Configuring Spacemacs org-roam & org-noter for academic writing bliss

I’ve always had a decent memory, and so I’ve never really had a formal system for keeping track of who said what and in which paper. When it comes time to write something of my own I end up mostly just going from memory and re-google-scholaring things from scratch (often finding later that I already had that paper in my Zotero database already). As I get older my memory isn’t as sharp, so I think it’s time to use a more systematic workflow for writing—keeping notes about stuff I’ve read & linking the ideas together.

All the cool kids are raving about the Zettelkasten method, and the org-roam package supporting this workflow in Emacs. There are also extensions for managing one’s paper library (org-roam-bibtex) and reading/annotating pdf files (org-noter). When combined, this all seems like having academic writing superpowers compared to my “sit around and hope I remember the reference” approach. See e.g. Noorah Alhasan’s EmacsConf 2020 talk for more detailed info on this workflow.

This post isn’t about how I’ve become amazingly productive; it’s about how I wasted a day yak-shaving just to get the software working 🙃

Getting it all to play nicely in Spacemacs

Spacemacs (currently) has good org-mode support, but only rudimentary org-roam support, and doesn’t include the org-roam-bibtex and org-noter extensions. So I spent some time yesterday setting it all up. There were a couple of blog posts which were helpful, as well as the GitHub READMEs of the various packages—and you should check them out, this post isn’t meant to be a standalone “here’s everything you need” guide. But all the info I could find only covered some of the parts I wanted (e.g. using org-roam-bibtex but not org-noter, or using all the parts I wanted but for Doom rather than Spacemacs). So if you’re trying to do the same thing as me this post will (hopefully) save you some time.

I’m still tinkering with things, so if you want to see the latest version of my config then have a look at my public dotfiles repo (especially .spacemacs and ben-utils.el).

First, make sure you’ve got the org and bibtex layers installed, and you’ll need these extra packages in dotspacemacs-additional-packages:

  • org-roam-bibtex
  • org-noter
  • org-noter-pdftools

You’ll also need to provide some extra layer :variables to the associated layers in dotspacemacs-configuration-layers (you could probably do this in config hooks or even in spacemacs/user-config as well—this is just how I did it).

(bibtex
 :variables
 bibtex-completion-bibliography (expand-file-name "~/Documents/org/zotero.bib")
 bibtex-completion-pdf-field "file"
 ;; org-ref stuff (but used by bibtex layer)
 org-ref-default-bibliography (list bibtex-completion-bibliography)
 org-ref-get-pdf-filename-function 'org-ref-get-pdf-filename-helm-bibtex)

(org
 :variables
 org-directory (expand-file-name "~/Documents/org")
 org-default-notes-file (concat org-directory "/inbox.org")
 ;; org-roam
 org-enable-roam-support t
 org-roam-directory (concat org-directory "/roam")
 org-roam-db-location (concat org-roam-directory "/db/org-roam.db"))

Note: those first two config variables (the bibtex-completion-* ones) weren’t listed in the blog posts I found, but seemed to be necessary to get helm-bibtex to find my master reference file.

Finally, since org-roam-bibtex, org-noter and org-noter-pdftools aren’t Spacemacs layers (they’re just additional packages) you need to provide some extra configuration in spacemacs/user-config to hook it all together. For convenience I put it in a separate .el file which I load from spacemacs/user-config.

(use-package org-roam-bibtex
  :after org-roam
  :hook (org-roam-mode . org-roam-bibtex-mode)
  :custom
  (orb-preformat-keywords '("citekey" "title" "url" "author-or-editor" "keywords" "file"))
  (orb-process-file-keyword t)
  (orb-file-field-extensions '("pdf" "epub" "html"))

  (orb-templates
   '(("r" "ref" plain (function org-roam-capture--get-point)
      ""
      :file-name "${citekey}"
      :head "#+TITLE: ${citekey}: ${title}
#+ROAM_KEY: ${ref}

- tags ::
- keywords :: ${keywords}

* ${title}
  :PROPERTIES:
  :Custom_ID: ${citekey}
  :URL: ${url}
  :AUTHOR: ${author-or-editor}
  :NOTER_DOCUMENT: ${file}
  :NOTER_PAGE:
  :END:"))))

(use-package org-pdftools
  :hook (org-load . org-pdftools-setup-link))

(use-package org-noter
  :after (:any org pdf-view)
  :custom (org-noter-always-create-frame nil))

(use-package org-noter-pdftools
  :after org-noter
  :config
  (with-eval-after-load 'pdf-annot
    (add-hook 'pdf-annot-activate-handler-functions #'org-noter-pdftools-jump-to-note)))

Once I’ve used this system a bit longer and ironed out any kinks I might submit a dedicated org-roam-bibtex layer to Spacemacs (or add it to the org layer). But for now I’ll just leave it here in case any other Spacemacs users are wondering how I did it.

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