How to Organize Your Research Chronologically

DEVONthinkWould you like a fast and easy way to organize your research chronologically? In response to a reader's request, I will show you how you can use DEVONthink to organize your research chronologically.

In this post, you will learn how you can use title formatting and smart groups to view your research in chronological order.


DEVONthink is a Mac-only program that manages information.

You can use DEVONthink to archive many different file types including: e-mails, PDFs, MS Office documents, PowerPoint slides, iWork files, and websites.

DEVONthink uses Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to search all of the information you put into it, which makes it both a great digital filing cabinet and database.

DEVONthink excels as a large database because of its search capabilities.

Unlike Evernote, DEVONthink stores all of the information you put into it on your hard drive. Having the information on your hard drive allows DEVONthink to quickly search for what you need; DEVONthink searches much faster than Evernote.

A feature-rich program, DEVONthink has many capabilities that make storing and sorting through your research a breeze.


The Importance of Formatting Entry Titles

I love DEVONthink’s file or “group” structure because it allows me to visualize and quickly find the information I need.

My historical research databases all have groups for “primary sources” and “secondary sources.” Each of those groups contain subgroups, which nest within each group like Russian nesting dolls.

For example, you can see from my screen shot that my main group “primary sources” contains the subgroup “archives.” Each "archives" subgroup contains a “collections” subgroup and each “collections” subgroup contains a “boxes” subgroup.

OrganizationWhen I find a letter or document that I want to store in my database, I create a new “Rich Text” entry.

Formatting the title for a new entry is very important if I want DEVONthink to organize my notes chronologically.

I begin each entry's title with the date of the manuscript using the YYYY.MM.DD format. This format allows DEVONthink to chronologically organize all of the documents within a "box" subgroup. (See picture.)

After the document’s date, I complete my titles by adding the author of the document, the recipient (if there is one), and the folder where I found it (if there is one). Adding the manuscript’s author and recipient will allow DEVONthink to easily locate entries I want if I search for a name; folder numbers help me cite and relocate documents.


Smart Groups

Groups store information. Smart groups store specific information.

Groups store the information you type or import into them. Groups do not share information with other groups unless you either duplicate an entry and insert it into another group or create a “smart group.”

Smart groups allow DEVONthink to gather information from across your database based on parameters you set. For example, if you want to see all of the evidence in your database that pertains to the year 1690, you create a smart group.

To create a smart group, go to the top menu bar and click data> new> smart group.

Smart Folder ConfigurationAs you can see from the above image, DEVONthink will present you with a query. This is where you establish your parameters.

Use the year you wish to organize as your smart group Name.

Next, set the Search In field to Database.

In the above example we are interested in collecting any document that contains the date “1690,” so tell DEVONthink to include Any where the following 4 rules are true:

(Add a new rule field by clicking + at the end of the query line)

1. All matches 1690

2. Content matches 1690

3. Name matches 1690

4. Tag is 1690

DEVONthink will use these rules to search your database and automagically place every entry that meets your “1690” criteria into your new smart group.

When combined with our smartly formatted titles, DEVONthink will automagically place and sort all entries with the year 1690 in chronological order.


Giving Credit 

I learned the above tips from Rachel Leow. In 2011, she published 3 helpful articles about how historians can use DEVONthink to make collecting and sorting through their research easier. In 2012, she published an additional article in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives.


Thoughtful-WomanWant to Learn More?

On Monday, March 24, I will be teaching “How to Organize Your Writing, Ideas, and Research,” a 3-hour workshop at Grub Street in Boston. The course will focus mostly on Evernote, but will cover basic information about Zotero and DEVONthink. There are still seats available.


What Do You Think?

How do you organize your research chronologically? Help your fellow historians and writers by sharing your tips. 


Did You Know?

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You can also ask me a question or submit a post topic to lizcovart[at]mac[dot]com.


Work Flow: How I Organize My Research and Writing

On Friday September 27, from 10:30am to 1:30pm, I will teach an interactive course at Grub Street called “How to Organize Your Writing, Ideas, and Research.” This seminar will show writers how they can use Evernote, Zotero, and DEVONthink to better manage their ideas and research. Preparing for this seminar has caused me to think about how I use Evernote, Zotero, and DEVONthink to organize my research and writing.


My Work Flow


Zotero is a free, easy-to-use tool that helps researchers collect, organize, cite, and share their research.

In 2006, I started using Zotero as a bibliographic and citation tool, and as an organizational database for my dissertation research. I liked the fact that Zotero was free and that it was less tedious than the notecard system my advisor had introduced me to. I also liked that Zotero made my research portable via my laptop and searchable with tags and keywords.

Zotero served me well for my dissertation. It helped me organize my data, collect bibliographic information from the web, format my footnotes into the Chicago Manual of Style, and generate a bibliography.

However by 2011, I found that I wanted a more powerful program. Zotero became slow and ‘clunky’ to use as my database surpassed 16,000 entries.



In 2010, I began using Evernote in conjunction with Zotero.

I use Evernote as my digital filing cabinet. In fact, I got rid of 5 physical filing cabinets by scanning my records and filing them into Evernote. Evernote is where I keep all of my journal articles, manuscript photocopies, teaching materials, notes from various projects, seminar and conference notes, and my research notebook. I also use Evernote to organize my household records.

The Evernote app for my smartphone allows me to take my filing cabinet with me wherever I go. The ability to carry my filing cabinet with me has been immensely useful. Not only can I look up an article on-the-go, but I can also immediately record any ideas I have or research leads I find into Evernote.

I believe Evernote is the “Goldilocks” of organizational tools. Users can electronically store their research materials and find what they need with a click of a tag or a keyword search. Evernote’s new enhanced OCR search can even locate some handwritten documents.

Despite its great capabilities, I have not been able to wrap my head around the idea of using Evernote as my research database. Part of the reason for that is that I need a database that allows me to manipulate my notes to appear chronologically or by topic.

After reading rave reviews about DEVONthink on the web and in the AHA’s Perspectives early last year, I started to play with DEVONthink Pro.


DEVONthinkDEVONthink Pro

DEVONthink manages information. The program archives e-mails, PDFs, scanned documents, MS Word documents, PowerPoint slides, iWork files, and websites.

I started using DEVONthink in February 2013. I find that it excels as a large database. I use Smart Folders to manipulate my notes so I can view them any way I need to.

DEVONthink’s artificial intelligence feature helps me write. When I look up a note or document transcription, the A.I. feature recommends other records with like content that I have stored in the database. (Recently, Evernote added a “Related Notes” feature at the bottom of its notes that performs a similar function).

Also, DEVONthink is fast. DEVONthink searches faster than Evernote because it is based on my hard drive. Although I could use DEVONthink as a digital filing cabinet, I don’t because it lacks the portability of Evernote.


Summary of Work Flow

Presently, I employ all three programs to organize my research and writing. I use Zotero for bibliographies and citations, Evernote as my filing cabinet, and DEVONthink as my research database. My method may seem cumbersome, but my brain likes knowing that my research is separate from everything else. Moreover, by the time Evernote came out with its “Related Notes” feature and OCR search capabilities, I had already paid for and started to use DEVONthink.


What Do You Think?

What does your work flow look like? What software do you use to organize your research and writing?