Anyone using PDF Files as their Notes / Knowledge Management Solution?

My main gripes with all of the “Knowledge Management” apps is that they aren’t designed to do what I need. I split my workflow into two areas:

  1. Day to Day Notes
  2. Long-Term Knowledge Management

“Day to Day notes” might include grocery lists, Amazon Locker PIN unlock codes, or a phone number to make an appointment with a new dentist. These are things I need to create, edit, and reference on the fly. And generally are not useful beyond a few weeks.

Long-Term Knowledge Management is stuff like:

  • I spend 5 hours researching tax code to figure out how to file specific tax forms. I want to document and summarize what I learned, to include some screenshots so next year, I can reference it

  • I do some client work with proprietary IT systems. I am allowed to take notes and screenshots, as long as they don’t include confidential data, however all screenshots are proprietary and I need to safeguard them. I can’t post unencrypted to the cloud. I might spend 3 weeks doing a project, and in 6 months might need to reference these notes.

  • I attend a seminar of whatever topic. I take notes, embed screenshots.

  • I travel to a new city and I put together some maps of the place. I take notes on what restaurants I liked, disliked, what I ordered, what hotels I stayed at, etc. In 5 years I might go back and can’t remember the thing.

All of the apps I’ve used try to do both of these things which makes them not great at either. When I’m opening a “long-term” document, I don’t want to accidentally edit it. Some apps have a read-only mode, and an edit mode which is nice.

Creating relational links can be amazing. For some things, but not every thing. I don’t want to backlink my Map of downtown Boise Idaho to my college psychological class notes. More than half of my long-term stuff, I don’t want to crosslink. Even if I disable crosslinks for some sections, if everything is in the same “vault” then Search will find a lot of irrelevant stuff to what I’m actually looking for.

There’s also the issue of platform lock-in for many apps.

Given all of this, I’m strongly considering creating a series of PDFs for all of my long-term knowledge management stuff. I can store them encrypted. They aren’t locked into a specific app. I won’t risk editing them by accident. I can create different PDFs for different “buckets” so cross linking and searching isn’t a problem.

The long-term stuff isn’t anything I need to edit on-the-fly. I envision the PDFs are created and edited on my laptop, synced to my iOS devices. I can use Apple Notes or Standard Notes for the day-to-day note tracking, which could include a note on edits to the PDFs. So if I’m out with only my iPhone, and I see the need for a change to one of my knowledge PDFs, I can document it in the Apple Note, and later when home, update the PDF.

I’m thinking of using Apple Pages as the PDF creator. It’s flexible in the editing realm. The documents can live as Pages files and be exported to PDF. If Pages ever “goes away”, I can export them as MS Word documents.

I dont have much experience with PDF readers other than Good Reader on iOS. The goal is to have this collection of PDFs that are accessible with me on my iOS devices and easily searchable.


I’m not sure best practices on how to handle the PDFs. I’m tempted to create one PDF per “bucket”

  • One for all travel-related stuff. When I’m in the travel context mindset, I might be visiting Boise but searching for ‘steak’ might be nice to have all of the steaks I’ve eaten in various cities for reference. Maybe I tried a different cut of steak in Chicago and want to try it again in Tacoma.

  • One for all client-specific stuff. This might wind up being 100+ pages since each project I work on generates 3 to 10 pages of reference material for future projects.

As I write this out, I wonder if I do actually need a third thing, to use Obsidian for the back linking / cross linking functions for things that it makes sense.

For example, if I take a seminar or read a book on a topic like marketing psychology, it doesn’t make sense to have this as it’s own PDF, or even as a PDF of every non-fiction book I’ve read. This is something I might cross-reference, unlike the cut of steak I ate in Chicago.

I write some fiction and non-fiction. The fiction might make sense as its own Obsidian or Scrivener document per specific writing project. I don’t need to crosslink the fictional city names from my Sci Fi story to my mythological story cities. Keep them separate.

But all of the non-fiction seems to be something that would work well in a single system. Psychology, Marketing, Finance, History, Philosophy, all could be useful in any non-fiction writing project. That’s the whole point of linking your thinking.

I generally don’t find myself needing to reference philosophy notes while I’m out and about from my iPhone.

I might be on-site with a client and need to reference client documents without my laptop present. I might be traveling and away from the hotel and want to reference the travel notes.

So maybe I actually need:

  • Day to Date Notes - using Apple Notes or Standard Notes. These are scratch notes.

  • PDF reference documents that I create and edit on my laptop and sync to mobile devices. They dont benefit from being cross-linked and have dis-benefit due to searching complexity.

  • A single separate Scrivener or Obsidian Vault per Fiction story / series / universe.

  • A universal non-fiction Obsidian vault for anything other than technical in nature. For example I dont need tax code specifics or how to dissemble the air filter from my Prius in this vault. Maybe this is described as a Non-Fiction “Concepts” vault with timeless information.

Now that I lay this out, I can see why compromises are made in these kinds of apps. Because there’s a cost and overhead to managing multiple apps and systems. It does seem to make sense to throw everything into a single app that isn’t necessarily great at everything but keeps you from having to deal with logistics of 4+ apps, some with a variety of “sub-vaults”

1 word: UpNote.

Try it.
Use it.
Buy it.
Love it.


I’ve found that I can’t make a single “everything bucket” work for me: “notes” encompasses too many different kinds of documents that I need for different reasons and / or need to reference in different ways. Also, I’m a packrat and I need the friction of a curatorial workflow to keep me focussed on the information I genuinely need to retain. (It sounds like you’re at least partway there already with your PDFs.)

That being said, if you’re looking for a comprehsive-ish note-making + repository solution, you might want to take a look at I use it in conjunction with Obsidian and Devonthink. All three apps are pointed at the same structured directories of markdown notes and PDFs, so I can use whichever of the three are best suited to the task at hand. (I use Devonthink for more than just notes management, so it’s pointed at a wider array of files than Obsidian / Notebooks.)


My solution is change tracking like that available in Microsoft Word and Google Docs. If I accidentally make some changes or deletions I just open an earlier copy. I’ve never used MS Word on iOS/iPadOS but Google Docs opens in read only mode so I have to select Edit to make changes.

Microsoft offers a “Personal Vault” on their cloud service and Google Workspace (not free gmail) has client side encryption available. But I have no idea if either of these would be acceptable to your I.T. department.

I will frequently link email, events, and tasks with documents. And occasionally I will “link” a group of documents by entering a unique keyword in each document. But I rely on Search to pull everything together.

PDFs may not be locked in a specific app, but keep in mind that certain features may not always be available. Annotations, internal links, URLs, media, etc. created in one app may or may not work in every other program. This shouldn’t be a problem if you are the only user, but could be if you are sharing these files with others.

I use multiple apps but with few exceptions I keep my “everything bucket” in the cloud.

You do have an interesting set of needs and restrictions. I’d like to hear about your final solution.

+1 …. Plus 20 characters

It does seem like you probably do want a version of an everything bucket, because an app that can handle different file types without friction is of value to your workflow. You’re saying the distinction in use is in the file type, not where a file is located, so putting it all in one app makes your workflow smoother because you only have one place to search?

That’s how I see it anyway. I do seem to have a setup very similar to what you’re aiming for, and I use DevonThink. My preferred file type is PDF like you - most my files are things I need to keep that shouldn’t be editable (except for annotating) and I prefer PDF for this. I even save the web articles I need as PDF.

When I write up my own permanent notes, I tend to write them in Pages and then export to PDF. There’s no particular reason I use Pages and I could easily write them in a different app than print to PDF, I just find Pages quick and easy. The point really is that I write up the notes, then export to PDF and file the PDF in DT. I delete the Pages file as it has done its job.

I also keep editable files (mostly Markdown) in DT. These are often reference files where information is evolving. I still need them for reference, but they cannot be PDF because I need to add or change things as needed. Examples might include notes on statistics I like to cite quickly (I’m a scientist), positions I’m thinking about (these gradually develop over time), notes I’m making on topics, processes I need to refer back to (PDF isn’t always best for this and it depends on context; some processes change frequently enough that PDF is irritating and it’s better to have editable steps you can amend at any time).

I have no friction over using the files, as they’re all in DT and I don’t need to know if the information is in PDF or Markdown because they’re together. This is a whole separate conversation but just to touch on it: I group my files by topic, but of course DT’s search function is top of the line. I’m just old-fashioned and like folder navigation.

Of course, most of what I just described is possible simply with native file management systems. One of the main values compared to native file management for doing it in an app instead is that, for DT at least, you can view the file contents without “opening the files”. This is very important as it makes retrieving information much quicker. (If you prefer to navigate by search, you definitely need a more powerful search app than the native system even if you choose that for your file manager.)

I think you are right to make a clear distinction with temporary notes and put them somewhere else. You don’t want all that noise in your main PKM. For me, I just use Apple Notes for this, and NotePlan (my task manager). Some notes get promoted to DT, but the final fate of most my Apple Notes is deletion and that’s intentional.

For interest as I’ve just looked, three quarters of the files I have in DT are PDF. Most the remainder are Markdown notes with a few emails and rich text files thrown in. You can see I heavily favour PDF for most things!


I have a similar workflow to @Pupsino. I take meeting minutes, which are permeant once they are completed. I happen to use Obsidian to write them ( I prefer Markdown and consistent editing across devices) but could easily use any editor. Of course, I then need to distribute the minutes to all attendees, so I generate a PDF and email it to everyone. I just save the PDF to EagleFiler, which makes it searchable along with all my other stuff. My Obsidian vault is not in EagleFiler and doesn’t contain anything else which should be, so the PDFs get the notes into my knowledge management solution quite effectively with no concern over accidental edits. In the event that a note does contain an error, I would need to correct the error, regenerate a PDF and email the update to everyone anyway. As the generated PDF is always saved to EagleFiler, the update is automatic.

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