Lifeograph and RedNotebook: Open Source Diary Writing Software

What do Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Roosevelt, Tchaikovsky, Anne Frank, George Steinbeck and Andy Warhol all have in common? The answer is that at one point or another they all kept personal diaries. As old as the parchments on which many an ink tipped quill has been used throughout history, diary writing has been a way for us to document events or record our personal thoughts. A diary of course can be about anything: a particular project that you happen to be working on, focused completely on the outer world as you see it, and/or inward looking, becoming as personal and private as you intend it to be.

Even prior to management guru Peter Drucker's emphasis on time-keeping, many executives were attempting to keep a record of how their daily time was being spent. With the growth of tracking technologies and the self-quantification movement, we now have a variety of digital methods to address this issue.

Unfortunately - just as sitting at a desk doesn't imply that you are working - simply measuring the hours spent using a particular program or doing a certain task tends to say very little about productivity. More importantly, There are some things - requiring a degree of nuanced understanding and expression - that no amount of quantification can address. As a complement to such quantified measures though, a personal diary can play a significant role in self-awareness and personal knowledge management.

Old fashioned diary

Research in the field of psychology has already shown that keeping a diary has a powerful effect on well-being and also leads to improvements in working memory.

In addition to allowing you to express more personal thoughts - which in turn allows you to better observe and understand yourself - perhaps the greatest value in a personal diary is its ability to track progress of the daily and long-term tasks that you hope to achieve. This in turn helps to establish priorities and allows you to focus your attention on the tasks that really matter.

While some argue that there is something more special about putting pen to paper, the knowledge manager in you (if there happens to be one!) should tell you that the opportunity to efficiently search, tag, organise and analyse entries is far too tempting a benefit to ignore.

Although one can use software such as LibreOffice Writer, Microsoft Word, Evernote, Nixnote or regular blogging platforms - neither of these are particularly designed for personal diary writing. A more simple and dedicated solution, such as the cross-platform and open source RedNotebook or Lifeograph (currently Linux/Android only) are far better suited for diary keeping. Both options are examined below.


RedNotebook is a modern journal that includes calendar navigation, customisable templates, export functionality and word clouds. You can also format, tag and search your entries




Each file in RedNotebook is called a 'journal', and this is what you will need to create when setting up your own diary. You can create any number of journals, each one serving a particular purpose. If you prefer to have everything in one place, you can simply separate entries for a particular day using different titles or a line separator.

After selecting a date, formatting an entry is straightforward and helped along by the drop down menus at the top. Here, the ability to save and add customised entry templates is one of RedNotebook's best features. For example you might have a specific layout for your work day, and another for a more personal or exercise oriented entry. The possibilities are limitless and this saves you the time of copying, pasting and modifying other entries.

The ability to switch between an unformatted edit view and and a more elegant display view is also an excellent feature. Once in the edit view, you can easily insert pictures, files and lists into entries.


Another nice feature of the GUI is the two separately generated word clouds: one for your tags and the other for words used in entries. You also have the opportunity to bring up some statistics on your diary that shows data such as the average number of words used in each entry and the total number of distinct words.

One of RedNotebook's shortcomings is its lack of security features out of the box: there are no options to encrypt or even password protect your diary. While you can store your diary inside a separate encrypted container, this process might simply be too complicated or inconvenient for some.

Depending on your needs, export of journals is currently available into plain text, HTML, Latex and PDF.


Lifeograph is a personal journal and note taking application. It offers all standard features expected from a diary application, along with some unique ones, in a light-weight and intuitive package.




If a simple diary in the traditional sense is what you are after, then Lifeograph is for you. On first view, Lifeograph looks very similar to RedNotebook, but further examination reveals a number of significant differences.

Files in Lifeograph are appropriately called 'diaries', and as with RedNotebook, you can create any number of diaries for different purposes. Colours for body text, headings, subheadings and highlights can also be customised based on set themes.

Writing an entry is as simple as clicking on a date or on the 'Today' or 'New' buttons. Multiple entries for a single day can also be added this way.

In addition to creating simple entries, within each diary you have the option of creating a new 'Chapter' or 'Topic'. Lifeograph describes the purpose of these chapters as a means of organising entries according to phases in our lives: a chapter in your life, one might say. These chapters can then be further organised within 'Chapter Categories'. As an example of how such categories might work, a chapter category called 'Jobs' might include chapters for companies you have worked for, while and another one called 'Places' can contain chapters for cities you have lived in.

The last of these entry types, called a 'Topic', simply organises entries by numerical order (1.1, 1.2...2.1,2.2...etc.) This would be most useful in creating more formal documentation or knowledge bases.


While Lifeograph doesn't currently allow you to insert pictures and other such files, there are plans to add a file attachment capability in future releases.

One feature of Lifeograph that stands out when compared to RedNotebook is the ability to encrypt diaries with a password (currently unavailable on Android). For those needing the extra privacy or security this option is conveniently available out of the box. Encryption is carried out using the AES256 algorithm via libgcrypt.

If data visualisation and self quantification interests you, then Lifeograph's nifty tag chart (shown above) will certainly appeal to you. Based on your tags, these charts allow you to see periods in time where certain events or issues were more frequently addressed. Of course this also depends on you tagging entries on a regular basis and having a consistent tag taxonomy.

Lastly, Lifeograph also offers you the option to export your entries into plain text format.


Both Lifeograph and RedNotebook offer an excellent means of maintaining a digitised, well-organised and searchable diary. Depending on how you intend to use a diary, the features of one or the other might be more convenient. For privacy and security Lifeograph comes out on top, but for integrating external content, RedNotebook would be the more favourable option at this point.

The other issue of course is compatibility. Here, RedNotebook has the clear advantage due to its availability on Linux, Mac OS X and Windows. While you can only use Lifeograph on Linux desktops and Android phones, it still offers the option to export diaries into plain text.

Where Lifeograph once again gains the edge is in its simplicity, It's deliberately designed to be lightweight, which makes it slightly easier to understand and use.

While the GUI in both programs is straightforward and intuitive, there is always the possibility that it might not appeal to those with a preference for fancier design. That being said, the simple interface for both programs can also be seen as a major plus.

As with all diaries - digital or analogue - the hard part is in persevering with entries and being honest with oneself. Whether you ultimately choose Lifeograph or RedNotebook, you will likely find that with sustained use both will prove to be highly rewarding - both personally and professionally.

Photo: Kevin Spencer
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