Can someone explain what happens to files I save to DEVONthink?

Every time I think about diving back into DEVONthink, I get anxious realizing I don’t understand how it stores files and whether I can get them back out in their original form or if they transmogrify into some sort of proprietary DEVONthink format.

I’ve been a licensed user for years, but I only use it to search an large archive of PDFs that I store in Dropbox visible to DEVONthink via its “index” function.

DEVONthink’s actual database, the one stored on my hard drive, is a black-box mystery to me. If I drop a bunch of .doc, .jpeg, .xcl, .pdf files into DEVONthink, are the removed from their original location (e.g. Downloads, Documents, etc.), or are they essentially duplicated by DEVONthink, doubling the space they take up?

If I’m in a program like Word or Adobe Acrobat and use the built-in Open function to open and work with a file that’s been ingested by DEVONthink, what happens? Does Word’s file finder allow me to poke around inside the DEVONthink folder to find the .doc?

I suspect these are bone-headed questions to some of you, but I’m just a humble caveman editor who gets anxious when I cannot open a nested folder and see my Word doc with its original file name intact. That gives me peace of mind that the file still exists and can do with it what I will.


Have no fear. Go to a Devonthink database in the Finder, right click and choose “show package contents.”

Go to the files.noindex folder, and from there you can navigate to any of your files, which are stored in their unmolested form.

A Devonthink database is just a managed directory tree where the original files are kept. The only thing Devonthink does is keep track of where to present them in DT groups.

You can also go to any file in DT, right click on it, and choose “reveal in Finder” to see it in a normal file-and-directory view.

You may have noticed that a package looks a lot like a directory, once you tell the Finder to show package contents - because they really are the same thing.

In fact, you can add “.pkg” to the name of any folder and it will appear as a package. To change it back to a directory, you have to use “get info” and take “.pkg” off the name there.

DT and Scrivener share this feature. Both applications don’t touch your files, and you can get them back without using the software.

If you have thousands of files, it may be a challenge to sort them out into conventional directories, but you wouldn’t have trouble getting the original files.

This is the part that keeps me - as a new and mostly-thrilled DT user - up at night. I am really trying to just use DT to index files. I prefer to keep one instance of a file, and have that instance be in my main directory.

However, in practice, it’s increasingly hard to not simply import files. I’m pretty careful about maintaining one instance of any file I’m likely to edit (eg, Word), but some reference PDFs have slipped in.

When I look into the pkg, and see all the original files organized by type, in folders “0”, “1”, “2”… “f”, I start to worry.

If / when the days comes that I move out of DT, it will be a nightmare to get all files out and properly organized. I’ve already got much in there, after only a couple months. Years from now, it will be thousands…

And, frankly, it’s more a matter of when than if. I’ve been around long enough to assume that someday all programs will stop being supported, or that I will stop using them. I know that DT has been around a long time and has a great track record (one of the reasons I finally chose it), but still - life is long and software is young.

This isn’t to scare you, @Brian_B, but just be cautious. Sorry to take your question on a slight tangent, but I think it’s relevant. :slight_smile:

One thing I found helpful in answering your question (and many others): the free ebook Take Control of DEVONthink 3 by Joe Kissell. I found it to be invaluable in getting started. He explains all the parts and concepts of DT very well, including all the ways to handle your files. I still refer to it, months in. It’s linked here somewhere on DT’s site. Check it out!

And if anyone else has any tips on file management in DT, for us newbies, I’d appreciate it too!


If I’m in a program like Word or Adobe Acrobat and use the built-in Open function to open and work with a file that’s been ingested by DEVONthink, what happens? Does Word’s file finder allow me to poke around inside the DEVONthink folder to find the .doc?

No you should not “poke around inside the DEVONthink folder”.
Check out the Help > Documentation > In & Out > Importing & Indexing

@Amontillado and @Brian_B

Have no fear. Go to a Devonthink database in the Finder, right click and choose “show package contents.”

Go to the files.noindex folder, and from there you can navigate to any of your files, which are stored in their unmolested form.

We do not advocate messing about in the internals of a DEVONthink database unless instructed to by us. Files imported into DEVONthink should be accessed in DEVONthink, not by getting into the internals and not by browsing the files via another application.

Check out Troubleshooting > Repairing a defective database.

Maybe have a look at this thread: Indexing versus importing

Wait – opening a database package to manually drag out all the items and laboriously sorting them again is only reasonable for the worst case scenario: If DEVONthink, for whatever reason, abruptly does not work anymore. Like, if your Mac dies and you only have access to the drive with the databases on PCs that run other OSes. In these cases and if you got nobody with a Mac to help you out at least once you might have to care of your data manually.

But when you decide to leave DEVONthink behind because you found a better software, because it won’t work with the next OS release you’re otherwise eager to update to, because the guys from DEVONtechnologies switched to a bizzarly high priced subscription model to sustain their even more bizarrly expensive lifestyles of drugs, prostitutes, pro display stands, and yachts—here comes the export function! Which exports all your files unchanged, preserves the group/folder structures, and the items tags too.

So with a little planning —most important question every fall: Will my favorite software work with the new macOS? And if not, will I dispense with the software or skip the OS update?—you won’t have to worry about the accessability of your data when you use DEVONthink. This is one of the reasons why I chose it over other software about a decade ago and I have never regretted my decision even once.

And while poking around in a database from the outside, aside from the worst case scenario, should be avoided by all means, DEVONthink allows to open files with other apps from within DEVONthink. It has the standard Open With in the context menu and it has an Open Externally function/menu bar icon that opens a file with the standard app associated to the file type (like docx with Word, PDF with Adobe Reader).

PS: I just noticed the export function does not work with Sidebar items but only Itembar items. Is that intended?



Sounds compelling :joy:

Hang on a sec, I agree with you, let DT manage its databases. I still believe one of the safety factors with DT is the way it stores files as-is.

I did not mean to imply that it should be a routine thing to access (or, yikes, modify) files outside of DT control.

Before I trusted DT, I looked to see what the inside of a database was like, and that was reassuring.

The HTML generator is another reassuring thing. I’m treasurer for a 501c3 corporation. Everything that’s gone into the file cabinet for the years I’ve served has also gone through a scanner and into a Devonthink database. Backups are done several ways, including HTML export to other board members.

Expect DT to have problems if you change anything in a DT database, but I still like the idea my files aren’t entombed inside something completely unreachable. That’s a good thing.

Put another way, if I didn’t have break-glass access to my files without Devonthink, I wouldn’t be a Devonthink user.

If Devonthink becomes a crypt in which files are hidden, I couldn’t continue using it. I remember, too clearly, trusting a nifty photo database. It was great. Windows evolved. The crummy photo database didn’t. I was young and stupid and lost photos (my wife would add that since I’m not young any more there’s hope).

DT is great. I’ve lost files with other products. I’ve never lost a file with DT. I trust it with very critical information (and keep backups, and exports, and belts, and suspenders).



Brilliant! I don’t know how I missed this, but it answers my concerns. Thank you @suavito!

Perhaps this is why I missed it, because I’m pretty sure I poked around the Export menu before. Even just now, it took me a second to realize that you can’t export from selections in the sidebar. That’s a bit counterintuitive, though I’m sure there’s a reason (perhaps related to the option of unifying databases?).

Exactly. This is also why I chose DT, at least knowing that I could get to my files if everything else went away. And now that I know I can actually export and preserve the file structure - huzzah! - I can rest easier.

I think I still prefer to index files and folders, at least the ones I’ll be working on in other apps, because I do so much outside of DT. For me, DT is for research and reference, with a dash of project management. I continue to use Finder as the main point of access to my working files, though for some of my projects, it makes sense to at least reference them from within DT.

Thanks for the new info and guidance, everyone. It’s helped a lot!

I really appreciate the thoughtful, thorough replies to my query. Before I came here for additional explanation, I read Take Control’s brief explanation of how DT stores files. It left me with questions, many of which have been answered here. For that, I can only say thank you to everyone who took the time to reply.

I see DT as a good way to save and organize web clippings and various downloads. I’m less sure where DT fits into saving files I create, share, work on collaboratively. Some might be worth feeding into DT for its big brain features. Others likely aren’t. I’m not sure what kind of search-and-retrieve issues this will create down the road. I worry it will be like renting multiple storage units with no master inventory.

In any event, after jumping on board DEVONthink version 2 as an Evernote replacement, I didn’t find a regular use for it beyond using its indexing feature to make a 20-year collection of magazine PDFs easily searchable. Now that DEVONthink 3 has been out for a while, I’m looking forward to giving it another go.