Devonthink for Historical Research, III

Using Devonthink for Historical Research: Approaching Your Data

(Earlier entries here and here.)

As I mentioned in my last post on devonthink, the ability to capture archival and secondary sources digitally has expanded our capacity to collect the bits and pieces of information at a scale and speed that is, in my opinion, transformative for historical research. And, it is the combination of speed and scale that is potentially revolutionary. I say potentially, because in and of itself collecting endless amounts of quantifiable and qualitative data is nothing new. Witness Braudel’s history of the Mediterranean. Reproducing such an endeavor with the aid of computers could simply mean taking ponderously large collections of note cards, file cabinets, moleskine notebooks, legal pad transcriptions, rolls of microfilm, and stacks of book, and reduce the storage space from sprawling all over the office to a pocket-sized usb harddrive. But is that enough? Likewise, years and years of archival collecting and transcribing can be reduced to months with an itchy shutter finger. Digital photos, starting at about 3.2mp, are truly superior to photocopies (and better for the documents, as no flash is necessary). Of course, you still have to read and transcribe/take notes on all those photos.

I want more out my technology. I want to be more efficient, but I also want to push up against the traditional means of collection, analysis, and emplotment that has defined historical practice regardless of one’s theoretical emphases, while remaining rooted in a fundamental historicity. Are we there yet? Maybe. But, I don’t think quite. What I hope for, and want to develop in my own work, is the ability to combine the qualitative and the quantitative in analyses of historicized texts. This isn’t a plea for including regressions and statistics on word or concept frequency in some sort of a renewed social scientism. It’s also not quite a desire for a textual discourse analysis aided by text mining and QDA applications. (Though, I find these very interesting in their own way, and potentially fruitful. The Center for History and the New Media is pioneering the potentials of text mining for historical analysis.) The differences I’m thinking my way through here approximate, in a way, the differences between the meanings of the word archive for Derrida and Steedman, and the differences between texts implicated by these understandings of archive.

Devonthink’s classification, search, and AI infrastructure is a step in the right direction. For people who work mostly with the every-growing mass of information available online, the ability to import, auto-classify, and connect disparate pieces of info is very cool, particularly as the internal structure of your database becomes increasingly tight and predictable. It also helps to be working in one language. One can keep dumping PDFs and web archives and their own bits of writing and the like into the database and find connections. This is essentially the base of Steven Oberlin Johnson’s earlier piece of devonthink evangelism. I’ve manage to sell using devonthink to one colleague in my department. His initial response in reading around online and looking at the program was that it promised to work really well for bloggers and journalists who wanted the computer to read for them. He’s a bit of a surly guy, though, and the application’s potential overcame his cynical disposition.

I don’t use the classify functions in devonthink, which are designed to group a new or existing record with other like records, to suggest places to store a piece in my database. As I’ve mentioned before, I stick to a fairly well defined note tree hierarchy designed to group data based on its place in the archive, as well as its general place/role in the book project. I do, on the other hand, love the search capacities of the program. Some historians may find the classification tools, smart groups, and other means of arranging data very convenient. Using replicants, it is possible to store individual note files in numerous places at once, which an be especially helpful when building thematic databases. An individual criminal case, for example, can be housed in a folder for all criminal cases, and also replicated in other folders that deal with, say, the particular type of crime (property, violent, sexual, etc.) or with other criminal cases whose defendants or plaintiffs share certain characteristics (gender, social class, honorifics, property, occupation, marital status, etc.).

What I do use are the incredibly strong search functions, and supplemental to search “See Also,” “Classify,” “Context,” and “Spelling.” As I come to approach the writing phase of my work, I will have identified important themes, concepts, categories, etc. that emerged in the months on end of transcribing documents and reading the secondary literature. Usually, I’ll jot notes to be kept in the Note folder on the tree. For example:


In this case, the Classify and See Also commands can provide clues for taking the work in a particular direction, or connecting with other sources:



See Also.png

See Also

Alternatively, I can choose terms from within a secondary source that I’m working with and connect them to other bits of data in the database. Here, for example, is the result of selecting pecado nefando from an article by Zeb Tortorrici on sodomy in colonial Mexico:

pecado nefando.png

The problem is that I’m working in two different languages, which limits the utility of these functions. The search tools, on the other hand, are much more striking. So, let’s say I’m working on a piece dealing with sodomy prosecutions. I can search for a variety of terms to find cases, legal writings, etc. that connect:


The pane on the right provides the many different spellings that show up in my database. I performed this search using fuzzy spelling, so anything approximating the search term is included. I can then double click on the specific spellings and new results will show up in the search window. Double clicking on any of the entries will open that file. In addition to spelling, the search results can also be approached through the context in which the search term most often appears– the adjacent words on file:

sodomy context.png

This process is very helpful. In seeing visually, and then being able to link/re-search contextual terms, I am able to consider discursive trends associated with concepts. Fuzzy spelling search capabilities are vital for working with early modern documents, when spelling conventions weren’t yet set, and given that my own transcriptions may have some of their own spelling errors. These searches and their cross-indexing can be repeated for names of individuals, phrases, longer strings of text, and more. What this does, for me, is provide an extra layer of immersion that helps visualize trends and connections in the documents I may have missed or not thought to look for. On the one hand, it provides ready access to specific pieces of information, a sort of intensification of the classic notecard and subject means of organizing research. But, it also moves in the direction of computer aided analysis, or breaking out of the note tree hierarchy to reorganize and redeploy data without having to abandon the comfort of the hierarchy. When Devonthink 2.0 makes it out of beta, I think I will most likely maintain a Spanish-language database for my next project alongside a separate English database. Because we will be able to open two databases simultaneously, and search them as well, I hope this will make the internal structure of the data even more robust.

So what do I do from here? Well, as I move into the writing phase, I bring together these search and classification capacities with the organizational writing environment of Scrivener by dragging-and-dropping the research materials into Scrivener where they can be grouped together and re-organized to support the narrative development of a given chapter or article. I like Scrivener for the grunt work of writing specifically because it allows me to have the research and writing environments side-by-side without needing multiple monitors. Though I have multiple monitors, I’m not always in a place where they’re accessible when I’m writing, and so this feature is excellent. My current writing environment looks like this:


The research notes in the left hand pane can be re-arranged to suit the development of the piece, as a working source outline that keeps me on track while writing. I know by the time words are being put on the screen exactly how I want the narrative to develop, and I have the exact sources necessary to do that on the left, and on display in the bottom pane as I’m writing. These note files include the bibliographic reference from Bookends, which I incorporate directly into the flow of writing.

Scrivener also has a nice full screen writing environment that minimizes distractions:


As the draft gets close to completion, or ready for final formating, I will compile the draft sections together into a single piece (the program does this for you) and export from scrivener as a .doc or .rtf file and open in a word processor, usually Mellel or Word 2004 for that work-up. I’ll scan with Bookends (set for the citation style required by the publisher) and double check the citations, make sure the formating meets the expectations of the publisher, and then send it off. For documents that don’t require .doc status, I will almost always save them as pdfs.

So, those are the basics of my workflow. There are about 1000 other things I could say about working in devonthink and with writing apps available for Mac. But, I hope these three posts do a good enough job of outlining a workflow that can help the professional historian collect, manage, approach, analyze, export, and use their research materials. If you have any questions or recommendations, please make a comment as I’m always interested in seeing how others use technology to help with their research and writing processes specifically attuned to the needs of the academic humanities.


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

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Posted in Apps for Research, Digital History, Processes, Research and Writing
21 comments on “Devonthink for Historical Research, III
  1. […] Devonthink for Historical Research, part III […]

  2. BQ says:

    Chad wrote: “Digital photos, starting at about 3.2mp, are truly superior to photocopies (and better for the documents, as no flash is necessary). Of course, you still have to read and transcribe/take notes on all those photos.”

    Agreed, I have also used digital photography (at 5 mp) for a project and the photos are almost superior to the original as it allows me to make out details in the images that were hard to see in the original paper version.

    Great information. I do wonder, however, if you have had a difficult time importing and exporting RTF files into and out of Mellel, particularly with the note formating (footnotes or endnotes). So far my experiences have not been positive so I use NisusWirterPro with mixed feelings about its interface, and other issues. (As a side note: for one of my current projects, Mellel does not work at all as you cannot add automatic line numbers to your text).

  3. How come you don’t just create a new temporary folder in DT with replicated items from your database? This would end up looking just like your source column in Scrivener. Then just use DT as a word processor (it can go full screen too). Just a thought. Scrivener is great no doubt, but it doesn’t seem like you are using features that are unique to it.

  4. parezcoydigo says:

    Hi Danny– A couple of reasons I can think of- 1. The interface of DT is fine for taking notes, but it just doesn’t have the feel of a writing environment to me. Scrivener does, even if it has been a shift from a full-service word processor for me; 2. It is not as simple as creating a temporary folder with replicants, mostly because the sorting functions in DT are not flexible. Scrivener allows me to put the notes for a given section together, and them move them around, reorganize on the go, etc.; 3. The arrangement of note tree, source view, and writing window in Scrivener works better for me; and, 4. footnoting, which is indispensable in historical writing, simply works better in Scrivener or any word processor than in DT’s rtf environment.

    There are a thousand ways to skin a cat, and for now this is this is the one that works best for me. I would mention that with the excellent free application Think, you can turn anything into a clutter-free full-screen environment. I’ve used Think frequently with Word, Mellel, Pages, and Scrivener in 3-pane view to get that writing zen going. I’m a little ADD and sometimes I need that black screen and white page combo.

  5. Amafortas says:

    Could you please post some larger images of your work flow? The examples here are small enough to make following what you are doing on them difficult.

  6. Christian McMillen says:

    Hi Chad

    Many thanks for your excellent descriptions of DevonThink and Scrivener. I have been using DTPO since September and really like it a lot. I’ve imported massive amounts of material and the more I add the more useful it becomes. Likewise with Scrivener. My only concern thus far–and this is where it is especially helpful that you’re also a historian–is footnotes. I tend to write and add footnotes all at once; I don’t go back later and add them. I have played around in Scrivener a bit with the footnote feature but have not quite got it down. Word’s footnoting/endnoting ability is very familiar to me and quite easy, I think. So, at this stage the only thing keeping me from switching over to Scrivener for writing is my concern over footnotes. Would you mind describing how you do this–you alluded to your use of Bookends, but I am more interested in the mechanics of footnotes.

    Thanks and best wishes

    Christian McMillen

  7. Mark says:

    Great to get stuck into these posts, thanks. I second the requests for larger images in Part III. My failing eyes can’t follow!

  8. parezcoydigo says:

    Christian– Scrivener embeds footnotes directly in the text, as a sort-of bubble immediately following the paragraph or note you’re providing the citation for. I’m like you, in that I add and write footnotes from the first moment of writing a draft. I rarely go back and add footnotes in- that seems like cheating somehow! When Scrivener exports to a .doc or .rtf file, the footnotes are automatically generated. This took some getting used to visually for me, but now it doesn’t phase me. The other element of Scrivener that took some getting used to was not having pagination– mostly because I’m never quite sure if I’ve made my daily writing goal. Still, I find the program an elegant and attractive writing environment.

    So, as I’m writing footnotes, I put the bookends short citation in the note and have bookends scan the final, compiled draft. This is actually a new experience for me as well. I never used a citation manager or bibliographic program before the last year– never got on the endnote wagon.

    Mark and Amafortas– I’m working on new image links. I switched blogging software to ecto, and took my screenshots in a different way. The combination of these two elements led somehow to those small photos. I may have to retake a couple of the screen shots.

    Thanks for the feedback!

  9. Christian McMillen says:

    Hi Chad

    Thanks for the quick and helpful reply. I have fiddled around with the footnotes bubble a little and it does seem to work well.

    Here’s a perhaps tiny point: When one exports to a .doc file the footnotes look fine, but if one adds a new footnote in the Word doc then that additional note(s) has a slightly different appearance making for a less than perfectly formatted document. Doing command a and then attempting to make them look uniform does not seem to work. I suppose one could simply not care and get it as close as possible or just write everything in Scrivener. Any thoughts?

    By the way, your work sounds quite interesting; I do American Indian history myself.

    Best wishes


  10. parezcoydigo says:


    Without fiddling with it, I imagine that the glitch is solvable by defining the footnote/endnote style in Word to match the style exported by Scrivener. I think you can select an exported note, ctrl-click, chose style on the drop menu, and then save the selected note as the default footnote style. From then on, there should be no problems.

    By the way, I believe we have a mutual friend.


  11. Christian McMillen says:

    Thanks Chad. I will give that a try–sounds like it will solve the problem.

    I wonder who are friend is? Drop me a message if you like.

  12. John says:

    Wonderful information! I learned a lot from your posts.

    One quick question, though. As an active user of Scholar’s Aid (I stumbled upon your blog by searching for “Scholar’s Aid” and “Devonthink”), I am curious how you moved your notes/database from Scholar’s Aid to DT. Thank you!

  13. parezcoydigo says:

    John: This took a little bit of labor. Scholar’s Aid allows you to export notes and note folders/files in rich text format (rtf). So, I exported my notes to a thumb drive, then moved them onto my Mac and imported into devonthink. Depending on how much you want to replicate your file hierarchy, this can mean either a lot of exporting/importing. Or, you can export a giant file, select individual sections, and then drag them into DT as new notes.

    Amafortas and Mark- I think I’ve fixed the image links for all the images on this post.

    Thanks for reading!

  14. Michael P. says:

    Thanks for the great posts on DEVONthink et al. They helping me get some direction in how to get my dissertation writing going a bit better.

  15. parezcoydigo says:

    Michael P. –Sure thing, and thanks for the mention on your blog. I appreciate the feedback and spreading the word. Good luck with your diss. Remember, the best dissertation is a done dissertation!

  16. […] and relevant articles: Stephen Berlin Johnson’s article on devonthink in the New York Times; “Devonthink and other Mac Apps for History and Humanities Research”; “Delve into Devonthink”; “An attic called Devonthink”; “A digital academic workflow”, […]

  17. sgulland says:

    A minor question from a DTP novice: I can’t get the links in “(Earlier entries here and here.)” above to go anywhere meaningful.


    Sandra Gulland

  18. ctb says:

    Hmm. That’s weird. But, fixed!

  19. shawnaus says:

    Hi Chad (or anyone),

    Have you had any experience with Onenote. I have been using it for the past two years and it has been a nice tool. I now want to use DT. Any thoughts on moving ON files to DT? A problem I foresee is that ON allows you to create and move text boxes around on the screen. For example, I have one column with quotes and summaries, then next to that box I have many little boxes I’ve created with original ideas or commentary on the summaries. When I convert ON pages into .doc (or any other format i assume) all the little boxes on the left get pushed to the bottom of the document. I’m guessing there is no way around this….

    Thanks for your posts, they’re giving me much food for thought.

    You’ll remember we chatted at Liz’s Adv. Hist Method. I am now ABD and headed to Asuncion to begin/continue my diss research.


  20. ctb says:

    Hi Shawn –> I’ve never used OneNote before. You could try exporting to pdf, which is I think an option from the Save As dialogue. You’d choose Save As .pdf, and then those pdfs could be sent over to your Mac/to DEVONthink. That might keep the formatting. Alternatively, I imagine that from Word you could reconstruct the positioning with some editing.

    BTW — I’ve changed the way I use DT a bit in the last year, and I produce my notes now all as .txt files in a text editor so that such a problem as you’re having won’t affect my future portability between platforms.

    Suerte en Asunción. I’m looking forward to hearing what you find in the archives there, and to working with those Paraguayan documents that the library’s purchased.

  21. shawnaus says:

    Chad, that did the trick: the formatting is still the same and there is a text layer which will allow searches. Thanks.

    Did you change to a different notes program or just the file format? I like simplicity, so i might just end up using Devonthink for notes.

    Just bought your book today! One of the few times that I’m happy to buy new and pay the full price. I’m excited to finally get into it.

    I’ll start updating my blog in Asuncion once I’m up and running. I must say I’m a bit anxious, there are so many unknowns in that archive. It should be interesting.

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