seen many blogs on developing academic workflow around Devonthink. This one is the best of all so far. Great work sir. Thank you for the generous share.

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Chad Black

I, your humble contributor, am Chad Black. You can also find me on the web here.
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