Seeing the myriad of note-taking software out there, it is not easy to find the right tool for a specific purpose. One way to categorize note talking software is to look at how the software stores the note. Technically, they fall into two categories:

  1. Database storage
  2. File system storage

This short note explains the two approaches to note-taking by means of two chosen free software tools: Zotero and Tp-Note. The latter is presented more in detail.

Database storage

Database storage based systems are recommended when the note's metadata is highly structured. One representative of this type is Zotero, a widely used open source database for scientific articles. The user enters bibliographic references in a relational database that can be exported in various formats which differs depending on the scientific journal the article is published. Zotero also allows to store all kind of documents in the database. Once the metadata is structured and entered in the system, one can formulate detailed queries and the above mentioned report generator can export formatted bibliographic references. Both save a lot of time. What has this to do with note talking? Well, the user can associate free text notes to a reference and tag it with customizable labels.

File system storage

At the other end of the application range is software, that stores notes directly in the file system. To apply this method, you do not need necessarily dedicated note-taking software: Any word processor or text editor will do. Why should one use in 2021 such an archaic note-taking method? It is true the concept of file systems with tree structured directories goes back to the year 19541. But despite its age, the hierarchical file system is still the most intuitive way to store data, analogous to a traditional office filing cabinet. Every file is part of exactly one directory2 and has therefor a precise location in the file system. The major advantage of storing notes as files is, that the note can be kept “physically” in the same folder where all the other subject related files reside. This way notes can be handled like any other file and copying, moving and editing does not require extra skills from the note-taker.

Even though filenames in modern file systems can have 200 and more characters, when notes are stored as files, their meta-data is per se limited. Here comes Tp-Note into play: Tp-Note is a free note-talking template system — written in Rust — that operates invisibly in the background: it can be seen as a clipboard extension that adds a “Save as Note File” command to the file-explorer's context menu. Tp-Note's meta-data is stored as YAML UTF-8 encoded plain text in the file's header. This header is constantly synchronized with the note's filename facilitating its later retrieval. Tp-Note's content is written in Markdown by default.



Extrait of a discussion on Reddit3:

I've started to take lots of notes but my approach was inversed: found about Obsidian, then started to learn about md basics and it's quirks (not in the format but in lack of one standard), then started to learn about people's workflows with seconds-brain and Zettelkästen... and then a friend showed me org-mode, and org-roam and now my soul is sold.

Good to hear. Besides Tp-Note I am using Zotero a lot. I also tried some graphical tool, but it revealed to be of little use.

In this process I've never spent any time on thinking about file system.

I guess, it really depends on what the object of your concern is. For me, most of the time, I refer to documents and artefacts that are already on my hard disk. This is why I like my notes to be stored next to them. Or, I take notes about an extract of a webpage. Tp-Note is optimized for these kind of workflows.

Read more

A good start is Tp-Note's project page, the introductory video or other blog posts about Tp-Note. The source code is available on Gitlab - getreu/tp-note and some binaries and packages for Linux, Windows and Mac can be found here. To fully profit of Tp-note, I recommend reading Tp-Note's user manual. When you like Tp-Note, you probably soon want to customize it. How to do so, is explained in Tp-Note's manual page.

Next week in this series about Tp-Note: How to get around Tp-Note's limitations related to file system storage.

1 See Wikipedia Folder metaphor

2 This limitation can be circumvented with hard links and symbolic links (or “shortcut” in Windows terms).

3 Discussion with user drudan_forest added 2021-01-22.