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I'm trying to replicate your system. Do you name the individual entries with the text of the quote?

Also, can you go a bit into your quote-harvesting process? Do you input as you read, or ...?



I think plain old paragraphs fit your #3 requirement pretty well. They're units of text whose size is usually on the smaller side of the 50-500 "sweet spot", and almost always carry enough information to be somewhat self-contained in relation to the text around them.

Each file type usually has a specific way of defining paragraphs, and even in plain text there are a few common strategies most people use, such as keeping a blank line between two paragraphs, or preceding each one with a tab or a few spaces. For this reason, making a program to fetch paragraphs from a document wouldn't be too hard.

Jeremy Bushnell

I use DevonThink for a similar purpose, and I love it. Although I should mention that in my browser I can't actually see your screenshots (?)

something I don't quite have a word for: a chunk or cluster of text

Have you considered using "lexia" as the word you're looking for?


I would like to see something akin to this for images. Any ideas?

Evan DiBiase

One small, mildly off-topic request: would you mind changing the images in this post to be in PNG or JPEG format? Neither Firefox nor IE on Windows seems to be able to load them.

Steven Johnson

Sorry about the images -- could have sworn they were jpegs before. They should be viewable now.

As for how I capture the quotes themselves, I have long used an advanced piece of software called a "research assistant" to type in passages that I've marked. I just started experimenting with scanning and OCR'ing in though, which seems to work fairly well...

Brian Carnell

Very interesting -- thanks for sharing.

As for the entire book vs. quote -- I use a program on Windows called DTSearch which is basically a full-text search program on steroids.

One of the things it can do is show the results in context and use fuzzy searches, proximity settings, etc. so if I search for "concept X", rather than saying "oh, it's somewhere in this e-book here" it will show the relevant parts of the book that match the search.

Still a long way from being perfect and it can't do some of the things it looks like you're doing with DevonThink, but works pretty well.

I've looked at a lot of this stuff on Mac and Wintel, and its kind of odd at just how primitive the tools are for either OS for this sort of thing. If you'd have asked me in the mid-1990s, I'd have assumed progress on organizing and searching free-form info would have progressed a lot farther than it has.


This Devonthink app seems a lot like the new Spotlight feature in the upcoming Mac OS 10.4 Tiger. What sorts of features does Devonthink offer that Spotlight won't?

(As in, why should I buy Devonthink instead of waiting to upgrade to Tiger?)


Can someone recommend an equivalent to DevonThink for Windows? I don't even know how to do a google search for the software because I don't know what it is called in the general sense.

Matthew Amster-Burton

DevonThink vs Spotlight:



When and where will your piece on London sewers appear - sounds interesting (for a civil engineer like me anyway).

I'll second the request above for the names of Windows programs equivalent to Devon. Shouldn't all Devon's competitors be deluging you with emails after your article?

Stefan Herzog

I'm very interested in mindhandling software and I am thus very glad about your post about DevonThink. Right now I'm testing it and will most probably buy it.

Please keep us furthermore informed about think and expression tools, such as ThinkDevon, Ulysses and others.

Cheers, Stefan


Sorry -- comments were down for a few hours. Should be back up now.


Suddenly, DevonThink makes sense. As a returning student after many, many years away, I'm trying to find how to take best advantage of the technology which simply didn't exist before. DevonThink is a tool I've downloaded and tried, and never really had it click. It's clicking now.

What's problematic, however, is that now I've got one more tool which does one thing and that's it. Sure, I could compose in DT, but it's not its strength. So I compose in one location, save my research in DT, and my bibliographic info in EndNote (which I might drop for Sente or Bookends anyway). I suppose three tools isn't that bad, now that I think about it.


If you use Windows, check out www.asksam.com


Questia (online library of ebooks) can make semantic searches except it can handicapped by the fact that you're searching through whole e-books even though it lets you search inside the book.


Ricardo Montiel

I tried DevonThink some months ago. I initially liked it but then stopped to use it, as it lacks multilingual capacities. I usually store quotes or chunks of text in the language they are written, and that approach unfortunately prevents DevonThink to do its magic. Still looking for a piece of software with such capacity.


I'd add that the useful chunk size online is often not the URL of a main page or an index but a permalink pointing to a specific, often brief, entry in a weblog.

btw, SBJ, ever experiment with Voodoo Pad?

Erik Hatcher

Steven - this is poignant post about search. We just completed a book titled "Lucene in Action" and I built a "search inside" the book website for it. The granularity of search results are book sections, not pages. I am also capturing, yet not exposing yet, each page of a section in order to have better information displayed. I've also linked a blog into the table of contents page - so I can add commentary/errata after the fact to a book section. I will be building in "see related" types of connections that are not made explicit.

I'd be grateful for you to review what I've built and offer suggestions to further enhance this type of thing. I have not yet considered hooking in handling multiple books, but our publisher is definitely interested in adopting the system I've built and these types of inter-book connections would be a great thing to have.


A much simpler (and of course less powerful) program for writers to keep track of notes of any kind (I use it for quotes) is Notational Velocity. It's free and is OS X only. It's my most used app. You can get it here: http://pubweb.nwu.edu/~zps869/nv.html

Robert Hahn


You said: "I wonder whether it might be possible to have software create those smaller clippings on its own"

I have two possible solutions you could investigate:

1) Book2Pod is free, and converts etext into iPod-notes sized chunks -- each chunk is about 4K big, which works out to about 680 words - a bit higher than the sweet spot, but maybe not so bad. http://www.tomsci.com/book2pod/

2) The O'Reilly network published a 3 parter on how to build an eDoc reader for the iPod here: http://www.macdevcenter.com/pub/a/mac/2004/12/14/ipod_reader.html I think they have the finished software available for download, but, since they give you the source, you can probably hack it to generate notes much smaller than 4K (ie: somewhere in the 50-500 word zone)

Both of these are free. The second one is interesting because it can format text from pdf's into iPod sized notes.

Anyway: Thanks for sharing DevonThink with us. I've seen it before, but I think I'll go have a closer look at it in light of what you just wrote.

Larry Straus

Hi Steven, Glad to come across your article in the Times and your site. I'm really curious how you digitize/save all your qoutes from other sources. Are they word coduments, emails to self, some kind of database? I'm doing the same but am pretty haphazard about it and would love to hear your method. Thanks.

Monte Davis

For almost a decade from ~1988 I kept my reading & research commonplace book in Persoft's IZE, a DOS textbase -- orphaned all too soon -- that did simple but very useful things with keywords presented in an indented hierarchy. The more entries and keywords I gave it, the more the hierarchies took on increasingly interesting and suggestive sequences; i.e. they looked more like *outlines.* IZE seemed to understand the content of the passages.

I knew perfectly well that appearance was "just" a reflection of my choices of keywords -- an embodiment of how I used and related words -- but it felt uncanny all the same.

Norretranders quotes Kline quotes Hertz on Maxwell's equations: "One cannot escape the feeling that these equations have an existence and an intelligence of their own, that they are wiser than we are, wiser even than their discoverers, that we get more out of them than was originally put into them."


"One of the new applications that came out last year was Google Desktop -- using the search engine's tools to filter through your personal files." Loading this Google software into at least a Windows machine opens a back door to the computer. Anyone can open this door and walk into your computer.

Monte Davis

And, of course, ten minutes later I trip over New Scientist on semantic search for Google... now Slashdotted...


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