The Weekly Playbook #4: Finishing a Notebook: Transcribe or Scan?

For an overview of this series, see the debut post on my morning routine.

Background

I am rarely without a Field Notes notebook in my back pocket. Several times a day, I pull out my notebook to jot something down: an idea for a post; notes from a podcast; the names of people I meet; items to pick up at the grocery store; the name of the server in the restaurant we ate at; funny lines I hear at a gathering. I do this so that I can remember these things later. Some of them find their way into posts I write, some into stories. Other things are more ephemeral, but even a server’s name in a restaurant can be useful if I am searching for a character name in a story.

I’ve filled more than 30 of these notebooks since 2015. They sit in a nice row on a shelf in my office. Occasionally I go back to them, to look for something, like when I was searching for a particular brand of beer recently. The problem is, I only have access to them when I am sitting here in my office. It would be nice to have access to them no matter where I was.

my 30 completed field notes notebooks with an index notebook on top
My 30 completed Field Notes notebooks, with an index notebook on top.

This weekly playbook is a kind of experiment. I began with the idea that I wanted to be able to access these notes anywhere. I had two ideas:

  1. Transcribe the notebooks into Obsidian, where my other notes live, or
  2. Scan them into Evernote

I decide to try both in order to see what worked better for me. The playbook section below has the procedures I followed for each. In each case, I used my most recently completed notebook, book #30. I’ll describe my findings in the commentary.

Playbook

Transcribing notebook into Obsidian

  1. Create a Field Notes folder in Obsidian
  2. Create a new note called “Book 30 – March to June 2021.
  3. Begin typing in the notes using the following guidelines:
    • Make each “day” a header in the notes
    • If my handwriting is unintelligible, put question marks and move on.
    • Wherever I have a dividing line in my notebook, include a divider in the notes file
    • Use only one file per notebook

Scanning notebook into Evernote

  1. Create a Field Notes notebook in Evernote.
  2. Using the Scannable app by Evernote, scan in all 48 pages of my notebook #30, including the cover and inside cover.
  3. Once scanned, put the note in the Field Notes notebook
  4. Title the note “Book 30 – March to June 2021”
  5. Set the create date of the note to March 1, 2021
transcribed notebook page in obsidian
A transcribed notebook page in Obsidian
scanned notebook page in evernote
A scanned notebook page in Evernote

Commentary

It probably took me an hour to transcribe the first 15 pages of the Field Notes notebook into Obsidian. After an hour I stopped. It is easy enough to estimate that a full notebook would take me a little over 3 hours to transcribe.

On the other hand, it took about 15 minutes to scan the entire notebook into Evernote using the Scannable app. (I think Evernote’s Scannable app does a slightly better job at scanning than the regular iOS app does.)

For me, the Evernote scan is the better over all option. There are several reasons for this:

  1. It is quick enough to make it worthwhile. Investing 15 minutes to have the contents of the notebook available to me anywhere is a worthwhile investment of time. 3 hours is a little much. I am not likely to invest 3 hours, but 15 minutes is no big deal.
  2. The notebook really is available anywhere. The screenshot above is from my phone. I can flip through the pages just as I can with any PDF.
  3. Scanning preserves everything in my notes, include occasional sketches and diagrams that I make.
  4. Evernote uses its AI to attempt to make the PDF searchable. It is supposed to be able to recognize handwriting. I made several attempt, but I think my handwriting is too messy. Still, for people with very neat writing, the notebook is searchable. I keep the notes in their own notebook in Evernote for this reason: when I want to search for something in a Field Notes notebook, I can limit the search to notes in the Field Notes notebook so that I don’t get results from other sources.

There are a few cons to using Evernote over Obsidian:

  1. The notebook is not as searchable as it would be if I transcribed it into Obsidian. I could probably find things faster in Obsidian.
  2. My notes would be in plain text format and could be manipulated like any plain text.
  3. I could do more dynamic linking of my notes to other notes using Obsidian. (You can link to other notes in Evernote, but there is no practical way to do this in scanned documents.)

Another consideration is that I want to get my entire backlog of notebooks in a format that I can access anywhere. Transcribing 30 notebooks into Obsidian would be an investment of nearly 100 hours of my time. Scanning 30 notebooks into Evernote is an investment of 7-1/2 hours. From a practical standpoint, this is a no-brainer.

Then, too, since the notes already exist, they fit into the model of using Evernote for curation and collection, and using Obsidian for creation.

Remember, my goal at the outset was to be able to access the notebooks from anywhere. My goal wasn’t to make them as searchable as they could be. I’m fine flipping through a PDF to find what I am looking for. It usually doesn’t take very long, so it seems like the investment in time to manually transcribe all of my notes would be overkill.

Going forward, when I finish a notebook, I’ll follow the procedures for scanning that notebook into Evernote.

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5 comments

  1. I used to scan my BuJo into evernote every week. The book type I use has varied over the years. I’m currently using Leuchtturm1917 A5, but I used to use Field Notes. The search feature in evernote, despite my awful handwriting comes up with a bunch of false positives, but has on occasion gotten a really good hit. Since I’ve moved my GTD management over to RoamResearch I’ve taken to transcribing my notes on almost (?) daily basis, but I finish the week in my weekly review on Sundays. This takes a considerable amount of time, but not 3 hours. I do not transcribe the entire thing. As an example: Often when I do technical interviews (I do a lot of those) I do not transcribe them. I simply note the fact that I had an interview and the candidate’s name and the page number. I’ve found the search feature here has really served me well. Also it auto builds agendas: I tag items I need to discuss with people with their name and then in a 1:1 I just go to their page and view their tags. There is still some discipline here to build, but I feel the value, so the habit will come.

    The other value for scanning is during my weekly review I look back on every note created a year prior. When photographing my notes they show up here and that is really valuable, but I’ve also taken to just keeping last years book at my desk so I can look at the actual writing which I find I pay more attention to than the images in evernote. I’ve stopped photographing them, so in future I’ll need to use the actual books.

    It’ll be interesting to see how your experiment goes long term.

  2. I like this approach. I feel like I want to have a sustainable use case for Evernote in my workflow, and this reinforces the capture approach you wrote about.

    One thought about the search challenge for your notes is that you could transcribe just the items you find helpful at the time after scanning them into Evernote.

    So if you were looking for that beer brand, you could add that as a note in Obsidian for subsequent reference, and perhaps even link back to the Evernote note with the scanned notebook.

    So, in other words, scan into Evernote as a first step. Then, if you need to reference something in the scanned notebook, and may want to reference that again in the future, you could transcribe that one item into a note into Obsidian. 🤔

    1. Paul, your suggestion has given me an idea. Rather than have 2 sources to search, I think what I’ll do is list out bullet points in the Evernote note that the notebook is scanned into. The bullet points will be a list of “search terms” for that notebook that might matter to me. I’ll include the page number with the bullet. That way the note comes up in a search (a kind of index to the notebook) and I can use the bullets to figure out which page of the PDF to look at. I’ll give this a try with the next notebook I finish.

  3. That makes sense! It would be great if we could link directly to a specific page in a scanned PDF. In the meantime, a sort of paginated contents section makes sense!

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