Organizing Your Research with DEVONthink Pro Office

Devonthink Pro Office Logo

When it comes to organizing research, the humanities scholar has any number of options.  Most of us need to be able to organize a mix of notes, images, articles, and other kinds of documents in a way that allows us to group them in different ways.  My academic friends all have different methods for doing this.  For example, some use Zotero and others use Word Documents and search them via OS X’s spotlight.  I have tried both of these and I eventually decided that DEVONthink Pro Office (available for OS X) makes the most sense to me to store the ten thousand or so items that make up my dissertation research.

While I spend quite a bit of time with this software every week, I am not an advanced user.  However, its basic features allow me to organize my research in a way that lets me see big chunks of it at the same time from a variety of different groupings and view options. Once the sources are in DEVONthink Pro Office, it largely gets out of the way so that I can focus interpreting the sources.  The application’s ability to group, tag, and search documents as well as convert documents to full text makes it useful to me and has made my writing process easier.

What is DEVONthink Pro Office?

DEVONthink Pro Office allows you to create a database for your research.  You can drag and drop your files into it, takes notes on them, search the database, and organize your stuff without leaving the program.  I do a lot of research in digital archives, which DEVONthink Pro Office handles well – you can save items directly to it without having to download the item first and then drag it into your database. If you take digital images at brick-and-mortar archives, you can also import those images into your database. Once they are in your database, you can combine multiple images in a single multi-page PDF, and if it is a typed document, have DEVONthink Pro Office create a full text version for you.

General Organizing

One of Devonthink Pro Office's standard database views

My dissertation research in the DEVONthink Pro Office database. This is the view I use for browsing all my sources.

The basic structure of the Devonthink Pro Office database looks familiar – it is a series of folders that you create to hold different sources (mine includes typed notes, videos, photographs, scanned articles, etc.)  Since my project relies on a historical narrative, the dates of the sources are important to me, so I put that information into the “Spotlight Comment” field, which allows me to sort my sources by date within a specific folder.  After the date, I usually put the source’s bibliographic information into this field as well.

Tagging and Smart Groups

When trying to figure out which sources are compelling to group together, I find DEVONthink Pro Office’s Tags and Smart Groups helpful.  As I read through a source, I tag it with relevant categories – like the date they were created and various topics that they engaged with.  Then, using a Smart Group, I can ask the program to retrieve all the sources that meet various criteria.  So, for example, if I want to see what material I had gathered that was created in 1963 and was about Buddhists in Vietnam (both tags I had used), I can see them all at the same time.  Other times, if I am writing against a deadline, I will create a tag just for the chapter I was writing.  As I tagged new items with that tag, they appear in the Smart Group and I can see how the chapter is developing at a glance.

I do the majority of my work from the “Smart Group” View.  Once I use a source, I use a label (a slightly different categorization option from a tag) to mark it as “Used in Draft” or “Unimportant,” or I will remove the tag and kick it out of the Smart Group.

Searching and Full text OCR

Tagging items is made far easier by DEVONthink Pro Office’s excellent search function.  (I originally had used Zotero for my research about four years ago, but its search wouldn’t pull up words from within my notes – that’s why I switched to DEVONthink. However, this might be fixed in a current version of Zotero.)  DEVONthink Pro Office quickly searches everything you have, and then you can easily add tags to it.  What makes this search better is DEVONthink Pro Office’s ability to convert digital documents to full text PDFs. Once the program converts them, you can search within them. While this conversion can take a long time if you are working with a lot of PDFs at once, I often just start it running before I go to bed and wake up to full text documents.

DEVONthink Pro Office does so much more than what I mention here, but for me, these basic features, plus the speed at which the application accomplishes them, keeps me from switching to a different option.

Other Resources

Rachel Loew’s explanation of how she uses DEVONthink Pro
Shane Landrum’s thoughts about DEVONthink Pro Office


I am always looking to improve how I work with sources, so how do you organize your research?  Feel free to leave a comment to get the discussion started.

If you’re interested in reading about organizing your research, you might find the following posts helpful: Comparing Research Managers — Zotero, Evernote, and DEVONthink Pro OfficeFive Reasons to Use Evernote for Academic Research, and Doing Academic Research with Zotero.

About Evan Cordulack

Evan Cordulack is a Web Applications Specialist for Academic Technology. He helps faculty members with Web-based projects related to their research and teaching. He earned his PhD in American Studies at William & Mary in 2013. Find him at


  1. Bruce Campbell says:


    I’m glad to see DevonThink spreading on campus. I use it, though as Gene has pointed out, it is quite complex. Still, as a Mac convert looking for a substitute for OneNote, DevonThink is a good substitute, and opens up new vistas. (Now, if it, and the rest of the Mac ecology, would only get “inking”….)
    One thing I want to warn everyone about: DevonThink is not always clear about where files are stored, and back-up needs some thought. You can assign a location for your other databases, but be careful: the “Inbox” is a separate database, which is always stored separately, in [user]–>Application Support–>DevonThink[version]–>Inbox.dtBase2
    —it is easy to overlook when doing back-ups. If you are not always good about sorting the inbox contents into your other databases, and/or forget it when backing up other files, you could potentially lose data–as I found out when I lost the SSD in my MacBook Air.

    And Evan, thanks for the link to Rachel Leow’s blog–she has a three part discussion of how she uses DevonThink as an historian–if readers here follow the link, they should be sure to read the other two posts as well.

    • Hi Bruce, great tip about the backups! As much as it pains me to admit it, I have had two harddrive crashes that took a lot of information with them because I wasn’t backing things up, but both were before I started using Devonthink. Were you able to salvage your research after your SSD issues?

  2. Ken Choma says:

    Thanks Evan for an interesting article.

    Even more thanks for showing the use of dates in the spotlight comments – I am also researching at the moment, and need to date sources and see them in smart groups. I hadn’t thought of using the spotlight comment area.
    Excellent tip!

    • Hi Ken, thanks for the note. I am not entirely sure if how I use spotlight comments is the best use of them, but it is really helpful to be able to sort chronologically if your dates are YYYY/MM/DD. I have also tried tagging everything by year. That worked at first, and was great for getting an overview of what sources I had collected (and forgot about) over the years. However, when it came to writing about certain events, I needed to be able to see things down to the month and day rather than just the year. Good luck with the research and if you uncover good ways to do things in Devonthink, let us know!

  3. Since both Gene and Julia mentioned the price, I thought I should add it here. There is a 25% educational discount for Devonthink Pro Office (which originally costs $150). If you don’t care about the OCR (converting things to full text), then there are also cheaper versions of Devonthink. Here is a link to the educational pricing:

  4. Gene Roche says:

    I’ve been using DevonThink Pro for a while now, and the price and steep learning curve make it a pretty specialized product. The feature list is intimidating to the casual user–this is one piece of software that requires at least some time with the manual to get the most out of it. My favorite feature is the Sorter–a little icon that sits on my desktop and that allows me to drag just about any kind of file into a global inbox. When I go into DevonThink I can move those files into the appropriate project. OT handles PDFs, images, OmniGraffle files and everything else that I throw at it. I have multiple large projects going on at the same time, and this has emerged as the best tool that I’ve found for keeping track of things.

  5. I’m glad to hear about Devonthink… I’ve heard a lot of buzz about it. What do you think about the price of the software?

    I already have 100 other things that distract me from dissertation writing, and it seems like moving my hodge-podge word doc/evernote system into Devonthink would take a lot of time. I know there is a long trial period, but what happens if you spend all that time moving everything into Dt, only to hate it? Would you think about using the software when starting a new project?

    I really want to find a better way to organize my research. I have an incredibly intricate folder system going on my desktop that I like mostly because it is local and faulty internet won’t screw me. But, it can be cumbersome, and I find that I repeatedly download the same articles that I already have stored. There has got to be a better way!

    • Hi Julia–thanks for the comment!

      Yeah, Devonthink is expensive, although I am glad I use it. Since so many sources that make up my project are printed/typed (circa 1960), the integrated OCR makes my life way easier.

      I absolutely agree about not switching systems in the middle of a project. I switched to Devonthink a few years back. Since then, Zotero has had a lot of updates and does new/cool things. I always want to go check it out, but since I already have something that I am comfortable with, I don’t want to spend the time moving things around.

      How do you use Evernote for your research? I have heard of people doing it, but never seen it in action.