How to use Devonthink as a historian?

Dear users of Devonthink

I am a historian, I have recently collected a big source material in several archives. I have taken photos of all the sources and imported the photos into my Devonthink database, then converted all files into pdf-files so that I can search the text that they contain. The files are - and should stay - organized according to how I found them in the archives, that is in groups and subgroups (e.g. “Ford Foundation/Project XXX/box XXX/folder XXX/filename”).

So far, so good. Now, when I go through all the files, I need to assign some label or tag to each file (like “Nixon”, “watergate”, “november 73” or the like). How do I do that? And how do I register information like who wrote the file, who was in the receiving end, the date, etc.?

I have looked into the Deventhink User Manual, but I really couldn’t figure it out. I’m not familiar with databases or manuals, that’s probably why I couldn’t find the answers myself, but I really hope that some of you could explain it to me. I must say that so far Devonthink seems like a very usefull tool to me, I hope to be able to use it according to my needs.

Thanks in advance!

A few useful series of articles by historians using Devonthink are,

Chad Black, Devonthink for Historical Research … earch-iii/ and

Rachel, “on Devonthink and history research” … /#comments

Those two might give you ideas/tips/etc


The simplest way to do what you describe would be to add note files to the folder containing a given document, and to use DT’s built-in tagging functionality. (So, you could have a description note, a bibliographic note, and a series of idea notes or what have you in the folder with the document.) You could also explore wikilinks/internal links as a way of connecting note files to document images.

You can also use the INFO button on the toolbar to tag and to store metadata in the spotlight comments box.

I personally prefer to use an external bibliographic application for managing citation information (in my case, I now use Zotero, though in the post linked above I was using Bookends).

The ontology (in the information science since of the term) of your folder structure is worth spending some time considering. But, one of the nice things about DT is its flexibility. You can determine which of the available means you want to use to organize the info and establish the relationships to it, from formal schema to happy serendipity afforded by DT’s search capabilities. In the end, it’s really a personal decision.

One final note-- though DT no longer stores your documents/images/files/etc directly in the application, the folder structure it uses doesn’t look anything like what you design in application. So, if a database becomes corrupted (which is a very small possibility, but bigger if you ever put it into dropbox), you’ll want to make sure that you keep regular backups from which to restore or you’ll have to recreate your folder structure from scratch outside of DT. I decided a while back that for files that are static, and maybe large, like jpgs and pdfs, files that I always end up opening with the external editor, it works better for me to keep them outside of DT and to have DT index those files. YMMV.

Thank you so much for your help, padilla12 and parezcoydigo. I really appreciate your advice. I have read it very carefully a long with the mentioned articles. Nevertheless, I still haven’t solved the problem!

Let me try to define the problem more precisely.

Devonthink automatically retrieves a large number of metadata when importing documents (”title”, ”subject”, ”author”, etc). In my case, however, I only import images of text documents (historical sources) that I convert into pdf-files. In other words, they don’t contain any metadata. Nevertheless, I need to reconstruct that kind of information from reading the source, and somehow ad this information to the source, preferably in the mentioned metadata categories. So my question is: Is it possible to manually add metadata?

I hope it is possible; otherwise I will try and solve the problem according to the alternative suggestions that you have both made.

Best, Dino


It depends, really, on what you mean by metadata here. Are you anticipating portable data that will go with the pdf files if you export them from DT? The info panel (with its combination of spotlight comments and tags) would probably be the place to add the kind of information it seems you want to add.

But again, adding notes to the folders that hold your pdfs will accomplish the same thing. Why does the information need to be “attached” to the file as metadata? Linking files accomplishes the same thing just as readily, and DT’s search capabilities excel with snippets of text. As long as you have a consistent method of citation within note files, your data won’t get lost or disambiguated.

Personally, I use the file structure of the finder to manage “metadata” of archival resources. I’ve never been a consistent tagger. I reconstruct the archive’s structure in my file structure. And I make specialized inventories of my documents based on topic, time period, or whatever else I need.

As it goes, DT wasn’t designed explicitly for historians, thought its capacities are adaptable enough to make it work well for historians.

With a PDF selected, take a look at Tools > Show Properties. This generic metadata view panel permits editing of PDF metadata such as “author”, “company”, “copyright”, “title”, “subject”, “keywords” and “comment”. There are several threads in the forum describing what these properties mean (or don’t mean) to DEVONthink.

Bascially, however, classify, and AI features of DEVONthink do nothing with these data. So, before investing in a significant amount of editing just to create PDF properties values, you might want to consider the value of doing that work.

Edit Aug 18, 2011 - Search PDF metadata: author, title, subject, and keywords fields can be found using the Search panel when All or Metadata options are chosen.

Thanks for your comments. I was supprised to learn that I can add metadata manually in tools/view properties, that’s exactly what I have been looking for and that would solve my problem. But what I don’t understand, is why I can’t run a search and find what I added to the metadata? As you mention, that makes the adding worthless.

In Devonthink help the following is said:

"Search Options

The left side of the search window gives you even more control over the way DEVONthink Pro Office searches the database. Adjust these options to best fit your needs.

Search for: Choose what exactly you’re looking for or select All to search all parts of a document:

All: Searches all elements of a document.
Content: Searches the content of a document.
Name: Searches the name of a document.
URL: Searches the URL field of a document.
Comment: Searches the Comment field of a document.
Metadata: Searches the metadata associated with a document."

Now, this gives me the impression that I can actually search the metadata I have added. But it doesen’t work. What is wrong?


Dino, I led you astray with my posting. I’ve amended my statement. Search PDF metadata: author, title, subject, and keywords fields can be found using the Search panel (search all databases) when All or Metadata options are chosen. Also in the “search” box in the toolbar that looks in a single database.

Hi korm, I just have an additional question:

In “view/columns” you can specify which ‘catatories’ you want to see, but many of them don’t appear when you want to add metadata manually. When I enter “Tools/Show Properties” I can only add data into the following categories: “Author”, “Company”, “Copyright”, “title”, “subject”, “keywords”, and “comments”.

Now, I would like to use some of the categories that appears under “view/columns”, such as e.g. “by date added”, “by from”, “by recepient”, “by description”, etc. Is it possible to add metadata to these categories?

Thanks once again!

“From” and “recipient” come from email documents (.eml) and cannot be edited in DEVONthink. “Description” I’m not sure about - it seems to correspond to the “description” field that’s editable in Acrobat - but then Acrobat moves whatever is put in that field into “Subject”. In any event, “Description” is not editable in DEVONthink.