Note: This post in an fairly technical detail about using Microsoft OneNote. I’m not writing this as a tutorial or step-by-step guide, so if this seems esoteric or incomprehensible, don’t worry and just move on.
On the other hand, if you are an avid user of Microsoft’s free OneNote program, as I am, and don’t use EverNote or other wannabe note taking apps, this might help you so keep reading.
Microsoft OneNote is a free note taking app that is free of charge and available for Apple iPhone, iPad, and Mac Computers; PC Computers; Android phones and tables, and online as a web application at www.onenote.com.
OneNote has built-in sharing and collaboration, so a common usage scenario is to store the OneNote files (“notebooks”) in your cloud storage for easy access. Typically, one would be using Microsoft’s OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive) since you probably are running OneNote on at least one Microsoft platform.
I found an obscure issue with how OneNote operates. Unlike every other app or program, it is “self-aware” that it is running through the web/cloud storage and doesn’t actually store the notebook file as just another file in a folder that happens to be in your OneDrive.
OneNote stores the notebook in a hidden folder in OneDrive and puts a visible file in your folder with the same name as the notebook that is actually a special “web-shortcut” URL that will auto-magically re-direct to the hidden file when you open it to access your notebook.
Normally, this behind-the-scenes logistics can be ignored, but there is one case where it can be a problem and therefore is something you need to be aware of.
In my computing setup, I use multiple PC’s, Mac’s, iPhones, and iPads so I have a diverse computing environment spread out among multiple physical machines and devices.
For convenience (or should I say sanity), I keep all my documents/data files synchronized between all the systems by using Microsoft OneDrive cloud storage. (Since I have a paid subscription to Microsoft Office 365 which includes 1 terabyte of free cloud storage, this is the simplest/easiest choice for me. Discussing cloud storage options is a another topic for another day – someday.)
I don’t use the local “Documents” or “My Documents” folder on my PC and I don’t use the “Home” folder on my Macs. (Well, not completely true – I let the native documents folders hold temp files and application data files that are automatically placed there that I don’t care about or will have copies or backups in other locations. It is just too much trouble to try and re-direct or reconfigure every app to not use the local or temp folders that they want to use.)
I have one top-level folder appropriately called “OneDrive” and everything is stored underneath. I have a general subfolder called “docs” that keeps all my primary files that are platform neutral (example, text, pdf, jpg, word, excel, powerpoint, etc. files that can be opened, with the appropriate app or tools on any device or system), and I have subfolders “pc docs” and “mac docs” for files that are platform specific and should not be opened on a different platform (without great difficulty or potential corruption).
Microsoft OneDrive apps on the PC, Mac, iPhone, and iPad synchronize and/or provide access to all the files from all the platforms and devices I use. No problem so far.
Since cloud synching is not the same as backup (another potential topic for another time), I also run both local backup to an external hard drive (that is only plugged in for the duration of the backup), and cloud/network backup to an actual backup server (currently using CrashPlan and very happy with it.) But, and this is a key point, my local and cloud backups are only backups of all my data files. I do not backup a full system image as that would eat up a lot more storage and time and if I do need such a full recovery, I would prefer to do a “nuke and pave” instead of trying to reload a system image.
Heres’ the rub (and the reason for this post), I recently discovered that my local backups and cloud backups are not actually backing up any of my OneNote notebooks. Because of the unique way that Microsoft stores notebooks – using hidden files with visible file that is a url/redirect, the only thing that is in my OneDrive folder on my computers is the url/redirect, the actual OneNote notebook is not stored locally.
I verified this by opening a web browser and examine my OneDrive folder using Microsoft’s web interface. On the web, the notebooks are displayed as actual OneNote files and not shortcuts – I can verify this as the file size is quite large (tens of MB) which is to be expected as the notebooks have grown over time.
On my local computer, the notebook files (which are actually those special shortcut urls) are only several KB in size.
So how does one actually backup the OneNote notebook data files themselves? Sure, it is being saved in OneDrive, but I like to be protected against the possibility that my entire OneDrive folder or account gets blown away or trashed.
The conventional approach would be to do a full image/system files backup of the PC that somewhere in the mysterious “..local app data” windows folders has the original or a copy of the OneNote notebooks.
This would require changing my workflow and require extra hard drives and procedures that I don’t want to do.
Fortunately, I found there are configuration settings inside OneNote for the PC (haven’t found them in the Mac version), where you can specify the actual location for backups, how many previous copies to save, and a convenient forced backup button “backup all notebooks NOW”.
I simply created a new subfolder in my OneDrive folder called “notebook backups” and pointed OneNote there. Now I have a folder that will only contain OneNote backup files (so it easy to verify backups are taking place and being updated), and this folder and its contents will be seen by my normal local backup and cloud backup programs.
Here’s the info from Microsoft: