Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 19: Archiving Notes

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Welcome to my blog series, “Practically Paperless with Obsidian.” For an overview of this series, please see Episode 0: Series Overview.

Why bother archiving notes?

During the years I used Evernote, I accumulated more than 12,000 notes, most of them still sitting in my Evernote notesbooks to this day. My goal then was to see if a paperless lifestyle was really possible, so everything went into Evernote. Over time, this resulted in some interesting observations:

  • Of the 12,000 notes I put into Evernote, between 100-200 were notes that I used on a regular basis (that’s about 0.8 – 1.6%)
  • Another 100-200 notes were notes that I used periodically, usually annually, but sometimes more frequently.
  • The rest of the notes I almost never touched or even looked at. That means I collected around 11,500 notes (96% of all the notes) that I never put to any use.

This created some unexpected problems:

  1. It takes time to get a note into Evernote, whether dragging a PDF onto a note, scanning a document, or setting up some automation to get a note into the system. I was scanning in documents that I was never looking at again. That’s a waste of time.
  2. I had a process for processing a note — tagging it, updating its create date to reflect the document date, etc. I did this for every note I put in Evernote. But again, since I actually only used less than 2% of the notes I put in, this was also a waste of time.
  3. The notes, having been captured in Evernote, and parsed by Evernote’s search system to make the notes searchable, added a lot of noise to my searches. That is, these notes that I never used and never looked at would show up in search results because of some keyword in the document or note somewhere. This impeded the process of finding notes that I was looking for.

Evernote did not have a particularly good mechanism for identifying notes to archive. Ideally, what I would have liked to do is a search for all notes that were not viewed in a given period of time. Alas, while Evernote has the concept of a “create date” and an “updated date” for a note, it does not have a concept for “last viewed on” date. That made archiving tricky–too tricky for me to waste time trying it on the volume that I had to deal with.

As I began to migrate from Evernote to Obsidian, I had these problems in mind, and I was determined not to fall into the same trap with Obsidian.

One way to do this was to reframe my original goal with Evernote. There, I was experimenting to see if completely paperless lifestyle was possible. It was, but it generated a lot of unnecessary notes and noise. When I began using Obsidian, I asked myself, what would a paperless lifestyle look like in a practical sense, as opposed to an extreme? A few ideas came to mind:

  • my notes would be working notes in that they contributed in some practical way to my day-to-day work and life.
  • some of these notes might be part of an historical record, even though they might not be used every day (think: older daily notes, journals, etc.)
  • some of these notes would be “permanent notes” in the Zettelkasten way, and while I might not access them everyday, they would become part of a useful personal knowledge system.

Perhaps most important: I needed a mechanism for keeping my notes “working notes.” I needed a way to review my notes and archive ones that are no longer active.

Retiring notes

First, what does it mean to archive? For me, archiving a note is a way of taking it out of active duty without losing it entirely. I think of it as “retiring” a note. A note or set of notes contains accumulated knowledge. That knowledge may no longer been needed on a day-to-day basis. It woudl be useful to have a way of archiving those notes so that they didn’t clutter up searches.

The framework I’ve evolved (through much trial and error) for organizing my notes provided a clue for how I might retire notes, and get them out of the way without losing them. Recall from Episode 18, that within Obsidian, the vast majority of my notes end up in one of three folders: _attachments, _documents, and _slipbox. The rest of my organization is hierarchy to maps of content (MOC) notes that provide context and links to the notes in those three folders

To that framework, I have added a new folder, which I call _archive. Notes that are ready to be retired can be moved into this folder. By having all of my retired notes in a single folder, I can use Obsidian’s query language to exclude anything in that folder from a search. For instance, if I was searching for all notes tagged with “taxes” and only wanted my “active” notes (that is, notes that are not retired), I could run the following query:

The first part of the query is important. As you can see in the search explanation, I am deliberately excluding anything in the _archive folder. This takes care of the noise problem I had in Evernote. For common searches, you can imagine setting up saved searches each of which is prefaced with that exclusion pattern.

This nice thing about this is that the notes don’t really go away:

  1. They are right there in the _archive folder should I happen to need them.
  2. I can still surface them in searches them by leaving off the path exclusion.
  3. Because I move them into the _archive folder, any links to the notes are automatically updated by Obsidian.

Identifying notes to retire

Unopened notes

For me, this is the tricky part. I’d prefer a hard-and-fast rule. MacOS and Linux, for instance, can track when a file was last opened, which is different from when it was last updated. This is an important distinction. Once a note is in place, it often doesn’t change. The only empirical way I can tell if I looked at is to look at the last opened date on the file.

Example of a search for files last opened more than a year ago.

The problem is that Obsidian (on MacOS, at least) does not seem to update the last opened date of a note when the note is opened in Obsidian. I think this is worth a feature request and I made such a request on the forums recently. Other MacOS apps will update the “last opened” date when the file is opened. For instance, a PDF opened in the Preview app will update the last opened date on a note, but viewing that same PDF in Obsidian does not update that date.

The reason that date is important is because it would allow me to setup a query, at the very least at the OS level, to find all notes that have not been opened in more than, say, one year. These would be good candidates for retirement.

Of course, that is first cut, and fairly liberal. A more conservative search might be all notes that are not in my _slipbox folder that have not been opened in more than one year. Over time, that query could be refined. Periodically, I could move any matches to the _archive folder.

Manual review

Short of that, a manual review would be required. Fortunately, because my goal for Obsidian is different than Evernote (practically paperless, remember?) I don’t put nearly as many notes into Obsidian as I do Evernote. I keep the practical stuff in Obsidian. That means in the first 14 months that I’ve been using Obsidian, I’ve accumulated just 900 notes — and even some of those are probably worthy of review and culling.

There are a few things that can help this manual review. One is look for notes that haven’t been updated in more than a year. That provides something to look at, but it is not as good as being able to look at notes that haven’t been opened in more than a year.

Regardless of how I end up identifying notes to retire, the process, once identified is pretty simple:

  1. Add a YAML frontmatter key to the note to indicate which folder the note was originally located. This extra step makes it easy to put the note back in the right place if it ever needs to come out of retirement.
  2. Move the note into the _archive folder.

Not everyone needs to, or wants to archive their notes. My experience shows that, for me, this is useful to keep my notes in working order, and to avoid clutter. It was something I thought about as I began bringing my notes over from Evernote. I haven’t yet started to archive notes in Obsidian, but I have a framework in place for when I am ready to do so.

Next time, in Episode 20, I’ll discuss how I’ve been experimenting and making use of the Dataview plug-in. See you back here in a week!

Prev: Episode 18: How I Organize My Notes
Next: Episode 20: Experimenting with the Dataview Plugin

Written on February 21, 2022.

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One comment

  1. Great article; as is the whole series!

    I was wondering what you did with attachments that were referenced in notes you archived.
    Do you just leave them in the _attachment folder or do you move them into the _archive folder as well?

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