Tools of the Trade: Evernote

Evernote is one of those tools I really wanted to like and use when I first heard of it, but after playing with it for a while, I decided I really had no need for it.  I was teaching then, and I had all the files I needed organized neatly in folders and synced between my tablet and my home desktop.  Cool concept, right tool, wrong time.

Fast forward to September 2008: I’m now a school psychologist, responsible for a case management load of over 70 students.  I started using one of my first “Web 2.0” loves, Tiddlywiki, to help keep my notes on each student organized.  As much as I liked it for maintaining plain text notes, that’s really all it could do without further tinkering.  Linking to local files was too time-consuming, and God forbid I move a file – broken & useless link.

When I switched schools in January, I also switched note-keeping tools.  Looking for something a little more robust than Tiddlywiki, I dusted off my Evernote install, updated to the latest version, and began to play.  My trial period turned into a love affair.

How We Roll

Within a given account, Evernote allows you to create “notebooks”, and within each notebook, you have “notes” – think of them as a neverending stack of index cards.  Like Tiddlywiki, these notes can accommodate plain text, hyperlinks, bullets, number lists, etc., but Evernote also allows you to drag and drop files into your “index cards”.  Users with free accounts are restricted to dragging and dropping images, audio, ink, and PDF files, but if you are a paying user ($5/mo or $45/yr), you can drag any kind of file AND have Evernote synchronize so that your files are accessible from any computer with Evernote installed, the Evernote website, or your mobile phone (via either a mobile site, Windows Mobile app, or iPhone app).

In my quest to go as paperless as possible at work, I scan a lot of documents to PDF.  When I drag them into Evernote, I can view the document directly in Evernote via their baked-in PDF viewer (courtesy the good folks at Foxit, maker of my PDF viewer of choice).

Relevance to School Psychology

Ours is a profession that depends greatly on paper trails and written documentation.  Evernote is a convenient, paper-free method of storing information in just about any medium you may use.  From an organizational standpoint, here’s an example of how I’ve set up some notebooks on general topics:


This screenshot is from my home computer.  The notebooks with greyed-out icons are local-only; the green icons indicated synchronized folders (I access these from my computer at work, too). As you can see, I’ve set up separate notebooks for business cards, documentation regarding my certification status in both NJ and PA, information on doctoral programs, our local Polytech program, and even a repository of research articles I have encountered over the years.

Beneath these notebooks are individual notebooks for each student on my caseload.  Any time I need to record pertinent information for or about a student, it goes directly into Evernote.  I have a clipboard & pen that saves my written notes as PDFs, so even when I am without my computer (e.g., a classroom observation), I can still write down what I need to, save it to PDF, and drop it from the clipboard’s SD card right into Evernote.

I have even been able to digitally record important information, compress the wav file, and archive it here.  Who needs a stack of cassette tapes lying around when you can keep it all here?

Even if you don’t wish to set up several notebooks, you can use Evernote as a “brain dump” and use their search function to find what you need when you need it.  Their OCR technology even allows you to search the text in PDFs and photographs.

Of course, privacy and confidentiality are also important.  Evernote blogged about this here, and they also post their privacy policy online.  As an additional security precaution, information within notes is encryptable.


Evernote has been a great organizational tool for this psychologist over the two months I’ve been using it.  It’s essentially a digital file cabinet that I’ll never even get close to filling – I’m a paid member, and even after syncing a ton of PDFs and quite a few zipped .wav files, I still only used 160 MB of my 500 MB monthly limit this month (free members get 40 MB/mo).  Maybe a good analogy is to think of Evernote as an iTunes for your notes and documents – sure, you could open up separate folders and click on individual mp3s to listen to music, but isn’t it easier to manage them all in one central location?


  • Sounds like a good setup. I’m curious what your thoughts are on privacy, both legally and ethically. I’d love to use more online tools, but I cringe at the idea of storing student data on external systems. Seems like there’s really nothing protecting you if their sys admins feel like reading through files, if a disgruntled employee publishes their data, if they load data on a laptop which is then lost or stolen. It’s a balancing act, deciding when to use external systems.

  • Hi Dave,

    You’re absolutely right; balancing convenience of access with privacy is a tricky issue, and not one I took lightly before using this service. I linked to Evernote’s Privacy Policy in the post, and the Data Security section (too long to quote here) gives what I believe to be a reasonable assurance of privacy as to the data, both in terms of electronic and human interference. Also, since I am a paid member, all data transfer is encrypted with HTTPS (apparently not true of free accounts). As I understand it, that’s a lot more secure than the daily email communications we all have with parents and colleagues.

    Of course, you’re right in that a rogue employee could throw a monkeywrench into the works (as could an employee of Google, Microsoft, AOL, or any other email/online communication provider). I would argue that that risk exists in any data storage situation, online or off, but it’s still not a risk to be ignored. I imagine the two best solutions to that would be to either a) encrypt all text notes or b) keep folders with sensitive information strictly local. A limitation of the encryption option is that right now, only plain text is encryptable, but personally, I don’t have any external files (e.g. PDFs) with sensitive information in my Evernote.

    You’ve given me food for thought; thanks much. I’m wondering if keeping the individual student notebooks local to my work computer and just syncing the general info notebooks to home a better option for the time being. What external systems have you considered but not yet implemented?

    If any Evernote reps are monitoring this blog post, I invite you to post a comment; you can speak to the security of your service much better than I.

  • I’m just an Evernote user, not an rep, so I’m afraid I can’t chime in on the topic specifically of Evernote.

    That said, I run an online password manager so I intimately understand tricky it can be to protect online data. We use what’s called the Host-Proof Hosting pattern. Essentially it combine local encryption with online storage so that once on the server, the “hosts” themselves can’t read what’s there:

    Would be overkill for the entire Evernote application, but might be nice to have an option of an encrypted section of notes for the particularly sensitive info.


    Tara Kelly’s last blog post..FIXED- found & fixed a bug wi…

  • Thanks for the info, Tara. Plain text is encryptable in Evernote via an option on the right-click menu, but as I said, that doesn’t account for files stored there. Maybe one day; a quick Google search shows that many people have been clamoring for a more secure Evernote for quite some time.

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  • […] If memory serves, credit for this idea has to go to my cooperating teacher during my student teaching experience in the fall of 1998.  I started my folder toward the end of that semester, and have been contributing to it here and there for 13 years now.  In fact, given the broad scale shift to digital communication in that time, I even started a separate feelgood folder notebook in my Evernote. […]

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