Evaluating content storage software

Big decision to be made today. Again I need to improve my workflow!

I'm a sucker for doing things the digital way. I used to keep large file cabinets storing my material and personal "archive," but I've realized quite throughly that this kind of system is for people keeping a permanent position (and permanent office) only. My neatly organized computer history archive from a few years back is of no use to me now. It's stored in boxes some 2000 kilometers away from my present place of being, and I can't access it. The same goes for other projects I've finished, but never really managed to put behind.

In my current project the stack of both digital and physical sources are starting to overflow. I need a way to get both sources and research notes on my material stored in a neat and retrievable way. "Content storage software"is the key. Previously I have experience with EndNote, Evernote and DevonThink. As of today, I store all my files in Dropbox (premium - with backup!!!), but they are just files in folders. I need a system to get them organized, annotated and tag'ed.

First I have to state that this is not an attempt at trying to figure out what is the best software. There is not one best, just the best for my use. My needs are not necessarily your needs. And most certainly - the needs anticipated by the software companies are not really so often my needs. The key is finding something that improves the workflow. Using an hour to find a specific document is no good when being in the writing process (as I experienced yesterday).

And secondly. I don't want to get just a cool app. It needs to be something that I can use for several  of my activities, so I don't have to use one app for each type of use.

First - some words on what I know


EndNote is my everyday very good friend. It stores pdf's of all the articles I'm reading. It keeps track of my bookshelf, and it syncs neatly with library databases like ask.bibsys.no. I sure with for a way to automatically transfer both citation data and pdf directly to EndNote from for instance JSTOR, but for now it works. And of course, the cite while you write function is a dream compared to "hard programming" references. The key is to clean up every record as you add them, to avoid having to do the dirty work when finishing off the references of a text.

And on the good side - it will probably sick around for ever. It's owned by Thompson Reuters, and is likely to get keep up (or at least only slightly behind) technological development.

And the cost ($300!!!)... is covered by my university's great software service!

But EndNote is not for everything. Back in the day, I tried using it for primary source material like letters and newspaper articles, but that ended up as just a big mess. The database got too big, and the number of items that "didn't fit" got the overhand. I also gave up using it for taking research notes. The notes file in the record is good for short comments, but not for longer texts. My note taking from let's say a 800 page book can't be managed by a single field with no possibilities for formatting.


When I expelled primary source material from EndNote I put it in DevonThink. I liked this program, but it has one serious disadvantage: It's Mac only. My office computer is a PC.  But it keeps soundfiles, word-documents, web-documents, pdfs and so on, neatly tagged and organized. It can even split the content into several databases. A huge advantage for organizing large quantities of material from different projects. But no. Can't work with things that are Mac only.


Evernote is my second everyday good friend. Here I keep my daily log, note taking from reading, transcribed interviews and so on. Basically everything which is text-based goes in here. And it syncs beautifully! But so far I've been reluctant to put in things with images, since I'm syncing to my iPad and Android phone and thus wants to keep things light.

I miss some features though from DevonThink: The inbox (I had to make my own). The unlimited nesting of "notebook stacks" (to use Evernote terminology). The ability to edit word documents. The rather seamless storing and quick viewing of many different types of documents.

There is another major disadvantage - I can only upload 1 GB pr. month, even with the premium account. That basically cuts me off from using it to organize my rather big collection of documents and newspaper articles. Some of these are scans. Others are photos. A few are web clips. Current size of the material is somewhat 50GB and it is growing every day.

But it is a cool program, and that's important. It gets fresh new updates. It has a huge user base, so it will probably keep up with the technological development. Sticking with that is safer than with open source of single developer stuff that might get abandoned by their developers as enthusiasm

The ones I don't know yet


Prolution Six writes the following about his conversion (yes, this is a religious issue) from Evernote to Zotreo:
If you use a lot of PDFs, a lot of online databases, and do a lot of PDF annotation and other research on a single computer, Zotero is probably perfect for you 
This sounds interesting. But: I'm a bit reluctant to jump ship on non-commercial programs, since I need it to work in ten years time from now on platforms the world hasn't seen yet. Remember 2002? That was even two years before Facebook! But apart from that Zotero looks like a good program.

This quote from Wikipedia makes it look even more interesting:
On many websites such as library catalogs, PubMed, Google Scholar, Google Books, Amazon.com, Wikipedia, and publisher's websites, Zotero shows an icon when a book, article, or other resource is being viewed. By clicking this icon, the full reference information can be saved to the Zotero library. Zotero can also save a copy of the webpage, or, in the case of academic articles, a copy of the full text PDF. Users can then add notes, tags, attachments, and their own metadata. 
For now I'm not extracting that much information from the web - and if I occasionally do, I make a pdf of the webpage and import it in EndNote. But interesting, yes.

The turn-off: Only 6GB of storage costs $5 pr. month (!).


Papers looks like an interesting program. It is primarily developed for organizing and annotating pdf's, and the interface is looking like something in between DevonThink-style and EndNote-ish. It might be worth checking out.

Turn-off: Price $49


Mendeley is the cross-platform version of Papers, and I'm tempted. This video makes it look interesting, but how will this work for other things than .pdf's?

[video cut]
The cool thing is that it looks like it has to be either/or Mendeley or EndNote. The following quote from the discussion here adds to the temptation:
You can simply export your reference list from Mendeley to Endnote (you can also do it the other way around), and you are ready to go. No need to go fetching for the information once you already have it Mendeley. 

Pro: Big user group. Likely to stick around and develop way into the future.
Con: Only 1GB online storage

Conclusions? I think I will check out Mendeley first, and see how things work out. I might stick with Evernote, and try to work around the limited upload capacity. But I should decide soon. Migrating hundreds of records from one program to another is not a task I like to do too often.

First impression of Mendeley is great. Workflow is much more efficient than in EndNote, and the cite while you write functions seems good. All my newspaper articles will go in here. The only real bugger is that it's not particularly good to work with jpg's. I guess I will have to convert these into pdf's for better functionality.

I tried organizing my primary sources in Papers, but after testing a few items I found the workflow a bit heavy. I guess I will stick with Evernote for now. It's also good to keep down the number of programs I use.


  1. Nice overview. I have been working/trying all the software you mention. My big problem with most of them is that most of them are based on closed-source, binary formats. I still remember how painful it was to get my data out of Evernote when I decided to abandon it.

    My solution: BibDesk for papers and citations (with links to PDFs in a folder). Everyting else: text files and folders! These two concepts have been with us since the beginning of computers, and is cross-platform and fast (I sync thousands of text files in no time at all). I use a structured approach to naming folders, and add tags and keywords at top of the text files. This also makes everything easily searchable in OSX, Windows and Linux. It may not be the perfect solution, but it is certainly future-proof, and it doesn't cost anything but the storage.

  2. I was using a txt-based kind of system myself for quite some time, but I missed the possibility to tag, annotate and browse quickly between files (not just quick-look). I also needed to combine text and images (I use photos of primary sources a lot, and I like to annotate on the photos in structured text), and found that no matter how structured my file system was, this got bulky and annoying.

    After a couple of weeks now with my new structure in Evernote and Mendely I think i'm happy. I reduced the size on some of my files, so I'm still within the limit of free use of Mendeley and within my monthly upload rate in Evernote.


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