Adventures in Digital Research – Evernote: The Constipated Elephant

Like most researchers embarking on a new research project, lately I have been re-assessing the tools I use to get things done. A year or two ago, I thought I had my workflow sorted: project files (documents with discrete ‘outputs’ I work on every day, such as Word documents and Scrivener files) would go in a project folder in my iCloud account; historical sources (usually pdfs) would go into another folder, neatly organised by year, author and title;1 while nearly everything else (notes, admin stuff, scans) would go into Evernote, billed as the app that can help you ‘remember everything’ – the elephant that never forgets.

The sheer volume of data I now process as part of my work, however, has forced me to reappraise this process. I am a long-time premium user of Evernote and a well-known evangelist of the app among my colleagues. I still think it is a fantastic research management solution, especially for historians who still do things the old way – i.e., allowing piles and piles of digital cruff to accumulate on their hard drive, and bits of dead tree to gather around their office. I am so invested in Evernote’s ecosystem that I have acquired several of their much-maligned accessories, such as the Jotscript Evernote edition stylus (for jotting on the iPad) and Moleskine Evernote notebook (for appearing like a hipster handwriting notes in meetings, and being able to seamlessly scan these to the cloud). For ease of data capture and searching, and indexing handwritten notes, nothing else out there really comes close to the power of Evernote.

However, like many heavy Evernote users (hevernoters?), there are various annoyances with using it for research that have become grating as my research management needs have become more complex, and my note count steadily grown. At the time of writing this post I have about 3,000 notes, which is actually rather modest. But even at this level I have difficulties with using Evernote as part of my research workflow. Here are my observations, after five years of daily use, why I find Evernote to be increasingly problematic for users such as myself.

A singular database

Firstly, it is a singular database. This means that the more and more notes you amass, the more and more search has to work to find the things you need – however organised you are with tagging and notebooks. Further, there is no way (as yet) of compartmentalising your notes depending on your life and work needs. Sure, you can stick personal stuff into separate notebooks and run limited searches on those (or tags), but nobody wants to see my personal health information or recipes for shakshuka while I am simply showing them around the interface. It’s very off-putting.

Limited organisation options

Evernote’s whole MO is that search is incredible. It certainly is, but here’s the thing: research does not simply entail searching for documents or specific information. A researcher who simply goes out there searching for stuff is not really doing research at all – it’s what you do with your research that counts.

For qualitative research, and historical research in particular, it is crucial to see the relationships between documents and set them in wider context. Without contextualising your sources, you risk seriously distorting your analysis or coming to a misleading conclusion. So far, I don’t think Evernote easily facilitates this type of work; it’s great at ’sniping’ for particular information, but not for ‘scoping ‘ the scene. One of the most useful features of Evernote is something called ‘Context’, which shows related documents in the Evernote interface, or in your web browser when you run an internet search. However, Context is quite limited at the moment, and only shows a few related documents. Worse, it is potentially a vehicle for advertising, since it allows sponsored results from particular publishers.

Because Evernote is built around search, it does away with traditional organisational tools such as hierarchical folders. But organisation is an important aspect of research in its own right, because it allows you to visualise your data, and see the part in relation to the whole. Like many researchers, I like to play around with how my data is presented in order to see patterns that might not otherwise be apparent. Also, I like to flag or mark my data visually in order to assign meaning to particular documents – whether it something I need to read, whether it is important, or something I need to take action on. Evernote allows you to do this through tagging, but this is relatively complicated, difficult to maintain, and inherently textual, not visual.

You can save your searches in Evernote, but to date this is still buried away in the menus. I would really like saved search to become a more prominent feature of the desktop Evernote app, ideally combined with some sort of smart search functionality that allows you to group documents depending on particular queries. This would make Evernote an indispensable tool for analysis, as well as data collection.

The roach motel

Another common criticism of Evernote is that it is super easy to get things in (with its popularity, API and widespread support among other apps, it can suck in information from almost anywhere, even from the physical world with the Evernote camera!), but really difficult to get things out – the ‘roach motel’. Evernote becomes increasingly powerful the more information you put in it, but this can become a problem when your documents are needed by another database (say, reference management software) or you need to share them with another person who does not use Evernote. It is also an issue of long-term data security: what happens to your data if Evernote Corp. folds? Attachments to your notes like Word documents or pdfs can be pulled out relatively easily. However, if you choose to export your notes as well, they will either be outputted in HTML or in Evernote’s proprietary ENEX format.

Fortunately, since Evernote had the foresight to base ENEX on xml (a way to encode and transfer information with custom metadata), third-party tools like Microsoft OneNote have the ability to import your Evernote notebooks, as well as your tags and other relevant metadata. Therefore if Evernote disappears (and I really hope it doesn’t), your important information will be preserved.

Silage alert!

Perhaps my biggest gripe with Evernote, that has become increasingly apparent over the last year, is that there is a growing gulf – more a chasm – between the information I put in Evernote and the information I put in other databases that do a different job.

This is not necessarily a problem with Evernote per se, but rather databases in general – especially those that ‘silo’ your documents so you can only access them from within the database, rather than somewhere else. When you put your data in the database . . . happy days! You get the full benefits of the database, it can index, search, read, and edit your documents and perform any number of fantastic tricks. If you don’t import your documents . . . you’re out of luck. You don’t get any of the benefit.

This is not an issue when you have no need for the documents outside of the database, but what happens when you also need your documents elsewhere? For example, your reference manager does a great job at citations, but not note-taking or managing documents, so you put these in Evernote. But your reference manager can no longer ‘see’ these files, so you can’t easily search or link to them from there. The solution to this, normally, is to copy your files so you have them in both Evernote and your reference manager (I use a utility called Hazel for this purpose). But then you have two copies of the same files, taking up needless disk space. And if you need to edit a file, which copy do you choose? Once you’ve made this choice – another barrier to seamless research – the edits you make in one copy are not reflected in the other.

That’s one problem with putting all your stuff in Evernote, but there’s another gulf – the one between your super-duper, all-singing-and-dancing Evernote documents, and the ones you decide to put in your general file-system. Evernote is the natural home for most of my stuff these days, but for whatever reason there are things I like or need to store elsewhere: current working files in iCloud, so they’re easily editable using my software of choice, and accessible from all my devices; videos and music that take up a lot of room; confidential documents that I need keep locally or encrypted. Evernote can’t ‘see’ or edit these documents without importing them, so I can’t use Evernote’s awesome search. Again, this is not a problem if you only have a few documents and know instinctively where things are. But when you have a lot of documents, spread about numerous locations, and you need to easily search and access them all, together, things get really complicated.

Conclusion

In another post, I’ll explain how I use Devonthink Pro Office alongside Evernote to get around many of these issues. But, for the moment, Evernote is no longer my go-to home for research management. Other tools are better suited to this purpose.

I am still a massive fan of Evernote, and as a consumer product I think it remains the best note-taking/document management solution for most people. As a historian, I have a very specific use case – most people don’t have my needs, so Evernote’s search and organisation will work just fine. However, the scalability issues of Evernote are well documented. Beyond even a couple of thousand of notes, it becomes increasingly difficult to find what you want and organise your stuff in a way that suits your needs. I get tons out of Evernote, so I will continue to be an enthusiastic subscriber despite the recent price increases. But I hope that in the near future, Evernote will solve many of these issues for heavy users such as me.

  1. By the really useful Zotero plugin Zotfile (http://zotfile.com). I’d also put pdfs of my sources in Evernote too, to take advantage of its incredible search.
  • Thanks for this extremely helpful post. I am a PC user considering switching to Mac purely in order to use DevonTHINK. I wonder if you could answer two questions, based on your experience with DTPO.

    1. I’m a social scientist who relies partially on archival research. I have converted photos of archival documents from JGPs to PDFs and combined these into multipage documents to replicate, say, a government report or a pamphlet. Will DTPO let me assign tags to specific locations in a multipage PDF document, or only to the document as a whole?

    2. Your description of indexing vs importing is very helpful. Many of the more affordable Macs have very limited storage space, so I am curious whether it is possible to index files that are located in the DropBox cloud, for example, but have not been downloaded to the local harddrive. Is this possible? Does it slow down DTPO so badly that it’s not worth considering this option?

    I’ve been looking for the answers to these questions in user fora but haven’t found anything definitive on either one. Your help is greatly appreciated!

    • Thanks Magda for your comments – I’m glad you found my post useful. In answer to your questions, alas, Devonthink does not go that far, although it is the most fully featured document manager I’ve found on the Mac to date. As far as I know, Devonthink does not allow you to tag particular locations in pdf documents, but that would be a really useful feature, and I hope that they implement it in future. Something like that would approach the ‘coding’ functionality of NVivo, but that is a very specialist bit of software for qualitative research. If you have a text document, e.g. in rich text, it is possible to create wiki-style links between documents, or manually insert hyperlinks, but this is not quite the same thing as tags. While I have not tried this out, another option would perhaps be to use manual hashtags like on Twitter, and run a content search for words containing that hashtag. For example, in a text document you could insert the hashtag “#risk” where the subject matter turns to risk, and then retrieve all documents containing that hashtag. (Advanced search is brought up by Cmd + F, then limit the search to content only).

      Indexing, while allowing you to search documents outside your database package, is unfortunately limited to files on your local hard disk – it would be amazing if Devonthink would allow you to index files stored in the cloud, but as far as I know there is no database software out there that can do this, since the files still need to be ‘read’ by the app for indexing to work. One way around the limited storage on newer Macs would be to store the database package on an external hard drive. While this is not quite as convenient as storing internally, you can still use the cloud (Dropbox, iCloud etc) or your wifi to synch your database(s) between computers.

      Hope this answers your questions, and good luck finding a research solution that works for you.

      Chris

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