Open Source Musings The thoughts, ideas, and opinions of an open source guy

Taking notes with Laverna

A person taking notes with pen and paper

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t take notes. Most of the people I know use an online note taking application, like Evernote or Simplenote or Google Keep.

All of those are good tools, but you have to wonder about the privacy of your information — especially in light of Evernote’s great privacy flip flop of 2016. If you want more control over you notes and your data, you really need to turn to an open source tool. Preferably one that you can host yourself.

And, yes, there are a number of good open source alternatives to Evernote. One of those is Laverna. Let’s take a look at it.

Getting Laverna

Head over to Laverna.cc. You can:

  • Host Laverna yourself
  • Use the web version
  • Download a desktop application

In case you’re wondering, there’s no mobile app. An Android version is under development, but there’s no indication of when it will be ready.

Since I have nowhere to host the application, I’m going to focus on using both the web and desktop versions of Laverna. Aside from the installation and setting up storage (more on that soon), the experience with a self-hosted version of Laverna is the same.

Getting started

If you want to start using Laverna right away, click the Start using now button on the front page of Laverna.cc. Or, launch the desktop application.

On the welcome screen, click Next. You’ll be asked to enter an encryption password (which lets you secure your notes, and get to them) and to specify a way to synchronize your notes. I’ll be talking about synchronization in a moment, so enter a password and click Next.

The Set Password screen in Laverna

You’ll be asked to log in with your password. When you do, you get a blank canvas.

Laverna's main window

Storing your notes

Before diving into how to use Laverna, I’d like to walk you through how to store your notes.

Out of the box, Laverna stores your notes on your computer in your browser’s cache. The problem with that is when you clear the cache, you lose your notes. You have two other options for storing your notes:

  • Dropbox, which is a popular web-based file syncing and storing service
  • remoteStorage, which is a way for web applications to store information in a secure location somewhere in what people call the cloud

Using Dropbox is convenient, but it’s proprietary. On top of that, there are also concerns about privacy and surveillance. Laverna encrypts your notes before saving them, but not all encryption is foolproof. Even if you don’t have anything illegal or sensitive in your notes, they’re no one’s business but your own.

remoteStorage, on the other hand, is kind of techie. There are few, easy-to-use hosted remoteStorage services. I use 5apps, which provides 1 GB of free storage. 5apps will probably add a paid tier sometime in the near future, but for me it’s good enough for now.

To change how Laverna stores your notes, click the hamburger menu in the top-left corner and then click Settings. Then, click Sync.

Changing the way Laverna stores your notes

Select the service you want to use, then click Save. After that, click the left arrow in the top-left corner. You’ll be asked to authorize Laverna with the service you chose. Once you’ve done that, you’ll need to log back into Laverna.

You’re probably wondering about synchronization. This is important if you want to use Laverna across multiple devices. I’ll be explaning this in a moment or three.

Using Laverna

With that out of the way, let’s get down to using Laverna. Create a new note by clicking the New Note icon. The note editor opens.

Creating a note in Laverna

Type a title for your note, and then start typing your note in the left pane of the editor. The right pane gives you a preview of your note.

Writing a note in Laverna

You can add formatting to your notes using Markdown. If you don’t know Markdown and want to learn it, check out my book Learning Markdown. Or, you can use the toolbar at the top of the screen to add some basic formatting.

You can also embed an image or file from your computer into a note, or link to one somewhere on the web. When you embed an image, it’s stored with your note.

When you’re done, click Save.

Organizing your notes

Like some other note-taking tools, Laverna lists your notes with the last one that you created or edited at the top of the list. If you have a lot of notes, it can take a bit of work to find them.

Instead, you can group your notes into notebooks. Using notebooks, you can quickly filter your notes based on a topic or a grouping.

When you’re creating or editing a note, you can select a notebook from the Select notebook list in the top-left corner of the window. If you don’t have any notebooks, select Add a new notebook from the list and type the notebook’s name. You can even make that notebook a child of another notebook. Let’s say, for example, you maintain three blogs. You can create a notebook called Blog Post Notes and have children named for each blog.

To filter your notes by notebook, click the hamburger menu and then click on the name of a notebook. Only the notes in the notebook you click on appear in the list of notes on the main page.

Contents of a notebook in Laverna

Using Laverna across devices

I use Laverna across three devices: my laptop, a Chromebook, and a tablet powered by Ubuntu Touch. Getting them to use the same storage and, therefore, have access to the same notes takes a little work but it’s not difficult.

First, you’ll need to export your settings. To do that, log into the wherever you’re using Laverna right now and then click the hamburger menu. Click Settings and then click Import & Export. Under Settings, click Export settings. Laverna saves a file named laverna-settings.json to your device. In case you’re wondering, JSON is a popular way to exchange data that both machines and people can easily read.

Make the JSON file available to the other device or devices you want to use Laverna with by emailing it to yourself or syncing the file across devices using a service like ownCloud or Nextcloud.

If this is the first time you’ve used Laverna on that device, click Import on the splash screen. Otherwise, click the hamburger menu and then click Settings > Import & Export. Click Import settings. Find the JSON file with your settings, click Open and then click Save.

Laverna will ask you to:

  • Log back in using the password you created when you first set it up
  • Register with the storage service you’re using

Repeat this process for each device that you want to use. It’s cumbersome, I know. I’ve done it. You should only have to do that once.

Final thoughts

Once you set up Laverna, it’s easy to use. The lack of a mobile app is a bit annoying, but in this case patience is a virtue. And I’m hoping that the developers can expand the storage and syncing options to include open source applications like Nextcloud and ownCloud.

While Laverna doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of a note taking application like Evernote, it still does a great job of letting you take and organize your notes. That Laverna is open source and supports Markdown are two great reasons for using it.

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