Using DEVONthink for Literary studies. Round Two

Hello everybody,
I found two threads from 2005 about using DEVONthink for literary studies.

This was in the early days of Mac OS X. The main concern was not how to analyze and interpret literature and/or create links between (related) files, but rather how to use DevonThink as a depository for literary texts, for example all Shakespeare’s plays, and then search for words and phrases in those plays.

One of the threads ended with a promise to “post a [workflow] description either here or in the “Usage Scenarios” section of the forum.” This doesn’t seem to have materialized. I have not been able to find any follow-up on the topic.

Now, 17 years later, both DevonThink and Spotlight have been vastly improved as far as searching and retrieving material is concerned. We also have Nisus Writer Pro (NWP) now which can virtually find everything in multiple open files simultaneously; and NWP is also able to manipulate text in a very skillful manner, including creating various types of word lists.

I would very much like to hear whether anyone here is now using DEVONthink for Literary studies, and by “Literary studies” I simply mean that what we are confronted with when we take literary courses at a university:

(1) history of literature,
(2) literary theory,
(3) analysis and interpretation of single literary works.

I would welcome all ideas regarding the topic, including other software recommendations.

[The old, obsolete treats can be found here:]

I had completely forgotten about the thread I started about this subject seventeen years ago. A description of my workflow in the past 10-15 years (very briefly; I have no time for long stories):

Absolutely essential tools only four: Bookends (bibliography), DT (repository for all kinds of things, especially pdf’s of books, articles etc.), Scrivener (writing and brainstorming), VueScan, for scanning all kinds of articles and books.

I have many parallels between DT and Scrivener: for instance a DT database on medieval chronicles, and a Scrivener project on medieval chronicles.

All texts that are essential to me I have inside a Scrivener project as a rtf. Works best for me.

Pdf’s I read not within DT, but with PDF Expert. I have no convincing arguments for doing so; I simply like it better this way. I make a rather primitive use of DT: for me it’s little more than a repository. DT would certainly deserve better; but that’s how I work. And with this workflow I have been able to write some very complex books, with a host of chapters, subchapters, paragraphs, thousands of notes, multiple indexes etc. So it works, for me at least. Thanks to Scrivener in the first place, which is absolutely invaluable.

Other very convenient tools:

  • Nisus WP, which however I only use for smaller things.
  • 2Do, which is for me the best ‘getting things done’ and programming tool for those who work alone, and have no need of frequently fine tuning their activities with other people.
  • Houdah Spot, an excellent searching tool.

That’s all I need, and all I will use in the foreseeable future. Less is more.

I don’t study literature these days, but I have done textual analysis in the field of psychology. I found that DEVONthink, Scrivener and Bookends served me very well for a PhD. I also use HoudahSpot, which is very valuable for quick searches when you can’t remember where you have saved something.

The only thing that might be considered missing from the above is some sort of visual tool. I find mind maps and the like are very valuable for analysis and making sense of material, and they can be very useful (to me) for organisation. I dabble with Tinderbox, which is a sometimes mystifying tool, but potentially extremely useful for analysis. It will do things that probably no other tool is capable of. Beck Tench made some videos which give an idea of its potentialities. I also use iThoughts for brainstorming.

Well, I really don’t do literary analysis but use DT mainly to store literary works (apart from my paperless home office stuff like invoices, taxes, etc…). Mostly all Science Fiction pulps (Spanish and English), and full collections of old and new magazines (Scientific American, Popular Science, National Geographic), plus all Jules Verne, own scanned old stuff and new as well, and with my recent ET24 Pro scanner, I’m finishing to add all my books to DT, and even re-scanning yet scanned books.

I don’t use it professionally but so and then I help friends to locate or relate things between magazines and books.

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Ok, first and foremost, @Timotheus, as someone who also works on medieval chronicles, we perhaps should talk.

I, too, have boiled things down to a few tools: DT is my repository for all PDFs of books/articles and web/research stuff. Zotero and Alfred/zothero handle citation management. I use PDF viewer on iOS (as it works well with Box), and just Preview for on Mac for highlights while reading. I used Scrivener for my last two articles as a sort of “in between” processing ground between the raw stuff of DT and writing in Word. For my current book chapter, I’m using Obsidian (with a vault indexed in DT) and Hook, to link PDFs to those Obsidian notes and DT notes, for the “in between” stage for organizing/working out an argumentative trajectory.

Broadly, I need a place to put the objects of my research (and a way to find them again), a place to put my rough thinking (and a way to find it again), a way of managing the connections between the two (generatively, hook; formal/footnotes, Zotero), and Word because I’m lazy.

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Besides the applications already mentioned, over the years I have tried out and even purchased a number of others. Let me mention just:

  • Tinderbox: potentially very powerful, but also awe-inspiring. Getting used to it and importing all relevant stuff into it requires a very considerable amount of time. Too much time, to my taste, also because I wanted to have the same data imported into Tinderbox also at my disposal within my Scrivener projects. So that would have been a perennial double work, because there is no easy, convenient way of exchanging data between Tinderbox and Scrivener. And besides all this: I never liked the layout of the application. And as a writing environment Tinderbox is terrible; an absolute nightmare.

  • Aeon Timeline: I bought version 2, but seldom worked with it. All (for me) important dates of birth and death, political events and publication of important books I already know by heart. This being so, in this case there is not much that remains. And here too, importing all relevant data into the program is a very time consuming business. But for instance for writers of complex novels it seems a very useful application.

  • Curio: very nice, very versatile and very powerful, but within my workflow I had no place for it. For an art historian or, more generally speaking, for a visually oriented researcher it might be quite different.

  • Mind mapping tools: very nice to play with, but they didn’t bring me the inspiration and the new ideas that I hoped for. To be honest, I find them a bit overestimated.

  • In recent times, I also tried out Hook and Obsidian, but didn’t stick with these. Probably, my workflow is already too fixed to easily admit newcomers, no matter how useful they might be.

And personally, I prefer to work with just a few applications that I know well, rather than with many I know only superficially.

But of course, that’s just me. I work within well defined boundaries. It’s all text about texts. For more adventurous spirits things will probably be quite different.

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I use DT’s custom metadata to store things like publication dates. When I need to visualize something, I create a metadata overview, and then import it into aeon timeline. In truth,AT3 is far in excess of my needs.

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Interesting- what Aeon Timeline template do you use to import/display the metadata in Aeon Timeline?

I’m afraid I use one of the default ones. Very uncreative of me.
(I often need to buy periodicals through dealers, so being able to visualize what I have, and what other libraries near me have is useful. So an individual issue becomes an event, and holdings record becomes an event that lasts 52 weeks, or longer) Also, if I’m trying to locate all the parts to an occassionally published article I’m interested in, it’s useful to know where the holes in my collections are. (let’s see, I need issue 26 of 1894, and someone’s offering up a bound copy of the second trimester, is it going to contain the material I need?)

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I use:

  • Zotero: free app, browser button to add citation, also by ISBN, lots of citation formats for export, lots of sorting possibilities, used by academics; prefer to have my data on my computer, not up there; few complaints.
  • Scrivener: designed by writers for writing; incomparable. Changed my life.
  • Mellel: Good robust program with clean interface. Exports to a variety of filetypes. Used to use NWP; not sure why I stopped. Hate Word; won’t use it.
  • Aeon TImeline: great program; I use it for a sprawling historical novel – not only for events in the book, but for those that impact characters in the story. Couldn’t keep it all straight otherwise.
  • Tinderbox: I have it, fascinated by it, try it now and then but it doesn’t seem to fit a need, and it has a major learning curve. Ditto mind map programs; not the way I think.
  • And DevonThinik Pro: everything, everything, everything goes in there first, text files, pdfs, images, emails, etc. I have databases for: Art and Photos, Books and Music, Fashion, Design, Computer, Household stuff, my book, and Downloads (for whatever doesn’t belong somewhere else. Love that I can convert pdf to editable text (but also use Highlight when it doesn’t work).
  • DevonAgent Pro: Have it, should use it more, but never stopped to make effective use of it; bit of a learning curve and for my needs, not sure it’s worth the time. Interface could use some improvement (which I understand DT is working on, yes? I will stay tuned for further developments).

In short: Thanks DT; it’s a real pleasure to use the app – you’ve been a daily part of my life for quite a long time, and to have such great support.


Thanks for sharing and for the generous comments. We really appreciate it :heart: :slight_smile:

Thanks to all of you who suggested additional tools. I myself, I would like to add FileMaker Pro and FoxTrot Professional Search to the list.

When I originally said “literary studies” I meant fictional writing, especially novels describing imaginary events and people, poems, dramas, and—of course— the authors themselves.

I believe medieval chronicles are mainly dealt with by historians and not by literary scholars. :–) But, I admit, it depends on the chronicle itself and the purpose of the study

I’m a literary scholar, and I have difficulties integrating DEVONthink in my daily workflow. The Finder is pretty powerful in organizing files, and with hierarchical folder-structure, smart folders created by Spotlight, tags and Aliases, it’s easy to keep the overall view under control and find important files. In order to not run out of space, I store files and folders on a large external drive which I keep plugged into my laptop all the time. Only projects I’m CURRENTLY working on are imported into DEVONthink by indexing.

There are two things that need to be considered here: (1) how do I organize folders in the Finder and (2) how do I analyze fiction with the help of a computer.

(1) Organization

If my topic can be attributed to a certain country, I have found it best to use countries as root folders. The country-folders are located within one large folder which I call “University”.

Suppose I’m reading Candide, a French satirical novel published in 1759 by Voltaire. The folder structure here would then look something like this:


Regional studies



Literature (France)

Authors (France)

  1. century (France)


Novels (Voltaire)

Secondary literature (Voltaire)

Primary literature (Voltaire)


An alias would go into a folder called “Satire” inside a folder called “Literary forms” inside a folder called “Literary Theory”, inside a folder called “University”.

(2) Analysis

  1. I convert the primary source (Candide, in our example) into a .rtf file, provided it exists in an electrical form, by the way. Most classical stuff already does, and Project Gutenberg is my first choice here because it offers an .html download format which can be easily converted into a Rich Text file.

  2. Then I read the novel in Nisus Writer Pro (NWP), copiously highlighting important passages and writing notes and comments, i.e. in the Nisus file itself, and assigning central topics & motives styles. These styles can apply color to the text or only consist of the name of the topic/motive itself. If you ask why NWP? It’s because NWP is the best editing word processor I have found for this purpose; with just a click of the mouse I can see all passages in a novel where gender discrimination occurs … or whatever issue I’m interested in at a given moment. If my publisher wants me to write about how Voltaire ridicules the philosopher Leibniz in Candide, I can see and export all passages where Voltaire criticizes Leibniz… with just one click of the mouse. I can also export all comments and notes I have taken with just one click of the mouse, in case I want to store them somewhere else. Since NWP is very flexible, arrangements can be easily tailored to meet individual requirements.

  3. Those who have studied literature at a university will probably be in the possession of a handout from a professor which provides instructions on how to analyze a literary work. Sometimes such handouts were detailed, sometimes just a short list of general questions which one should consider by the interpretation. Being basically questionnaires, these handouts may be helpful for the purposes of a survey or statistical study, and for simple forms (= legend, myth, riddle, saying, case, memorabilia, fairy tale, joke), as defined by André Jolles in his book with the same title, they can be quite useful. When dealing with simple forms, especially folk tales and poems, I use FileMaker Pro (FMP). Why? Because these genres are often stereotyped in style and mode of expression and can be categorized swiftly and painlessly using checkboxes and radio buttons. Saves a lot of time. – FileMaker and Nisus work very well together.

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@DCBerk and @ lutefish

Zotero only works well with MS Word, LibreOffice and GoogleDocs. Documents saved in RTF and ODF formats are to be scanned in order to create citations and a bibliography. Now, the problem with Zotero is that if you are using other word processors and have an author whose name contains an umlaut or a diacritic, Zotero will fail to execute the RTF Scan command, thus making it impossible to create a bibliography.

The problem is well known among the Zotero developers, but they are not interested in fixing it or are unable to do it. The answer I got from them was: “Yeah, it looks like this was just never implemented — I think you’re the first to report this in the 10+ years that RTF Scan has existed. (RTF Scan doesn’t get a lot of use.)”

I don’t have reason to use strict biblio references at this point in my mss., so haven’t worried about doing more than a copy/paste from Zotero to Scrivener or Mellel (I never use MS Word or GoogleDocs, and don’t have LibreOffice.) Mostly I use Zotero as a convenient inventory of my books and for that it works fine.

However, I just did a search, and apparently it is possible to coordinate the Zotero, Scrivener, and Mellel apps. It seems things have changed since you last tried it, but I have no experience with doing that, so can’t say how successful it is.

There’s always something not to like about an app; I can’t remember why I chose Zotero over Bookends and haven’t compared them in a long time. Given your enthusiasm, perhaps I’ll download a trial again and see what I think now.


“I have done textual analysis in the field of psychology”.

For heavens sake, what’s that?! Sounds like forensic linguistics or a study in abnormal behavior to me. :–)

“I find mind maps and the like are very valuable for analysis and making sense of material, and they can be very useful (to me) for organisation.”

I agree. I have found Mind map applications extremely important to demonstrate who the (main) characters are, their relationships to each other, and the plot in general. It’s indeed true that “A picture is worth a thousand words.” I have a bad memory. Often I read an important, classical novel, and a few years later— when I pick up the book again— it seems I have almost completely forgotten the plot. In such a case, I have found colorful mind maps a real help. Seeing the main scenes of the plot depicted as a mind map helps me immediately refreshing my memory.


“Mind mapping tools: very nice to play with, but they didn’t bring me the inspiration and the new ideas that I hoped for."

I know mind mapping can be used for brain storming and to bring about or give rise to flashes of inspiration, but I have never used it that way.

One thing I’m still looking for on the Mac platform is a program to easily and quickly create genealogical tables / family trees. This is indispensable when reading or preparing long (classical) novels for publication. Think of novels by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Modern editions of their novels do all include family trees. Without such trees, the reader would get lost.

I have tried a few genealogy programs, drawing and layout tools like OmniGraffle, but I haven’t yet settled on any specific program yet. Has anyone experience with this?


“I dabble with Tinderbox, which is a sometimes mystifying tool, but potentially extremely useful for analysis. It will do things that probably no other tool is capable of.”

I completed 2/3 of the Tinderbox tutorial, then I gave up, mainly because of the idiotic topic: it was about American pulp fictions before and around 1900, if I remember right, and authors who are completely unknown now – and rightly so. Why not choose a topic which users can really use in future, such as the man Charles Dickens and his works, … or any other classical author, for that matter.

I got the impression that Tinderbox is a bit like HyperCard (a very popular Mac program prior to Mac OS X.) I loved HyperCard, and I felt down in the dumps when Steve Jobs killed it. HyperCard made me (and thousands of other Mac users) a hobby programmer.


"there is no easy, convenient way of exchanging data between Tinderbox and Scrivener. "

That’s indeed a real bummer. Is it not possible to export tab delimited files from Tinderbox?

When I export text from an application I want the formatting to be preserved (colors above all, but also bold, italics, and underline.) Is this preserved by an export from Tinderbox?


If we want to create a timeline [database] and export it as text (for a book, for example), I think the best tool for that is FileMaker Pro.

Ah, yes. Bookends doesn’t seem to import by ISBN, which Zotero does, instantly, and which I find incredibly useful. That was the deal breaker for me

I also use Firefox, and Bookends doesn’t have an extension. I import a lot of biblio metadata using the Zotero icon on my toolbar. Wouldn’t want to do without it.

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Can you give an example of how you would do that in Filemaker Pro?


“I just did a search, and apparently it is possible to coordinate the Zotero, Scrivener, and Mellel apps. It seems things have changed since you last tried it”

Could you give me a URL? I would be surprised indeed if this has been fixed.

I spent virtually weeks trying to make this work a few years ago, and I was in close contact with the developers all the time. Honestly speaking, I feel little urge to go through all that pother again.

I just searched on “Zotero and Scrivener”, and quite a few discussions popped up – a quick look at the results showed some of those topics also included info about coordinating Zotero with other apps like Mellel and Nisus.

Zotero is popular among academics – professors and grad students like free software, and it’s open source and a non-profit.

Caveat: I don’t know how well it works, and can’t guarantee you won’t have to go through yet another pother if you decide to try it out.


“I also use Firefox, and Bookends doesn’t have an extension.”

Not true. In Bookends this is called “bookmarklet” and it works in Safari, Chrome, and Firefox. (See Bookends User Guide, p. 183)