Emacs: make Org export work with Denote silos

In the denote package, the user creates a single directory for their notes or long-term storage files: the denote-directory. This directory can have subdirectories or can be a flat file listing. Denote works the same regardless. All denote: links to files inside the denote-directory work as expected, even if the files are renamed or moved from one subdirectory to another. This is because the links point to the identifier, which is internally read and expanded into the appropriate file system path.

While a singular denote-directory can be sufficient, there are cases where strictly separate directories are needed (e.g. a “home” versus “work” kind of scenario, or “public” and “private”). We call those “silos” and make them work with Emacs’ facility of directory-local variables. Any directory in the file system can be turned into a silo by setting the value of denote-directory to its path. Do this in a file called .dir-locals.el. Its contents can be something like the following:

;;; Directory Local Variables.  For more information evaluate:
;;;     (info "(emacs) Directory Variables")

((nil . ((denote-directory . "/path/to/silo/"))))

All Denote commands, such as to create notes or link to files, read the silo’s path when they are called from inside there. Otherwise, they read the global value of denote-directory. This is a nice arrangement to keep a separation of concerns and to purposefully operate with contextuality in mind.

Use #+bind to set local values for Org export

While Denote works perfectly fine with the aforementioned, we do have a major constraint when dealing with Org’s export mechanism. Users may want to maintain a silo where they write Org entries that are eventually collected into a set of HTML files that form a blog. This does not work because the Org export mechanism is designed to ignore directory-local variables. So all denote: links inside the silo will be broken, because their path is not resolved correctly at export time.

We can work around this constraint by leveraging Org’s #+bind keyword. Before we do that, we need to enable support for such bindings. Add the following to your Emacs configuration:

(setq org-export-allow-bind-keywords t)

Then we may insert the #+bind in each affected file. Write the following somewhere towards the top of the file:

#+bind: denote-directory "/path/to/silo/"

As you can tell, the syntax is #+bind: variable value.

Use .dir-locals.el to automatically insert the #+bind

One of the principles of Denote’s development, is to keep the code hackable. The front matter that Denote inserts to newly created Org notes is stored as a string in the variable denote-org-front-matter. Since our silo already uses the .dir-locals.el, we can add another entry to it, to make the front matter include the desired #+bind directive. No need to write the whole thing each time.

Building on the previous example, we have this for our .dir-locals.el:

   ;;; Directory Local Variables.  For more information evaluate:
   ;;;     (info "(emacs) Directory Variables")

   ((nil . ((denote-directory . "/path/to/silo/")
            (denote-org-front-matter . 
             "#+title:      %s
#+date:       %s
#+filetags:   %s
#+identifier: %s
#+bind:       denote-directory \"/path/to/silo/\"

Note that the value of the denote-directory has to be a string, so we need to keep the double quotes there around the /path/to/silo/, hence the \"/path/to/silo/\".

Now all new Org files created with Denote will include that extra line in the front matter.

Small changes for a big improvement

I wish Org export would support directory-local variables, though I understand there are technical constraints for that. By making those minor tweaks, we get the expected results.

If you had problems with Org files in Denote silos, please try this solution.

About Denote

Denote is a simple note-taking tool for Emacs. It is based on the idea that notes should follow a predictable and descriptive file-naming scheme. The file name must offer a clear indication of what the note is about, without reference to any other metadata. Denote basically streamlines the creation of such files while providing facilities to link between them.

Denote’s file-naming scheme is not limited to “notes”. It can be used for all types of file, including those that are not editable in Emacs, such as videos. Naming files in a consistent way makes their filtering and retrieval considerably easier. Denote provides relevant facilities to rename files, regardless of file type.