How to Search Your Entire Book Collection With This Evernote System

Evernote is an amazing tool for storing, organizing, and searching within your digital notes. But if you’re like me and read a lot of physical books etc., wouldn’t it be useful if you could search inside those books from within Evernote, too? Let me give you a couple of examples.
Imagine being able to search your physical books for passages about climate change, but only in books about business. Or articles about the Himalaya in travel magazines that you have stored in a box.
In this article, I’ll show you how to do just that. And no, it does not involve the terrible idea of digitizing all your physical media (thank God).
Common Advice That Isn’t Ideal for Mortals
You can try saving scanned passages into your Evernote library. Many Evernote gurus recommend that. This might work if you have a ton of time on your hands, or if you rarely read. But it’s not as convenient as flicking through a book or magazine to find what you’re looking for.
You can also try manually typing up each of the passages you’re interested in. This works, but only if you have the time and tenacity to see it through. For most of us mere mortals that love to highlight huge passages, typing them up by hand is asking too much.
To solve this problem, I’ve started creating notes in my Evernote library that act as indexes for the books, magazines, and reports I read.
Each of these indexes corresponds to an individual book, magazine, etc. on my shelves. This allows me to search for topics within every one of those physical media in a few seconds.
Start Creating Book Indexes When You Read
I first started creating personal book indexes after reading a 2007 blog post from Tim Ferriss on how to “Take Notes Like an Alpha-Geek“. Tim said,
“[…] information is useful only to the extent that you can find it when you need it.”
This idea was then expanded on in a podcast Tim recorded with Maria Popova of Brain Pickings. It’s well worth a listen.
When it comes to creating your own indexes, it couldn’t be simpler. When anything jumps out at you as you’re reading, rather than quickly highlighting the passage then reading on, do the following:

Flick to one of the empty pages at the front or back of the book.
Write one or two words about the subject the passage relates to.
Jot down the corresponding page(s) right next to it.

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By the end of the book, you’ll have something that looks like this (though maybe a little neater).

For magazines or reports that don’t have a blank page, create the index on a separate sheet of paper, then attach this to the inside cover.
Save and Tag Your Indexes in Evernote
When you finish a book, create a new note in Evernote with a title that makes it obvious that this note contains a book index.
Example: “Book Index – Lost Japan (by Alex Kerr)”.
In the main body of the note, manually type up your index. I prefer to prefix each topic with “BI.” (standing for “Book Index”). This means that searching Evernote for “BI.Minimalism”, will only bring up book notes with passages relating to minimalism. Other notes won’t get caught up in the search results.
I also tag the note as per my Evernote organization system, which I’ve written about before. This system keeps my library organized no matter how many notes it contains.
It involves a tag explaining the type of content contained within the note, and tags stating broadly what topics the note covers. In the case below: culture, and history.

Why Not Rely on OCR?
At this point, it’s worth noting that for premium users, Evernote offers optical character recognition. Evernote can search the text contained within images with OCR. If this worked perfectly, you could upload a photo of your hand-written index to your note, and Evernote can then search that image for text.
This sounds amazing in theory, but in practice, I’ve found it’s not particularly reliable. If your photo isn’t up to par, or (more commonly) if your handwriting isn’t legible enough, then Evernote will not be able to scan the images of your index for text.
Plus it can take a long time for Evernote’s servers to get around to scanning your images, which can be frustrating.
Also, try it yourself to see how manually typing an index like the one above will take less than 10 minutes. You can make sure there are no typos. And you can be confident that if ever you need to stop using Evernote, then your book indexes will still be searchable, even if your next notetaking app doesn’t provide OCR.
That being said, if you wanted to go even further, you could photograph the printed indexes at the back of each of your books. It might take a few days for Evernote’s servers to get around to scanning those photos. But by uploading these to individual, descriptively-named notes, you’ve made all of those previously unsearchable indexes, searchable from within your Evernote account.
Searching Your Indexes
When you need to search all your personal book indexes at once, it’s seriously easy.
Want to find passages relating to “nature”? Search Evernote for “BI.Nature” (adjusted for the taxonomy you decide to use). As you can see below, this search showed me that I have more than one book on my shelves with interesting passages on this subject. By clicking on the note itself, I can see the exact page(s) to turn to to find those passages.

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You can use this organizational system to make your book search more granular.
For instance, if I want to search for passages relating to “nature” specifically in books about “history”, this is possible, too. A search for the relevant tag (for me that would be “3history”), and “BI.nature”, will throw up the required results. In this case, I only have one match.

Squeeze More Value Out of Your Information
Given the amount of information we all consume, there’s a very real problem with memory and recall. This is particularly important if you’re a student or knowledge worker who has a ton of information that you need to keep organized.
It is so easy to forget what we read, watch, and see with the information bombardment on our brains. Which is why it’s so important to capture the content that we deem valuable. We should be able to access those ideas again in the future and make connections between them, with as little resistance as possible.
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