How I’m using Evernote and IFTTT to collect and organize my digital marginalia

Digital Disruption - Critical Margins
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Digital Disruption - Critical Margins

If you enjoy this Evernote and IFTTT overview, check out three ways you can use IFTTT to get the most out of your digital reading.

This year, I’ve written about how digital marginalia — those notes, clippings, likes, and kindle book highlights — have re-shaped the way we read. In particular, I believe that we are entering a new era of reading, an era that has a social reading element similar to reading in the 18th and 19th centuries, a time when commonplace books and note-sharing were standard.

Recently, I came across an article in The Verge by Thomas Houston that covers this topic. Part of “The Verge at Work” series, Houston talks about the history of reading and note-taking, and delves into his personal 21st-century version of this:

Sixty years ago, Vannevar Bush imagined a hypertext information machine (a memex) in his essay ‘As We May Think’ that would act as an “intimate supplement” to memory. Bush imagined a desk-sized machine for keeping track of a user’s books, records, and communications, tracking what you read and your notes like a modern day version of the commonplace book. Years after reading a book or writing down a note, the user would be able to return to it, tracing written thoughts in “trails” that can be recalled, shared, and stored. “Thus science may implement the ways in which man produces, stores, and consults the record of the race,” Bush wrote, surely unaware of where hypertext would take us.

Stumbling on all of this years ago got me thinking, and I started playing around with my own notes after reading author Steven Johnson’s article in the New York Times where he described his own system. He saw digital tools helping “the subtle arts of inspiration and association,” providing a unique way to not only augment memory but share idea creation with the machines. Johnson used an app called DevonThink to store his writings, notes, highlights from a decade’s worth of books, and other things that had influenced him, building a personal database of reading, writing, and thinking (dig into his process at his personal site). But it’s not just for having all of this information at your fingerprints, Johnson explains. The promise of the system was its ability to find documents that he’d entirely forgotten about, “documents I didn’t know I was looking for.”

Houston then goes onto explain his own way of collecting all of his ideas digitally: he uses Evernote and IFTTT to organize his online reading life.

Before explaining my own process — which, as many readers have noted, has evolved over the last year — I’d like to explain briefly what these two tools can do. First, Evernote is a note-taking app that does everything from basic word processing and note taking to advanced Website clipping and social sharing. If you can think it up, you can do it with Evernote. Second, If This Then That (or IFTTT) allows you to automate online services. For example, with IFTTT, I can send each tagged photo of me on Facebook to Dropbox, Skydrive, or Google Drive without having to find them on my own. The service does the work for you, and it allows you to access whatever you want wherever you want it.

IFTTT has several Evernote “recipes,” including some that allow me to save notes from the internet and archive old tweets without having to go through the steps myself. After months of trying to organize my digital life, I think I’ve found the best solution. Here’s what I do to organize my digital marginalia:

1. Simplify the sites I use. I used to be all over the internet, and now I stick with these reading apps: Twitter (for finding stuff), Flipboard (which links to my Twitter and Google Reader accounts), and Instapaper. I also link my Kindle to which tracks my Kindle book notes and highlights.

2. Use Evernote to collect everything noteworthy for me. Whenever I read something on Flipboard, I star it. This sends it directly to Evernote, and it saves the article in one of two notes: a Twitter “favorites” note and a Google Reader “Starred Articles” note. With Instapaper, I collect the best articles, then send a compilation of these articles to my Kindle for reading on my free time. If I like it, I hit “like” on my Kindle and it sends a copy of the article to Evernote. By the way, all of this is set up using IFTTT recipes. This takes some getting used to, but it’s totally worth it. Check out IFTTT help for more information.

3. Tag my Evernote articles for later reading. I also use smart tags (via IFTTT) so that every article is tagged appropriately. Again, this is just a matter of editing the individual IFTTT recipe.

4. Download my clippings.txt file on my Kindle to Evernote. Every Kindle has a clippings.txt file which stores all of your highlights and notes. This is done manually, and right now, all I do is connect my Kindle to my computer, then copy and paste new notes from the clippings.txt file to Evernote. If someone knows of a way to automate this process, let me know. For now, I don’t organize these notes in any other way.

I’ve also set up IFTTT to automate some of my social media posts. I also use Hootsuite to schedule tweets. IFTTT has some powerful Facebook Pages recipes as well.

For now, this works for me. It allows me to create my own digital commonplace book, and it reminds me to go back and read important and interesting articles for later.

Kevin Eagan (@KevEagan) is a freelance editor and writer living in Central Florida. He edits book manuscripts and articles for local and national publications. Critical Margins is his place to share his interests. You can also check out his professional website,