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Information Item Management in Microsoft OneNote

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OneNote can be considered a robust hypertext information item management system, supporting usage scenarios ranging from simple note-taking to advanced collaboration. Industry analyst Peter O’Kelly explains OneNote's information architecture, along with options for creating or collecting information items in OneNote.
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Most people have an overwhelming surplus of digital stuff these days: documents, to-do lists, e-mail messages, diagrams, web page links (or excerpts), and more. While many people think of Microsoft OneNote as a simple note-taking application, the information model and tools embodied in OneNote are useful for a wide range of information item-related tasks.

In this article, we’ll take a quick tour of OneNote’s information architecture; later articles in the series will explain how OneNote’s architecture is also useful for collaboration, web content authoring, and other domains.

The Fundamental OneNote Model

OneNote’s conceptual model is focused on notebooks, sections, pages, and information items. The example in Figure 1, based on the Personal notebook (an example notebook which is installed for all OneNote 2010 users), contains one open notebook (“Personal”), two sections (“General” and “Unfiled Notes”), and four pages (“OneNote keeps track of,” “OneNote Basics,” and two other pages included in the page index on the right-hand side of the window).

Figure 1 The OneNote Personal notebook.

The OneNote page example in Figure 1 contains several information items, including a mix of text (in different fonts, type sizes, and colors) and images. OneNote’s editing model uses a free-form canvas, so you can add information items anywhere on a page.

Figure 2 shows options on OneNote’s Insert tab, which is used to create new information items of various types. As the variety of options in the Insert tab suggests, OneNote is useful for much more than basic text note-taking.

Figure 2 The OneNote Insert tab.

To highlight some of the types of information items OneNote supports, following the list in Figure 2:

  • OneNote’s editing surface is essentially an unlimited digital canvas; you can insert more space wherever you need it.
  • Tables can be inserted, although they’re more layout-oriented than tables in database or spreadsheet applications.
  • OneNote supports images (e.g., embedded bitmaps) and includes a handy screen-clipping tool (with which, for example, all of the figures in this article were captured).
  • Link types include web-centric URLs (Uniform Resource Locators) as well as links to traditional files (e.g., in the local file system).
  • In addition to file links, files can also be attached to (inserted into) OneNote pages.
  • Other file options include file printouts (with OneNote acting like a virtual Windows printer) and scanner printouts (if your PC is connected to a scanning device).
  • OneNote supports audio and video recording (assuming your PC has a microphone, for audio, and a webcam, for video), and can correlate recordings with other items to, for example, make it possible to jump directly to notes taken at a particular point in a class or meeting.
  • OneNote also supports items including system variables such as the current date and time, along with more elaborate content such as scientific equations.

OneNote’s Draw tab (see Figure 3) offers a variety of other tools for drawing and working with assorted shapes.

Figure 3 The OneNote Draw tab.

If you have a Tablet PC, it’s natural to capture digital ink notes in OneNote. In addition to the drawing tools, OneNote includes some other handy capabilities for tasks such as extracting text from images (using optical character recognition technology) and converting ink (e.g., written input from a stylus) to text. This means, for example, that all of your hand-written notes can be indexed and searched.

Microsoft also offers a OneNote software development kit (SDK), with which people have created OneNote add-ins for a variety of additional domains, including add-ins to integrate OneNote with other applications.

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