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January 30, 2018 20:14
October 20, 2019 13:12

Org-noter - A synchronized, Org-mode, document annotator

After using Sebastian Christ’s amazing Interleave package for some time, I got some ideas on how I could improve upon it, usability and feature-wise. So I created this package from scratch with those ideas in mind!

Org-noter’s purpose is to let you create notes that are kept in sync when you scroll through the document, but that are external to it - the notes themselves live in an Org-mode file. As such, this leverages the power of Org-mode (the notes may have outlines, latex fragments, babel, etc…) while acting like notes that are made inside the document. Also, taking notes is very simple: just press i and annotate away!

Note: While this is similar to interleave, it is not intended to be a clone; therefore, not every feature of the original mode is available! You may prefer using the original, because this is a different take on the same idea. View some differences here.

Org-noter is compatible with DocView, PDF Tools, and Nov.el. These modes make it possible to annotate PDF, EPUB, Microsoft Office, DVI, PS, and OpenDocument.

On a personal note, if you annotate and read lots of PDFs, give PDF Tools a try! It is great.


Easy to use annotation interface
Just press i in the document buffer and annotate away!
Keep your notes in sync with the document
When you take a note by pressing i, it saves the location where you took it so it is able to show you the notes while you scroll, automatically!
Easy navigation
You may navigate your document as usual, seeing the notes buffer scroll and show you the respective notes; however, you may also navigate by notes, only seeing annotated pages/chapters.
Isolated interface
Each session has its own frame and the document and notes buffers are indirect buffers to the original ones. Killing any of these things will terminate your annotation session.
Simultaneous sessions
You may open as many annotation sessions as you wish, at the same time! The root heading of each document will be made read-only to prevent you from deleting a heading from an open session.
Resume annotating from where you left
When org-noter-auto-save-last-location is non-nil, it will save the last location you visited and pick it up when you start another session! You may also set this per-document, read more here.
Keep your notes organized
You may arrange your notes however you want! You can create groups and nest notes (and even nest documents inside other documents)!
Annotate org-attach‘ed files
If you have any attached files, it will let you choose one as the document to annotate.

Many of these features are demonstrated in the screencast, so take a look if you are confused!



This package is available from MELPA, so if you want to install it and have added MELPA to your package archives, you can run M-x package-install RET org-noter

Manual installation

You can also install it manually, using package.el.

  1. Download org-noter.el
  2. Open it
  3. Run M-x package-install-from-buffer RET


If you want to give it a try without much trouble:

  • Just have an Org file where you want the notes to go
  • Create a root heading to hold the notes
  • Run M-x org-noter inside! On the first run, it will ask you for the path of the document and save it in a property. By default, it will also let you annotate an attached file (org-attach documentation).

This will open a new dedicated frame where you can use the keybindings described here.

More generally, there are two modes of operation. You may run M-x org-noter:

Inside a heading in an Org notes file
This will associate that heading with a document and open a session with it. This mode is the one described in the example above.
In a document
Run M-x org-noter when viewing a document (eg. PDF, epub…).

This will try to find the respective notes file automatically. It will search in all parent folders and some specific folders set by you. See org-noter-default-notes-file-names and org-noter-notes-search-path for more information.

There is, of course, more information in the docstrings of each command.


Watch the screencast here!

Note that this package has had some updates since this screencast was made, so, while the core functionality is the same, there may be some UX and feature differences.

The files used to make this screencast are shipped with the package, so you can try this package even without creating the notes.


There are two kinds of customizations you may do:

  1. Global settings, affecting every session
  2. Document-specific settings, which override the global settings

The global settings are changed with either the customization interface from Emacs or directly in your init file. To find which settings are available, you may use the customization interface or you may just read org-noter.el.

The best way to set document-specific settings is by using the utility commands provided (list below). In order to use them, you need an open session. The commands may change the settings for that session only (not surviving restarts), or for every session with that document.

List of utility commands (check the docstrings to learn how to make the changes permanent, or revert to the default):

  • You may set a start location for this document, by using org-noter-set-start-location.
  • To automatically resume from where you left, use org-noter-set-auto-save-last-location.
  • With org-noter-set-notes-window-behavior, you may change when the notes window pops up.
  • With org-noter-set-notes-window-location, you may change where the notes window pops up.
  • org-noter-set-doc-split-fraction will ask you for the fraction of the frame that the document window occupies when split.
  • org-noter-set-hide-other will toggle whether or not it should hide headings not related to the executed action.
  • org-noter-set-closest-tipping-point will set the closest note tipping point. Also check the docstring of the variable org-noter-closest-tipping-point in order to better understand the tipping point.

Keybindings and commands

iInsert noteDocument buffer
M-iInsert precise noteDocument buffer
qKill sessionDocument buffer
M-pSync previous page/chapterDocument and notes buffer
M-.Sync current page/chapterDocument and notes buffer
M-nSync next page/chapterDocument and notes buffer
C-M-pSync previous notesDocument and notes buffer
C-M-.Sync selected notesDocument and notes buffer
C-M-nSync next notesDocument and notes buffer

You can use the usual keybindings to navigate the document (n, p, SPC, …).

There are two types of sync commands:

  • To sync a page/chapter, means it will find the [previous|current|next] page/chapter and show the corresponding notes for that page/chapter; as such, it will always pop up the notes buffer, if it does not exist. This type of command is in relation to the current page/chapter in the document.
  • To sync the notes, means it will find the [previous|current|next] notes and go to the corresponding location on the document. So, you need to have the notes window open, because this type of commands is in relation to the selected notes (ie, where the cursor is).

When using PDF Tools, the command org-noter-create-skeleton imports the PDF outline or annotations (or both!) as notes, and it may be used, for example, as a starting point.

You may also want to check the docstrings of the functions associated with the keybindings, because there is some extra functionality in some.

Why a rewrite from scratch? Why not contribute to the existing Interleave package?

Doing a refactor on a foreign codebase takes a long time because of several factors, like introducing the ideas to the owner (with which he may even disagree), learning its internals, proposing pull requests, more back and forth in code review, etc…

Besides, I like doing things from scratch, not only because it expands my skills, but also because it is something I find very rewarding!

Non-exhaustive list of differences from Interleave

New features

  • Each session is isolated, which means that it has its own frame with indirect buffers
    • Makes it possible to have several sessions simultaneously open
    • Doesn’t narrow the original buffer, which continues completely accessible
  • Has precise notes (attached to a section of a page)
  • Also supports nov.el
  • Skeleton extraction (outline and/or annotations)
  • Being able to use the closest previous note when no notes are present on the current page
  • Closing all notes not related to the notes present in the current view
  • Possibility of overriding some global settings in each document or session

Some annoyances fixed

  • Notes not sorted
  • Notes not synced when executing different page change commands, eg. goto-page or beginning-of-buffer
  • Sometimes it would start narrowing other parts of the buffer, giving errors when trying to go to notes.

Changes to make in order to be compatible with documents created by Interleave

This package only works like the multi-pdf mode of Interleave - you can’t open a session without having a parent headline.

For compatibility with existing notes made with Interleave, you can do one of two things:

  • Change the following property names inside the your documents:
  • Set these variables on your init file:
    (setq org-noter-property-doc-file "INTERLEAVE_PDF"
          org-noter-property-note-location "INTERLEAVE_PAGE_NOTE")


I must thank Sebastian for the original idea and inspiration. Also, many thanks to everyone who contributed more ideas, reported bugs and submitted PRs :)