On Notetaking, Part II: The Textual Digital Hub

dirty spokes of a hubcap


Back in 2001, Steve Jobs introduced the “digital-hub” strategy that Apple would pursue with their products for the subsequent several years. The principle behind this strategy was that a Macintosh computer could be the centerpiece of an orbiting series of peripherals, synchronizing user data such as contact and calendar events across all devices and providing a single place from which to edit, manipulate, and store information that gets distributed to each peripheral on an as-needed basis. This approach to connectivity can about because of the development of high-speed data transfer from videocameras and made the original iPod a sensible addition to an existing system. Because the original iPod only worked with a Macintosh computer (oh, those were the days), and because Macs shipped with out-of-the-box compatibility with most major video camera brands, Apple convincingly established themselves as a company able to help people bring their digital media together. Once they added the ability to easily burn CDs from within their flagship iTunes application, the “digital hub” of the Macintosh became a complete system, with convenient means of acquiring, editing, and further distributing media content.

Fast forward in time by two decades, but rewind in technological requirements by the opposite two decades, and we arrived at my current dilemma: I need a textual digital hub, a system that supports input, editing, and distribution of little more than words on the screen. If the beginning of this millennium made such a system possible for video and music, surely text-only workflows were taken care of long before that, right?

To be fair, my requirements for working with text are slightly more involved than those originally envisioned for the media-centric digital hub. With audio and video files, the original idea was that the video content would be captured — and only captured — with a video camera, music would be acquired via purchased compact discs, and the computer would be the only device in this equation used to edit anything. indeed, even friends’ contact information was envisioned as best entered on the computer and then later transferred to a cell phone, rather than captured on the phone itself, mostly because typing on pre-smartphone keyboards was an exercise in frustration, whereas using the 101-key keyboards of the computer made data entry fairly efficient. Essentially, the only place anyone wanted to manipulate audio and video files or enter large amounts of data was on their desktop computer.

Not so with my text files. Because the text file format is so simple, small, and universally readable, I have an expectation that any of my devices can view and edit any of their contents. That means I would like to have access to see and change any of my documents on my computer, my tablet, and my phone. (Sorry, iPod. I stopped using you a few years back.) This one small change in expectations brings a fairly substantial element of complication into the equation: synchronization. If all digital roads fed content to the desktop, only the desktop needed to preserve everything. Peripheral devices only needed certain kinds of information or a limited subset of the entire collection, and only until they were able to offload the excess to the desktop. But if all devices, including the peripherals, become data-management centers, capable of making changes to any of the elements within the collection, that collection must be distributed, and changes from anyone location must somehow be reflected in every location.

This is today’s great information-management challenge: synchronization and access. This is also what is driving me batty when working on note-taking for my research.


Software developers seem intent on providing whiz-bang feature sets but closed-circuit file types. If one application manipulates data in a particular way that you like, chances are, no other application will be able to understand the data the favorite application produces. These days, such frustrations even apply to the text we read on our devices. If I download a book from Amazon, I must use Amazon’s Kindle application to view it — though that application is available for pretty much every device everywhere, so access to my books seems universal. Not so with Apple’s iBooks. Until the release of their next major operating system, any books purchased from Apple may only be viewed on portable devices. No, that’s stating it too generously. Those books can only be viewed on iPads, iPods and iPhones. The only way books purchased from Apple can be read on a computer purchase from Apple is if the owner of that computer also purchases the next operating system from Apple. See the trend?

But in the case of both the Kindle and iBooks, we are only talking about reading content, not making content. both the Kindle and iBooks apps allow for annotations in the books you’re reading, but I will give you one guess as to how many applications are able to read the annotations made by a user in that application. while taking my comprehensive final exams, the worst feeling I experienced was knowing that I had read a book, and had highlighted a useful quote in that book, but had absolutely no idea which device or which application I needed to use to access the book and find my notes. I felt like my information — my ideas — were trapped within a very specific proprietary format that I wasn’t able to access any other way simply because the companies responsible for those formats hate one another.

While I may not be able to change the rights-management issues plaguing the e-book market right now, I certainly can change the way I take and store my own notes. I wanted to develop a system that meets these requirements:

  • allows access to my notes from any device
  • allows any device to edit those notes
  • stores notes in a universally readable format not locked down to one application
  • synchronizes notes across all devices with little to no direct intervention on my part
  • allows notes to be easily indexed by a database (for searching)
  • safeguards my notes by automatically backing them up, preferably to multiple locations

Current Solution

To achieve these goals, I have decided to use the following services, protocols, and applications:

Here’s my general workflow. I’d love to hear from you if you see something I could/should be doing differently/better.

Getting Things Into the System

When I read articles, I first create a citation entry in BibDesk, which is easy because it reads citations directly from the likes of Google Scholar, WorldCat, and anything else that supports BibTeX output.

Once I have the placeholder in my citation system, I attach the PDF. BibDesk renames the file from the database’s style to Author – Title, making it human-readable. It then saves the file in a big folder with nothing but research readings in it.

That folder resides on my Dropbox, so the addition is immediately backed up and available to other devices. I’ll come back to that.

DEVONThink Pro Office (DTP) watches that folder for changes and additions, and once the document is stored there, DTP indexes the content for later searching.

Reading and Taking Notes

I need to be able to access my PDFs from anywhere, and I need to be able to see the comments I have added to them. Because BibDesk already sorts and names my documents, I only need access to the BibDesk folder on Dropbox, and I can get to any document I need.

  • On my iPad, where I prefer to read PDFs, GoodReader syncs with Dropbox. As I read, I use GoodReader’s annotation tools to mark up the contents of the document. These notes are included in DTP’s index of the file, so I can search for my own notes as well as the author’s words.
  • On my Mac, Preview stores annotations in the same format as GoodReader, so changes made on one device are usable on both.
  • If I’m reading content from a book, not a PDF, I use Writing Kit on my iPad and take notes in Markdown format because it’s easily searchable.

Creating Writing with This System

When writing, I use Markdown to sketch out my ideas and add some structure to the document without distracting code.

  • On my Mac, I use TextMate, which processes Markdown syntax, for simple editing.
  • On my mobile devices, I use Writing Kit, which also understands Markdown.

To create documents destined for print, PDF, or standardized citations, I export to LaTeX, which adds complexity to the syntax but still produces relatively human-readable documents. Using TextMate as my editor, I can drag and drop citation references from BibDesk into my document to automatically build reference lists.

Why Apple’s New Digital Hub Doesn’t Work for Me

Apple’s current push is iCloud, an online service designed to connect all your (Apple-branded) devices and manage your information (using Apple services) on those devices, keeping everything in sync and accessible (with Apple-supported apps). For many end users, iCloud is a convenient and simple solution, building on the “it just works” reputation Apple has built over the years. But iCloud takes an intrinsically app-conscious approach to data that directly works against my needs.

With iCloud, any app that supports the service can save documents “to the cloud” without the user having to worry about where that actually is. This scenario attempts to move away from the complex hierarchical folder structure now ubiquitous in computing. If you save a Pages (Apple’s word processor) file to iCloud on one device, then go to iCloud within Pages on another device, the file is “just there”. Indeed, the process is impressively seamless.

But it is application-centric. Files saved to iCloud by Pages cannot be seen by other applications. This is by design. Apple’s thinking is that people mentally associate an application with the work they do inside it. (The number of students who tell me the use either “Windows” or simply “Microsoft” to write papers calls that assumption into question.) The app-centric approach works against open-access, making it so users can only access documents with the app that created them. Now, my earlier problem—of needing to remember which program I was in to find my notes—applies to everything stored in the cloud. If you’re in the wrong app, you don’t even know what you’re missing, because the app can’t see data from other apps. In the interests of opening up access to information, app-centrism is a Very Bad Idea™.

So I ditched iCloud. (“Never started using it” would be more accurate, but I digress.) I keep my data hosted on Dropbox. Its popularity has caused dozens of apps on mobile platforms to provide seamless access to its content. The Dropbox desktop software makes its content integrate naturally with the rest of my files. I can also access my content from any web browser (which iCloud can claim) and edit it with any app (which iCloud cannot).

Apple’s approach to document management on iCloud centers on applications and considers information to be of secondary importance. With Dropbox as the hub of my digital data, I can access any document I want using virtually any app from any device. Dropbox has become my textual digital hub.

[Image courtesy cobalt123 on Flickr.]