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Mastering the reading to knowledge pipeline with Omnivore
A guest post by Dario da Silva
If you’re reading this, chances are you’re at least peripherally aware of the practice of personal knowledge management, or PKM. Perhaps you have a written journal where you jot down your ideas, or you tinker with a digital note-taking application in your spare time. There is a growing community of enthusiasts who, like you, are building systems to manage the continual stream of information that characterizes modern knowledge work, and life in general.
The term ‘PKM’ is amorphous. It encompasses all the activities by which we make sense of the information we encounter. An emerging niche of writers and content creators is sharing strategies to help us manage this information effectively, thereby building useful knowledge.
Productivity blogger Tiago Forte, recently released his book, ‘Building a Second Brain’, in which he introduces a four-part method for managing knowledge, described by the acronym CODE—Capture; Organize; Distill; Express.
The takeaway? You should capture and organize information from your sources into a trusted system, distil the essential insights, and express them publicly to improve your retention and understanding.
Building robust systems for the first two steps - Capture and Organize - lays the groundwork for a successful PKM practice. We simply take notes on the information we come across and arrange it for future use. Everything else naturally follows, depending on our individual circumstances.
For the majority of us, reading is the main avenue for encountering new information. Today, a significant portion of this content is consumed digitally, presenting a unique set of challenges. Omnivore helps you overcome these hurdles and leverage your reading to build an effective personal knowledge management practice.
The challenges of digital reading
Let's not overstate the matter. Reading itself is straightforward: we see text, we read text. The primary challenges are not in the act itself but rather occur upstream and downstream of our engagement with the text.
1. We encounter reading materials in a multitude of spaces
Reading is no longer an activity for the couch or the bedroom, where we pick up a book or magazine and float away. It is deeply connected with our devices, as we increasingly consume content on our mobile phones, tablets, or PCs. The medium has shifted from physical paper and ink—books, magazines, and journals—to blogs, PDFs, emails, and 'newsletters'.
Omnivore counters this by becoming the universal gathering point for all the interesting content you stumble across on your digital journeys.
It presents you with a single reading inbox, which can be easily filled with content. Rather than adding articles to the black hole that is your browser's bookmarks, simply click a browser extension button, and save the website to your Omnivore inbox. You can even share Twitter threads to Omnivore.
Are newsletters cluttering up your email with unread items? Subscribe to those newsletters with an Omnivore email alias, and they will be all filtered into the same reading inbox. You can also upload PDFs with the same email alias to this inbox.
2. We encounter far more information than we can realistically process
We're all faced with information overload. There will never be an end to the articles we'd like to read, the latest developments that we'd like to keep abreast of, and the Twitter threads that promise health, wealth, and happiness. We're constantly making decisions on what we want to read, but how do we organize this information for future use?
Bookmarking is a helpful workflow to create lists that enable us to return to the information later. But in a world where our browsers have morphed into ‘do-it-all’ tools, bookmarks lose their value. They become cluttered amidst a messy array of unactionable items, many untouched for months or years, others lost forever in the chaos. If we're reading in our email inbox, we're constantly making micro-decisions to move past our unread items to action other emails.
Omnivore assists in reducing the decision-making burden that comes with information overload.
It embraces the concept of ‘easy capture, downstream decide’, allowing you to quickly capture content to not break your flow, and then decide on its importance downstream. This approach helps reduce the 'fear of missing out': you can easily scan your reading options, then filter and triage content. This reduces the urgency bias of an open browser window, and, in turn, improves the quality of the material you choose to read.
3. Our interfaces are not convenient for reading
Reading on your computer is a distracting experience. All the open browser tabs are calling for your attention, ads are trying to sell you something, and every website displays differently (with their favorite quirky font). In your email inbox, you're constantly distracted by new mail, and the thought that you might need to be doing something else. Any added friction amplifies our challenge of carving out time to read, amidst the ongoing tug-of-war for our attention. The unpleasantness of reading on an interface not designed for the task can create enough hindrance that to skip altogether.
Omnivore offers an appealing, user-friendly reading interface that strips away the ads and visual clutter synonymous with online content. It also allows you to personalize your reading. Simple customizations, such as preferred font, size, and background color, all play a part in removing the friction of consuming digital content. There is cross-platform support, allowing you to transition effortlessly, from adding articles on your computer to reading on your mobile phone or tablet (for those like me who prefer not to read on a computer screen, this is a game-changer).
4. Reading is a ‘lossy’ process.
We often come across gems of information while reading - quotes, anecdotes, or well-articulated ideas. These in turn spark their own observations and insights, which could be useful in our daily lives. But if we don’t take notes on them, they are soon forgotten.
(Side note: One could argue that if you can’t remember it, it couldn’t have been that important to begin with. But that assumes that the human brain’s ability to recall information is correlated with the importance of that information. Memory doesn’t work like that, as there are multiple factors behind how information gets stored in memory).
It’s better to build simple systems to capture insights as they arise. By practising active reading habits, such as highlighting and annotating key passages of text, you build a resource of notes that you can draw upon as you go about your daily life. These notes form the building blocks of a PKM system, which helps you review or re-discover them in the appropriate context. Active reading also improves retention, as opposed to passively absorbing the words on the page.
Omnivore plays a key role in building an effective personal knowledge management system. But before we delve into its utility, we have to take a step back and look at some of the note-taking applications that are gaining traction in the PKM arena.
Building a personal knowledge management library in Logseq or Obsidian
In a post on Omnivore, why are we talking about Logseq and Obsidian? Well, note-taking is an important part of the PKM process, but it’s not Omnivore’s primary function.
Both Logseq and Obsidian provide robust and feature-rich environments to collect, manage, and utilize your knowledge effectively. They have well-resourced development teams with strong communities, and their functions extend beyond mere note-taking. Importantly, they’re both freely available, making them accessible to the general public.
Both use linked knowledge graphs that work on locally stored Markdown text files. Markdown is a popular plain text format that is widely adopted and easy to use; even Google Docs is expanding its support for Markdown. The Markdown text files, recognized by the ‘.md’ file extension, are stored on your computer. Importantly, it's a format that is here to stay, given its wide acceptance and simplicity. There is no risk of platform lock-in, as you can open your files in any text-editing application. While there are other popular PKM applications such as Roam Research, Notion, and Evernote, they all store your information in proprietary formats and have expensive monthly maintenance fees.
The challenge with both Logseq and Obsidian is in the integration process—getting your highlights and annotations from your reading materials, along with their original context, onto the application. Even in the digital age, the effort of exporting, importing, and editing from a device into your notes application is enough to be off-putting. While a bit of friction in your workflow might be beneficial for information retention, it's critical to distinguish this from the drudgery of tasks that can be automated.
Omnivore is designed to remove unnecessary friction, enabling you to read and take notes on the platform and synchronize them automatically to your chosen PKM tool.
Using Omnivore as an 'ETL' layer for your reading notes
In the realm of data engineering, Extract, Transform, Load (ETL) refers to a process in database management that involves extracting data from different sources, transforming it to fit operational needs, and then loading it into the end target database or data warehouse. Much like the concept of ETL, Omnivore functions similarly for your reading notes.
With Omnivore, you can build a library of valuable information by highlighting passages and taking observational notes. These are fully searchable and can be easily shared with others. You can then integrate these notes in either Logseq or Obsidian. Moreover, Omnivore allows you to customize your data exports to fit your unique workflows, ensuring a seamless transition of knowledge.
Omnivore is not trying to replace other PKM applications, but rather to work with them. Consider it a bridge between your biological brain (or 'first brain'), and your digital 'second brain’, an input layer that simplifies the information processing journey.
Final thoughts: PKM and Omnivore; A perfect match
Having a personal knowledge management system is a simple, yet effective life skill. You’re building a personal database of insights; a digital memory bank of notes that you can draw upon at any time. These notes become the seeds from which long-term fruit emerges, benefiting you in your personal and professional contexts. Omnivore will simplify the way you capture and organize your notes, helping you plant those seeds and build this invaluable resource that will serve you a lifetime.
Omnivore has transformed my digital reading experience. Where online content previously felt overwhelming and inaccessible, I have come to enjoy the variety of items in my single Omnivore inbox. It is a personal magazine of sorts; a platform to quickly browse an array of content, engage with what piques the interest, and easily discard/archive the rest. The interface encourages active note-taking, enhancing your engagement with the text.
Finally, you can rest confident in the knowledge that your insights are easily accessible in the PKM application of your choice.
Omnivore is a worthy addition to any PKM workflow. Better yet, it’s currently free to use - as good a reason as any to give it a try.
Another benefit of Omnivore is that it is open-source. If you're familiar with code, this provides you the freedom to clone or "fork" the software, thereby ensuring its longevity based on your personal requirements. You can also self-host Omnivore, and there is good documentation to get you started.
Dario da Silva is a software and systems consultant with experience across multiple industries, including civil engineering, management consulting, education, and non-profit organizations. You can discover more on his YouTube channel or on his self-paced course about note-taking with Logseq.