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A Document Managment System (DMS) using an IMAP Server as storage and for querying.
Python Shell
branch: master

The Problem / The Motivation

When searching for Document Management Systems (DMS) you can find a large amount of commercial and open source projects. Each of them has its unique feature set, but all of them missed some features I required and most of them where much to heavy.

What I needed was:

  • Adding new documents must be as simple as possible.
  • PDFs are the main format as every scanner produces them and everybody can open them
  • The full text of all documents must be searchable.
  • The full text must be extracted from scanned documents using OCR.
  • The full text which is contained in PDFs must be available for searching.
  • A Backup must be easily possible.
  • No folder structures where you have to decide whether a document is more 'tax' or more 'invoices'. A system consisting of tags is much better suited here.

This project presents a unique approach which fulfils all the requirements specified above.

The Idea

The main idea of this project is to use an existing IMAP server to store the documents: An IMAP Server already provides the storage of ''objects'' (in this case documents) and a sophisticated searching. Many tool exists that can be used to backup an IMAP account. By using this approach, existing IMAP accounts and servers can be reused to store the documents. The access to the documents can be done using ordinary IMAP clients like Mozilla Thunderbird or web clients like Roundcube. They all support searching for documents and downloading/viewing them.

Files can be added to the IMAP Document Storage easily by using emails. The documents are their attachments, so an single email can contain multiple documents. As the subject can be searched easily, this can be seen as the identifier for the document(s). Tags can either be done using IMAP keywords (the flags of Thunderbird) or by simply adding tags like [invoice] to the subject. As you can search only in the subject in most email programs, you can search for tags very easily.

The only missing part is the creation of the full text which can be searched by the IMAP server. As IMAP servers can search in plain text attachments, all other (binary) attachments have to be turned into plain text for searching.

The Project

This script reads an IMAP mailbox (aka an IMAP folder) and search for all mails which it has not processed already. For each of the mails, it takes each of its attachment which is not already plain text and turns them into plain text. The original attachment is left unchanged and a new attachment containing the plain text is added.

The transformation into plain text is done depending on the file type of the attachment using OCR and PDF text extraction.


You need an IMAP account which a mailbox (folder) dedicated to your documents. You can also use an own account for this. In this way, you can add new documents easily by simply sending a mail to this account.

You need python installed, I used version 2.7. You also need ImageMagick and Tesseract installed in your PATH for the OCR jobs. Additional required packages are poppler-utils (for pdftotext).


The most recent version is checked in at the git-repository. It uses git sub modules to include external libraries. For this reason you must download these sub modules after you have downloaded this repository.

git clone
git submodule init
git submodule update


Setting up

You need access to an IMAP account which contains a mailbox (folder) dedicated to your documents. Copy the imap_dms.cfg.example to a new file, for example imap_dms.cfg and modify it to your needs at least providing the IMAP account. If you want to use another folder than "INBOX" for your documents, use the check_folder and save_folder options as explained in the imap_dms.defaults.

Adding New Documents

There are two ways to add new documents.

  1. Using the script: This script adds new documents to your document IMAP folder and asks you three easy question: You can input a title for the document (defaults to the file name), you can specify tags from the document (try the tab completion) and you can input a date (defaults to today). The script then directly uploads the message to your IMAP folder.
  2. By sending an email: You can use your favourite email program to send an email to your IMAP account. If your new messages do not get delivered to your document folder, you might have to move them.

Processing the Documents

Now the documents in your IMAP folder need to be processed, the attachments have to be turned into plain text for full text searching. To do this, run -v -c [configurationfile] from the command line to see if everything works as expected. If yes, add a cronjob which runs -c [config] periodically.

The script can either run on your client machine or if possible directly on the mail server. The later should be preferred as the documents do not have to be downloaded to the client and later uploaded again.


  • You can modify the behaviour of the script for each message individually by using different receivers. If for example docs@domain.tld gets delivered to the check_folder from the configuration, the script OCRs each attachment. If you instead write an email to docs+noocr@domain.tld, the message still gets delivered to the same folder, but the script does not do any OCR but instead only extracts the text from PDFs.
  • Tesseract, the OCR Engine used by this script can not auto detect the language which should be used. For this reason, there is a default language in the configuration. If you need to index a single document in a different language, simply send the email to docs+languagecode@domain.tld. For example for a french document use docs+fra@domain.tld. The language codes are those of the ISO 639-2 standard.

Helpful Tools

  • To backup your documents, you can use imapsync or offlineimap. As all data is stored in the IMAP folder, backuping it up is enough.
  • There is a helpful Mozilla Thunderbird Extension called Header Tools Lite which can be used to later edit the subject and the date of a message.

External Libraries

This script uses the excellent sh library for the execution of shell commands. This library was written by Andrew Moffat and is under an MIT licence.

To Do / Open Questions

  • A script which adds pages from a scanner or a PDF directly (either by sending an email to the account or by directly appending to the IMAP folder) should be written. This script can help with the correct selection of the title, time stamp and tags.
  • Running the script as a cron job is not an ideal solution. Perhaps using a procmail script can be used here to synchronously handle incoming messages.
  • The script has not been tested on gmail. As Google provides nearly unlimited space, it could serve as an ideal place for document storage (if you have no privacy concerns).
  • The script is not tested very well, I could destroy everything....
  • It is not clear how portable the script is in terms of python versions and application versions.
  • Check if other OCR tools would be better suitable for this job.
  • Thunderbird sometimes misses the updating of the messages which leads to duplicate messages. This is an Thunderbird error, restarting Thunderbird redownloads the message list and the duplicates are gone.
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