Using DEVONthink for Literary studies

I have a question about research in Devonthink. I got the program after reading about it on Steven Johnson’s blog. It seems like a good aid to research. So my plan is to dump the complete corpus of English Renaissance literature into the database and then perform topic searches and see what the program can come up with. Any suggestions for the best way to handle this? I haven’t put too many things into it. I used the services menu to take rich notes by cutting and pasting from Safari–the complete Works of Shakespeare for instance. It hasn’t produced very impressive results so far, and The Faerie Queene keeps crashing it (because it’s a large note?). Will this sort of thing just not work? Or should I cut the selections up a bit more? Right now, I have an entire Shakespearean play as one note. Would creating a separate note for each act (or scene) work better? I imagine notes from my secondly sources will do better. Non-standardized spellings are also a problem. Not sure if DT can handle Elizabethan, much less Middle, English. Thanks for any advice to anyone who can give it. Next project: Latin texts!

I have entire screenplays and large eBooks (non-PDF) as individual notes in DT with no problems, save it might take a second or two to load. For example I have Aristotle’s Poetics (in Attic Greek) as one large note, as well as Descartes’ Discours (in French) along with some commentary, which is pretty huge. So, I’m not sure why you are having problems with The Faerie Queene. Have never had a note, large or small, crash DT. In fact, I’ve had maybe two crashes since I’ve started using DT and they were both pretty abnormal situations.

Not sure how it will handle Elizabethan or Middle English. I have had no problems with foreign language texts, including Greek, if that is any help.


That’s interesting. Do you do searches in Greek? How? Or is it transcribed into Roman letters? How do you go about manipulating this body of work? Johnson referred to the “sweet spot” being 50-500 words, but works of literature are obviously far longer. Do you think DEVONthink is the appropriate tool to handle such large “notes”? I am more curious about this than the crashing thing. All machines are different, and DT crashes on mine whenever I try to open FQ for whatever reason. I will probably just delete the entry and reload it.

I see no reason why any of this should be a problem. As a playwright and ex-academic in English Lit at Cambridge, I have some very large databases - mostly of plays. I rarely have stability problems (at least with Devonthink, real life is another matter altogether)
To my mind, keeping the entire Faerie Queene on one page is a bit pointless search-wise and less than ideal performance-wise; though I doubt it would cause crashes unless you have RAM issues.
So you might want to experiment with different approches to storing your texts. As Steven Johnson points out, very large documents don’t leverage DT’s strengths particularly well and breaking things up can be fruitful.

For instance - instead of cutting and pasting Shakespeare willy nilly (as it were) you might want to download the complete works from a site that already presents them in a useful, flexible form.

Try This:

  1. using DTPro’s File/Import Site… command, input “” into the download manager
  2. select the “Subdirectory Complete” and “Import Files to Database” options in the Download Manager (Using the options menu under the cogwheel at the lower right of the DM window)
  3. Click “start queue” (the right arrow)
    Assuming your connection is fast, pretty soon you’ll be the proud owner of a Complete Shakespeare well presented in HTML, with both entire plays on one page AND individual scenes per page.
  4. Now do a search for “Time”, say. If you want to narrow your search to JUST Shakespeare then select the Shakespeare folder and limit your search to “In selection”. Notice how much more easy/useful it is to click on the individual scenes in the results rather than on entire plays? Notice how “Time” is highlighted in every scene?
    While you’re at it, click on the >> arrow in the upper left of the Main window: down pops a menu with a concordance of the current scene; click on a word and out pops a list of the other scenes that use that word.

Now go play. :smiley:


I have Greek fonts that allow me both to read, write, and search in Greek, not that I do the latter two much. The texts are not transcribed.

I don’t use AI functions as much as others, so Eiron’s comments will likely be more helpful there. But I think that will change once I’m free of this dissertation and doing my own writing again. For now, I’m usually in a hurry, so I just dump things I need into files and use them as needed. And they are quite large. For example, the Poetics is 127 paragraphs and 18,974 words, while Discours is made up of 1061 paragraphs and 129,189 words. They load quickly and I can scroll quite quickly on my little iBook (1.2 mhz). Since I don’t do many searches in either French or Greek, their huge size hasn’t really mattered to me.

That said, I do think I’ll break them up at some point. It would be much easier to reference, come to think of it, when I’m looking for something. Takes more time, but then again, I haven’t tried much in the way of importing sites, as Eiron suggests. Most of what I have are eBooks that I grabbed (copied and pasted) right off of the net and dumped into DT. When they are pdfs I also copy them directly into DT, though with larger ones I import them as links and have the pdf stored in the db package to keep things speedier.

Eiron, I myself did what you said and now have all of Shakespeare in DT. How very cool. I no longer have to run to my bookshelf for a reference or refresher on some passage. But this also gives me very grandiose ideas. Like how about all the texts from Perseus in DT! Everything Greek and Latin at my fingertips. And available for searches. Now that would make it more likely I’d do searches in Greek! But my db, oh my, I fear it would be so huge.

I know what you mean!


Thanks to you both for responding in such detail. Eiron, I will give the Import Site command a whirl. I just got DT recently and have only begun using it intensively. I did download the plays from the MIT site, but I actually copied them manually and pasted them into DT as notes. Your way sounds much easier. I will have to give it a whirl on the Renascence editions site, which is where I got FQ originally. That site disposes it into cantos anyway, which, as you say, is more useful. It’s interesting you mention “time” as a word with which to test the db. It’s the first one I used, too.

Alex, if you figure out a way to dump things from Perseus into DT, let me know. It appears that copyright restrictions (at least for the Renaissance stuff they have) force them to channel everything through their infuriatingly obtuse interface. Ok, their search tools are quite robust, but it’s annoying to have to page through everything.

I will continue experimenting, but it looks like notes will be more useful than texts when it comes to taking full advantage of the “See also” feature. Poetry, however, would seem to be the ideal size for DT. Sonnet collections, if stored individually, would seem to me to be fair game for numerous kinds of queries. Lit probably won’t mesh well with crit, but I have high hopes that I can eventually get DT to write some of my papers for me.


Oops, I just noticed that the “Import Site” command is only available in DTPro. I have the personal edition. Any recommendations for the lesser version?

Has anyone tried loading the Project Gutenberg CD or DVD Best of Works into DevonThink? These are either .txt or html with some pdf images. Would be interesting to try…

I hate to say this, but yes I do: Upgrade it. Given your needs, you won’t regret it and it’s well worth the expense. If you’re not sure, the PRO version demo expires after 150 hours of non continuous use (excellent policy IMHO) but is otherwise uncrippled.

Try it. Now.

My Shakespeare system is much like Eiron’s. I have the plays I need broken down so that each act is a group and each scene is a different file. Research similarly gets broken down: each book is a group, chapter notes as individual documents. It’s lovely. Of course, I broke them down by hand, and his system would (I presume) do it automagically. At least for Shakespeare. Will you find the same thing for, say, Astrophil and Stella? I don’t know, but be prepared for some manual manipulation, just in case.

Oh, and I second the upgrade to Pro. Just experimenting with the import of bib files, and suddenly I get a finger-tingling sensation when I consider the possibilities.

I definitely second the motion, and remember that the student-educator discount makes the price of DTP very affordable.

I also enjoyed Eiron’s explanation of how to download a site and keep the corpus manageable. As for stability in an artist, remember that the poet’s eye should be “in a fine frenzy rolling” even if he is adroit at textual databases!

Will do. And it’s the same with their classical material—rather hard to navigate at times.


Thanks everyone for the responses. This is becoming a fascinating topic for me. I’ve been using computers my entire life, but never for my actual work. I think growing up with them made me think of them more as a recreational device or a hobby. I’m only in my 20s, but I still do all my research, note-taking, and writing by hand. I don’t even like to write in my books (I know I have to get over this). DTPro (just upgraded, thanks for the encouragement) and the nifty new iBook which accompanies it may finally transform the computer into a useful tool for me. My old Windows 98 machine was not a terribly useful tool. And knowing how to use, e.g., Microsoft Access scared me from using it for my own work (now that I have my own work) because it seemed needlessly complex and tedious (unlike, say, transcribing hundreds of pages worth of notes by hand). Someone should propose an MLA session on this sort of research. The course I took in advanced research was useful, but it only introduced me to the traditional methods and resources available (and EEBO). I am dazzled by the possibilities of DTPro (and maybe other programs), hopefully not too much so. So until we get an MLA session and subsequent peer-reviewed article, I’d really love to hear about other people’s experiences using DTPro for literary studies. I’ve seen posts on this elsewhere, so I hope I’m not reinventing the wheel, but I find even more inspiration from people’s personal stories than from the more abstract how-to or here’s what you might do sort of thing, as useful as those are for getting started. If anyone can help me figure out how to change my username so it’s not my email address (whoops!), that would be helpful, too!


You’re more than welcome; we lit types need to stick together. I’ll give your request some thought, but let me first say that it’s a good sign that you don’t take computers too seriously - they’re tools, appliances, nothing more.
That said I would have killed to have a powerbook and DT in my student days (M.Litt cantab '84)My dissertation was the product of an IBM selectric and knee-deep piles of paper - I was covering a lot of ground and the resulting mental confusion left me scarred for life. If it weren’t for index cards I never would have managed. I bought my (and the)first MAC after graduation and have been trying to reproduce that index card thought process electronically ever since. Only DTpro has come even close to success in this. I suspect I’m pretty idiosyncratic in how I use the program and I’m still smoothing out the rough edges of my “system”, but one of these days I’ll post a description either here or in the “Usage Scenarios” section of the forum. That said, I’m a playwright now, not an academic, so my methods may not fully apply to you.
I’n the meantime may I suggest you check out the DTPro Tutorial; it’s at least a good starting point.

And for what it’s worth: start writing in the margins of your books! Develop a marking system with consistent symbols and ways of highlighting text. Use the blank space to summarize chapters and write notes. You’ll thank yourself for it when you’re my age. All this stuff you’re now cramming into your head is going to leak out amazingly fast and one of these days your brain is not going to be as agile and your memory will have gaping holes in it. (I have abolutely NO idea what I did between '90 and 95, much less what I read or thought about) Keep track of what you’re doing, reading, and thinking: You might want to start a diary/blog/commonplace book and DT pro is a great place to do it.

More practical tips next time.

Another practical tip: I annotate books and articles and then compile an “index” of my annotations. Usually these are just in seriatim order, by chapter and pages, though sometimes I arrange the material under topical headings. In the pre-computer days I wrote the indexes on sheets of blank paper and inserted them in books or file folders.

Later I used database software to sort these notes, but found that an outliner was a quicker way to organize them. However, it didn’t do so well with a massive corpus. DTP is the answer, because I may sort and arrange notes in topical folders, but still use the Search and other tools to explore the entire body of notes, along with the added riches of images, maps, and URLs.

I suspect I’m pretty idiosyncratic in how I use the program and I’m still smoothing out the rough edges of my “system”


Where may I find out more about Don Lowe? A Google search brings up professors of ag science. I bet he was a very effective mentor.


Hey Will, I owe you an email. I googled Tani to UW, so expect Don can be reached there, which I intend to do any minute now. Write me when you have time.

OMG! I never thought about the fact that the Mac is basically Unicode througout. So I tried importing the works of Hafez (a Persian poet) into DEVONthink, and not only does it alphabetize them in the proper order, I can search on words by entering them with my Persian keyboard! Fantastic!

I guess there’s no reason I should have assumed that wouldn’t work, but I’m from the days when 7-bit ASCII ruled all…

Thanks for the eye-opener,

No worries. Although I noticed when you quoted me that my ‘two’ should have been ‘too.’ Oh well. :slight_smile: