Evernote Reservations: Searching for an Alternative Personal Database

Visit Evernote's homepage.I like to think of myself as a scholar. Someone with a particular relationship to knowledge. A person who consumes, produces, collects, reflects on, forwards, critiques, champions, offers, and preserves all sorts of information and documents. It seems natural to me that I would be interested in developing a system for organizing and accessing that information.

Enter Evernote. I used to think Evernote was amazing. Actually, I still do. I think it’s probably the best all-in-one program for keeping track of notes, scans of documents, lists, web page clippings, etc. But I just recently realized that there are only two ways to export my notes from Evernote into some other platform, like, say, Simplenote, or Microsoft’s OneNote. I can export as an Evernote file, which I don’t think really does me any good, since the point is to potentially move to another platform. Or I can export as HTML, which is actually pretty great, given that there will most likely always be browsers that can read the files. But the problem, is that I use a scanner (Scansnap 1500m) to capture a lot of the documents I want to archive. The ScanSnap creates PDFs of the documents I scan, and sends them to my Evernote account, where they are OCR’d and indexed for future text searches. Like I said, Evernote is pretty great. That is, as long as you stay within the Evernote platform.

I should have learned my lesson a long time ago. Before I started getting invested in Evernote, I was all about OneNote. But then I really started to dislike Microsoft for various reasons, so I looked for alternatives. Evernote seemed like a good choice. Most importantly, I was taken with the idea that I could always export my notes out of Evernote and into another program. At least I thought so.

But it’s really important to me to be able to perform a search on the documents in my archive. And when I export all these files as HTML, the PDFs in Evernote are exported as webpages with a link to the PDF, but the PDF no longer has character/language recognition. There’s no way to search them. More than half of my documents in Evernote are PDFs. Not cool. The more invested I get in Evernote, the more work it’s going to be to transfer to another platform.

Maybe I’m being just a little too cautious here. I don’t know. It just seems hard to believe that Evernote is going to be around indefinitely. Is anything going to be around indefinitely? No, obviously not. Not PDFs. Not txt files. Not Evernote. Probably not even HTML. And Evernote seems to be on the right track. Their growth is strong and consistent. They are a profitable company. Why worry? Because all companies either disappear, are purchased, or discontinue support for older technologies. Apple. Microsoft. Google. Even the biggest.

So what should I do, then? Should I go back to pen and paper? I can’t bear to even consider it. All the wasted space of files and books and receipts and photocopies and bills… No way. I’m committed to a digital self-archive.

So what to do? Open source? Maybe. But open source options sometimes have significant drawbacks. For instance, for a while, I was using Open Office as an alternative to Microsoft Word. It was great. OO wasn’t as robust a tool as MSW, but it definitely handled everything I needed. But the open document format was a real problem when dealing with people who used primarily MSW (read: almost everyone). So that wasn’t so great. No great solution there, either. I overreacted. I started only using txt files, but that was too limited because I couldn’t even make text bold, underlined, or italic. Ugh. Now I’ve compromised, and I’ve started doing all my writing in rich text format. Well, sort of. I also use Scrivener for writing within a larger project, but I’m able to export from Scrivener into a variety of useful formats, so that shouldn’t be much of a problem down the line.

But what I’ve got to do now is figure out a system for taking in information, organizing it, and making it accessible/searchable/exportable. I haven’t found a tool yet that can handle all of that. I’m looking at Simplenote, Notational Velocity, SpringPad, and DevonThink. But they’ve all got significant drawbacks.

I think, initially, I’m going to focus on putting together my own very simple system using five basic technologies: .rtf files (for notes); .png files (for images and screen clippings); url shortcuts (also known as .webloc files); PDFs (for scanned documents, which will be OCR’d); and Dropbox (which will host and sync a common database between my Macbook Pro and iMac, and which will also be accessible via iOS applications on the iPad and iPhone, as well as accessible from the web interface). Not all of these are open formats, but each of them is ubiquitous enough, I think, that whatever replaces them will have to accommodate translation from the old format to the new. Not guaranteed, but I think it’s as close as I can get.

Hopefully, if I can work out a relatively inexpensive, simple, and sustainable workflow, I’ll cover that here soon. Until then, I’ll be worrying over my Evernote conundrum.