Digital Disruption - Critical Margins

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

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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 kindle.amazon.com 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.

About Kevin Eagan

Kevin Eagan (@criticalmargins) is a freelance editor, writer, and teacher who lives in Central Florida. He edits book manuscripts and articles for local and national publications. In addition to writing about book technology and teaching college students how to write, Kevin works as an associate editor for punctum books. Previously, he was the books editor for Blogcritics. You can also follow him on Google+ or check out his professional website, KevinThomasEagan.com.

3 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

  • http://twitter.com/iserotope Mark Isero (@iserotope)

    Very neat. I especially like Step #1. Only this year have I made progress in streamlining my content discovery process. Sometimes I think I might be missing something, and I am, and that’s OK.

    I wonder why Amazon hasn’t improved its Kindle site and created a better way to deal with the “my clippings” file. Right now, the site is clunky, and even though it’s easy to plug my Kindle into my computer to access my clippings, I’d rather have an easier way.

    Thank you again for this post. It’s interesting that there are many services for clipping and marginalia (Annotary, Evernote Clearly, Findings, and more), but none are “perfect” yet.

    • http://criticalmargins.wordpress.com Kevin Eagan

      Annotary and snip.it are two services I haven’t tried yet, but I should give them a go. Thanks for your perspective!

  • Amie Harpe Longstreet

    Hi Kevin. Thank you for an informative post. I also rely heavily on Evernote and IFTTT. I use Feedly instead of Flipbook, but it is a similar type of application. Would you please explain in more specific details how you “like” something on your Kindle and use IFTTT to send the article to Evernote? I have a Kindle Touch. I also send web pages to my Kindle to read later using the Send to Kindle browser plugin, but I cannot determine how to “like” a PDF or book on my Kindle. For books I can rate them, but I cannot determine how to find my rating online so it could be used as a trigger in IFTTT. Thank you in advance for your help. Amie

    • http://criticalmargins.wordpress.com Kevin Eagan

      Amie, I’d love to explain further how I’m liking articles and sending them to Evernote via my Kindle Paperwhite. First, I read articles I collect on the web by saving them to Instapaper. Instapaper creates a weekly “magazine” of my articles and sends them to my Kindle Paperwhite via the “send to Kindle” feature. At the end of each article, Instapaper adds options: “Archive,” “Like,” or “Like & Archive.” I click “Like & Archive,” and if my WiFi connection is on, it will like and archive the article for me.

      The second step is to send the Liked articles to my Evernote account, and that’s when IFTTT comes into play. Since IFTTT is a service that takes something from one service (in this case, “If I like an article on Instapaper…”) and performs an action on the other service (“…create a note in Evernote”). IFTTT takes some getting used to, but there is a recipe available that performs this action for me automatically. Here’s the link to it: https://ifttt.com/recipes/13597. I can also customize each note to have specific tags and other metadata.

      Hope that helps clarify. Once it’s set up, it’s a one click action to get everything organized — a journal of your online reading!

      • Amie Harpe Longstreet

        Hi Kevin,

        Thank you for the additional information about Instagram. I will investigate further how this might fit into my workflow.

        Also, for you and your readers, I want to attest to the value of BitQwik as mentioned below by Robert Oschler. For heavy Evernote users, BitQwik is a must. I have been using for about one month now. Though it is still in beta, the BitQwik developers have been very responsive to customer feedback and bugs and improvement opportunities. Robert is the founder of BitQwik and has been excellent to work with on enhancing this search front end for Evernote.

        Amie

        • http://criticalmargins.wordpress.com Kevin Eagan

          I’ll have to check it out, then. I think it’s cool that Evernote allows for so many innovative products to come out that helps us organize our lives so well. Appreciate the comments!

  • http://bitqwik.com/ Robert Oschler

    Hello Kevin,

    Great post on using Evernote and IFTTT to simplify your information management tasks. If you run Evernote on Windows or have Fusion/Parallels/etc. on a Mac, then I believe you’ll find BitQwik to be of interest. It is an artificially intelligent search assistant for Evernote users that lets you search your notes using plain English sentences instead of having to master Evernote’s complex search grammar. For example “Show me notes from criticalmargins.com that are tagged with IFTTT and were created this month” is a perfectly valid request. It’s a free app that you can find here along with plenty of information and screenshots:

    http://bitqwik.com/

    If you have any questions, feel free to contact me,
    Robert Oschler(the author of BitQwik)

    • http://criticalmargins.wordpress.com Kevin Eagan

      Thanks for posting about that. I’m sure many of my readers will find that product interesting!

  • http://phillipmccollum.com Phillip McCollum

    I’ve been using Evernote for the past few months and love it. Finding IFTTT recently made it even more useful and now you’ve introduced me to Flipboard! Looks great…. Now I just need to buy a tablet at some point.

    • http://criticalmargins.wordpress.com Kevin Eagan

      Flipboard is good but it can be very distracting, so be warned! If I’m at a computer, I just stick with good ol’ Google Reader to find content. IFTTT and evernote just help me get it all organized. Thanks for reading!

  • http://mattmaldre.wordpress.com mattmaldre

    Wow. Your process is more streamlined than mine. Whenever I see something I like I create a pdf using Chrome. I use Chrome, because I can adjust the margins. I always slide the right margin over so half the page is blank. That gives me plenty of space to write. And the smaller column makes the text more easy to read on my iphone. Of course, if i used Evernote/Instapaper to read, the fonts would self-adjust on the iphone. But I really enjoy writing notes in the margins of the pdfs using the Goodreader app.

    That’s the key for me. Being able to write notes either by hand (with a stylus) or making a text box with notes next to the text in the margin.

    This style of notetaking makes it much less social, but it also makes the sharing more intentional. Less social, because my notes don’t instantly go somewhere on the web for others to read. But more intentional, because I have to intentionally share the pdf with someone else. That is a much more personal act of sharing notes. Kinda like sharing a book.

    One of these days I’ll figure out how to more easily post my notes online. But I suppose that’s what blogs are for. That way people don’t get unfiltered notes (which can be boring. Just check out my twitter account @spudreads for my unfiltered kindle notes). But by writing a blog post about the notes, that makes me reprocess what would really be interesting to other people, and not just myself.

    • http://criticalmargins.wordpress.com Kevin Eagan

      This style of notetaking makes it much less social, but it also makes the sharing more intentional. Less social, because my notes don’t instantly go somewhere on the web for others to read. But more intentional, because I have to intentionally share the pdf with someone else. That is a much more personal act of sharing notes. Kinda like sharing a book.

      That’s a good point. Maybe that’s the missing element in social sharing online. If we kept it in one file and shared it out to specific people, it’s more controlled, intimate, and like sharing a book.

      I’ll follow spudreads to keep up with your reading notes. Great idea!

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  • http://Jane.dallaway.com janed

    It isn’t clear if you are Mac or PC based. If Mac then I wrote a (non-optimised) applescript to take a My Clippings.txt file and output separate text files for each book mentioned. I blogged about it here – http://jane.dallaway.com/kindle-getting-the-notes-and-highlights-for-a

    There is also an applescript called NoteScraper at http://technosavvy.org/software/ which targets evernote specifically.

    Hope these are of use!
    Jane

    • http://criticalmargins.com Kevin Eagan

      Thanks! I use both Mac and Windows so this helps.

  • http://mattmaldre.wordpress.com mattmaldre

    Janed, thank you! I’m very much going to try your applescript.

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  • charlesscalfani

    We built a tool that you might find useful in organizing information. It’s called Dabitat (www.dabitat.com).

    Checkout the explainer video: http://youtu.be/WceOr90sHWM
    And our Getting Started video: http://youtu.be/MiZiKNPhfxI

  • Katrina L.

    This is a great post, Kevin. It’s detailed and very helpful. I agree that we are in a new era of reading and e-book readers especially Kindle have become a hot commodity. I would like to share an app that will make it easier for Kindle users to read and share their notes and highlights all in one place.

    Snippefy (www.snippefy.com) is an iOS app that will be released on November 2013. Through this, annotations and highlights can be shared in various social media and can be exported to Evernote, Dropbox and emails as well.

    I hope you and your readers will find this app useful.

    Thank you

    • http://criticalmargins.com/ Kevin Eagan

      Thanks, Katrina. I don’t use iOS (I’m an Android guy) but many of my readers do. Sounds like a nice project.