Collecting Stuff from Around the Web: how I use Apple Notes as my Digital Scrapbook

Working in research, I collect lots of stuff from around the web. Websites, articles, PDFs, images, etc. This is in addition to anything I might find personally interesting and want to save.

For years, I experimented with different options for hoarding these these tidbits of information as a way to create my own digital scrapbook. I wanted a single location in which I could compile information, either to analyze it further or to return to or share with others later.

I’ve experimented with a variety of third-party bookmarking, collection, and “read later” apps, but all had drawbacks. Some had horrible UIs, many didn’t handle all the types of information I wanted to collect, and some were either very expensive or poorly maintained (or both).

More recently, I’ve realized that many of the third-party apps have really bad privacy policies, making my information accessible to the developer or for marketing purposes.

Finally, I hesitate using any third-party service to save trove of information that is important to me as I fear if the developer no longer supports the app, my data could disappear.

The Apps I Use
There are several main apps I use as part of my workflow to collect, process, and save information. I’ve settled on these apps after trying many others. Ironically, my workflow has ended up being almost entirely Apple stock apps, but it certainly did not start this way. I have tried a plethora of third-party apps, only to discover that the stock apps I had all along worked the best. That said, my workflow could be adapted to any app stack that includes a web browser, task management app, bookmarking storage solution, and writing app.

Safari. My browser of choice. Native to the devices I use, it works the best for “sharing” content to other apps. I don’t use the bookmark or read later features in Safari though, as saving content here doesn’t make it searchable later. I also cannot annotate things I save. However, Safari has a range of export functions and plays nicely with the other apps I use and works perfectly on my Mac, iPhone, and iPad.

Apple Reminders. I’ve tried all the major task management apps out there. I was a Things3 user for quite some time, but started using Apple Reminders for the first time when iOS 13 came out. Reminders has useful features that Things3 does not, such as location-based reminders, attachments, and shared lists. It works great with Siri, making it easy to speak a reminder into my Apple Watch when I need to be hands-free. Plus it leverages my iCloud storage and doesn’t rely on yet another service that could access my information. And it’s free.

Apple Notes. This is what I use as my bookmarking/digital scrapbook app. It’s free, as private as you can get when relying on cloud storage, and (most importantly) does what I need. As I explain in my workflow, this app works great for saving large amounts of information for later use, in large part thanks to its robust search functionality.

Bear Notes. This is the only third-party app in this workflow but it’s one I love for many reasons. First, it leverages the iCloud storage I already pay for and is private (relative to other note taking apps). Second, it’s pretty inexpensive and well worth the money it costs. Third, it’s fast and beautiful to look at on all my devices. It’s THE app I use every day for writing.

My Workflow
A lot of my workflow using these apps developed over time to suit my needs. However, I’ve often found it helpful to see how other people use these or similar apps. Sometimes I will take little things from someone else’s workflow and incorporate it into my own. I do not think you should ever copy someone’s workflow entirely. Rather, work on developing your own to meet your needs, but look to others for inspiration and ideas.

Here are several articles I have found helping as I’ve tweaked my own workflow for using Apple Notes as a digital scrapbook:

How I Analysed Over 1,400 Articles in 6 Months Using Apple Notes
Turn Apple Notes Into A Free AI-Powered Personal Filing System
Using Reminders and Notes to Save Links
How to Use Apple Notes as a Research Tool

General overview of my workflow

Step 1. Most of the content I read or want to read is in Safari (or in an app that allows me to open the content in Safari such as the Apple News app). If I come across something I want to read but can’t do so at that very moment, I add it to Reminders using the share sheet extension. Anything that needs to be read or processed goes to a “Read Later” list in Reminders. Items in this list are reviewed on a daily basis. If something is unimportant it might remain on that list for awhile, but when something needs to get read, it gets assigned a to-do date.

Step 2. If after reading the item I decide I want to keep it, the item gets “bookmarked” (saved) in my Apple Notes digital scrapbook.

From Safari I use the share sheet extension to send the item to Apple Notes. Generally speaking, each item gets its own note with just the weblink in a rich hyperlink format. When I save the note this way and do not add any other text, the rich hyperlink will also generate a title for the note based on the article’s title. Occasionally I will have a very specific project or activity I’m working on and will put several hyperlinks into a note. The nice thing about these rich hyperlinks is that they look so nice and are easy to scan even when multiple links are included in a single note.

After the note has been created, I will paste into the note any key information from the article that I want to make readily available or be included in any search results. This also helps me remember why I saved an article to begin with.

Sometimes, if an article is really important or I want to make sure the information is permanently saved, I will print the Safari webpage to a PDF and add that to the note I have created with a hyperlink. This not only creates a permanent, searchable record of the entire article in Apple Notes, but it also allows me to annotate the PDF when I’m reading it.

Another option for saving an article is to use a shortcut that “clips” the whole article into a note. I really like this shortcut and do use it. The trick, however, is to save the rich hyperlink first using the share sheet extension and then go back to the article and use the shortcut to “clip” the article to the same note. This is the result, and I really like how it looks:

Finally, I will add tags. Tagging is optional in Apple Notes because the search functionality is so good. But I have found tags helpful when amassing a collection for a particular reason. For example, if I am working on a project related to paleontology, I can create a special tag just for that topic (`#paleontology`) and be able to return articles only saved for that specific purpose, eliminating articles that may have the same word but not be exactly on the topic I’m researching. This is a good way to filter out noise when searching.

One thing I like about Apple Notes is that I can view my saved items as either a list of notes or a “gallery” view. The latter *almost* feels like a mood board. It is visually more appealing to me than a list of notes.

The search function in Apple Notes has been phenomenal. Putting in any search term returns not just notes that have that search term but also attachments. I’ve never had trouble finding what I need in Apple Notes due to its incredible search functionality. For me, this was THE thing that allowed me to use it as a digital scrapbooking app, as I knew I could always return and find what I need.

Step 3. Any writing and analyzing is done in Bear. I do not use Apple Notes for writing or analyzing what I’ve saved for a few reasons. First, I don’t find Apple Notes efficient for long-form writing. It’s great for clipping, saving scanned documents, and writing short notes, but for actual written work I don’t like it as a writing environment. Also, it has a limited number of export formats and doesn’t use Markdown, my preferred method for writing.

Bear is used for all my written drafts and writing. The app uses iCloud, so I know my information is about as private as it can get. The writing environment is clean and I love Bear’s tagging system. The tagging and ability to link to other notes and headers within notes means that I can link concepts and ideas easily. Exporting can be done in a variety of formats which is very helpful if your work has to be sent elsewhere (as mind does). I’ve recently started experimenting with backlinks in Bear. While Bear does not yet have an automatic way to enter backlinks, I’ve found it easy enough to go into a note I’m linking to and create a backlink. I mean, if Luhmann had to do all his backlinks by hand, I can’t really complain about a few keystrokes to make my own. It helps that Bear has made it so easy to create wikilkinks.

One unintended benefit of doing my writing and analyzing in a separate app is that my search results within Apple Notes doesn’t get diluted with all my written work.

This system has evolved over time and I am constantly making little tweaks in how I do things. However, I’ve been using this general approach now for about 2 years and it has served me well. While I’ve toyed with some other apps during this time, particular for bookmarking purposes, I’ve never moved away from Apple Notes because it just works.

My Tips and Tricks for Using Apple Notes (or any app) as a Digital Scrapbook

Avoid complex folder systems. I have a few main folders in Apple Notes but otherwise just dump everything I want to save from the web or elsewhere into a single folder within Apple Notes (called “✂️ Web Clippings”) and let my tagging and the search function do the work. Often times, an article I’m reading will cross multiple topics for which I might have made folders (e.g., an article about #healthcare` might also cover #poverty). With a folder system, I’d have to make a decision of where to file the article, but with tags, I can add tags for both relevant topics and find the article as dictated by my search.

Keep a record of tags. Tags are great but can get messy when not automated. I have a pinned note in Apple Notes that contains a list of all the tags I’m using. This keeps me from accidentally creating multiple slightly different tags for the same thing. I got the idea to keep a list of tags from this article, which also describes a shortcut that can be used to facilitate the tagging of notes. But whether you use this shortcut or not, it’s helpful to keep a running list of tags used.

A workflow is just as important as the apps you use. Having tried tons of third-party apps, I realized that my workflow was just as important as the apps I use. As long as the apps are easy to use and have the basic features I need, my workflow is the real powerhouse.

Experiment with shortcuts. I am not a programmer at all, but I’ve taken a little time to learn Apple Shortcuts. Most of the time, I copy shortcuts other people have posted and adapt them to my needs. There are a few shortcuts I use with Apple Notes and Reminders that I find helpful. Shortcuts aren’t necessary, but depending on your workflow and needs they can speed things up. I’ve found some shortcuts to a bit overkill, but others to be very useful. Experiment and figure out if any are right for you.

Be mindful with what you save and perform regular housecleaning. It’s easy to quickly collect a lot of stuff in a digital environment. To avoid this, I try to be mindful about what I save. This is the purpose of putting things I want to read into Reminders, as it ensures that I take the time to consider if the information is something I may want to return to at a later date. Then, I perform housecleaning on the information I do save.
About once a month I spend a little time going through Apple Notes and deleting anything I no longer need. This is really important because constantly dumping information into a system can make it quickly become unwieldy.

Link stuff. Linking notes in Bear is easy, but it’s unfortunately a bit difficult with Apple Notes. I’ve been playing around with this shortcut to generate links to notes, but I’ve also found in Apple Notes that you can get a link to an individual note by attempting to add a person to the note and clicking “copy link.” You don’t actually have to share the note with anyone, but you might need to enter an email address into the “share with” box before I can actually copy a link to the note. This is one thing Apple really needs to improve upon but it is there. Regardless of what system you use, have a way to link information, whether it’s with tags, a master list of articles on different topics, or something else. Thinking of how disparate information might be connected is key to good analysis.

Other Apps/Services Considered for Digital Bookmarks/Scrapbooking

Fortunately or unfortunately, I didn’t immediately arrive to the conclusion that Apple Notes and Apple Reminders (coupled with Bear) were the best apps for my needs. This is largely due to the fact that Apple Reminders and Apple Notes only recently improved to the point where I found them useful. So for years, and even very recently, I experimented with third-party apps. Here’s my perspective on some of those that I’ve tried.

Evernote
Like many people, this was my first digital note and web clipping app. It was great for its time but it became incredibly bloated over the years. And as we learned more about privacy, it became clear that this app presented a huge issue for anyone even remotely concerned about privacy and security of their personal information. I ditched Evernote years ago and never looked back.

Pocket
I used Pocket for years to bookmark and save articles that I read. Pocket was great for news articles, but it didn’t do a great job of handling and sorting other types of information. The tagging and search features were clunky and I just never found the app that visually appealing, especially not for the price. I found its search functionality very hit or miss. The user interface on the iPhone felt very disorganized and I soon discovered that it didn’t do a great job of handling things like Tweets or Reddit posts. I decided that the app wasn’t worth the cost, particularly since most of the “premium” features weren’t ones that I used.

KeepIt
I wanted to like this app given its Apple-centric focus and UI. But I just didn’t. It felt more like a sloppy version of Apple Notes. Also, the app does not seem well maintained and it constantly crashed on me. The web clipper function worked OK until it started crashing, and the folder structure seemed very outdated. I deleted this app when it crashed each time that I tried to save something in it.

Bear
I love Bear for note taking and writing, and its web clipper function works great in my experience for when I need to save an entire article in a note, images and all. However, how well it handles websites seems to vary significantly, with some infomration getting saved perfectly and others looking like a hot mess. And most of the time I don’t want to save all the text from an article. Bear’s webclipper definitely has its place when using information from the web in writing, but for me it does not work well as a dedicated bookmarking/digital scarpbook tool. I gave it a try though, as I wanted to make sure I didn’t already have something that would work for this purpose.

Notion
I played around with this hot new do-everything app and attempted to use it for storing bookmarks (among other things) but didn’t stick with it. I know, Notion is awesome and can do anything. But for me that is precisely part of its problem. It just does TOO much. I found it overwhelming and way too time-consuming. It is sort of a notetaking app, but not really. It can work as a bookmark manager, but not smoothly. Getting information into Notion, especially on my iPhone where most of my reading is done, had so much friction. And then organizing involved so many options and steps that I was nearly paralyzed. The iPhone app is not great (feels like a scaled-down web browser) and because I do so much on my iPhone, this was a dealbreaker.

But what finally broke me away from even seriously considering Notion was its atrocious privacy policy. Nothing in this app is private or secure. In addition, getting your information OUT of Notion is nearly impossible if you ever decide you want to leave the service. No thanks.

Raindrop.io
This app was my favorite in terms of visual appeal, functionality, and overall features. It looks great, whether on the computer, web, or iPhone. Its web extension works perfectly in my experience, and gives you the option to tag or file weblinks before dumping them into the app. Overall, it was the best bookmark manager I tried. No matter what I put into it — PDF, webpage, tweets, YouTube videos, etc — Raindrop can handle it. I did a side-by-side test with Raindrop and Apple Notes, comparing its search functionality off each and they both did equally well in this regard. Nothing was missed. However, the dealbreaker for me was Raindrop’s privacy policy. Lots of information is collected from and linked to the user. I’m not saving anything crazy here, but I feel like what I save is a direct look into my brain and I don’t like it. It’s a shame because search functionality and UI are really nice, but I am just not willing to give up that much privacy and information to a developer. I wish I could have some privacy expert give me advice here on whether this privacy policy is as bad as it seems, but from a lay perspective it really turns me off, especially considering this is a paid service. A related issue is that any attachments are saved to Raindrop’s servers. When I’m already paying for iCloud, this seems redundant and pretty absurd.

MyMind
This is a very new service and I was excited to get an invite to give it a try. On the surface it sounds really cool — a bookmaking service that uses AI to index and make content searchable. The concept here is that you simply dump stuff in and let the service do the work of tagging and indexing everything for search. The moldboard aesthetic of this app is really appealing and the app does a decent job of saving information (I particularly liked the way saved Tweets looked on the mood board). I found the search functionality to be absolutely astonishing. For example, I saved an example of a room that I liked. I didn’t tag it and the image didn’t have any words associated with it. I later searched for “grey” and the image immediately popped up, because the walls in the room were painted grey.

That said, there were a lot of issues with MyMind right off the bat. It has an iPhone app but the app has no dark mode or any customization (right now it just feels like a stripped down version of the MyMind website). Saving links using the sharesheet extension is SLOW and sometimes things didn’t save. Some social media sites, such as Reddit or Instagram, create weird looking bookmarks or don’t really save at all (just creates a link to the main home page but not the actual content saved). I realize the service is still new and invite only but there are a lot of bugs here that need to be worked out.

The app is also not cheap, at $119 a year. But I would be willing to pay this if I knew my information was private. Turns out, it’s not really. They claim to have no ads or tracking and to always be private. However, their actual privacy policy says otherwise.

While this app could have potential, their privacy policy combined with a steep cost make this a no-go for me. I think the app has promise but only if they can address these issues.

Conclusion

Apple Notes is a fantastic app for creating a digital scrapbook and saving information from around the web. When I first started using Apple Notes for this purpose, I did so because I needed to move away from Pocket but hadn’t yet found something else that I liked. I was quite surprised to discover how well Apple Notes worked for this purpose and have been using it ever since. While there are plenty of apps out there that can save information from around the web, don’t discount the free, powerful, and flexible Apple Notes. It can work really well when incorporated into a good workflow. For now, Apple Notes will remain my app of choice for saving infomration.

Enjoy sharing my thoughts with others about iPhone, iPad, productivity, and all the fun apps and products out there on which I spend way too much money.