Obsidian plugins and future proof notes
Obsidian plugins help with different parts of your knowledge work, and with different kinds of notes. Understanding those differences can help when deciding what plugins to use, and how.
One important rationale for me using Obsidian is that it uses locally stored markdown files. That means I control my data and have it accessible in a format that is not dependent on a specific piece of software. And since there is an abundance of markdown editors available, and for almost any operating system that runs on personal computers, I feel confident that my files will be accessible for me for a long time. I have my exit plan in place.
But another important part of Obsidian is the ecosystem and the community. While Obsidian is great out of the box, with a selection of plugins it becomes even better.
A question that has been asked a couple of times lately is if you can have both. Is it possible to extend Obsidian with plugins and feel confident in long-term access to one's notes?
As it often is, it depends. Obsidian plugins can be placed in one of three categories, and the problems you would face if the development of a plugin you use would cease and a future update of Obsidian would break the last release depends on which category the plugin falls under.
1. Plugins for data entry
Plugins that make data entry easier, with less friction. In this category, we have plugins like Advanced Tables, Hotkeys++, Periodic Notes, Text Transporter, and Natural Language Dates. These are plugins you only interact with when entering data into your Obsidian vault. They make it easier to create markdown tables and work with daily, weekly and monthly notes, they save keystrokes, move text between notes, and they make you spend less time looking at a calendar and finding what date next Tuesday is.
But what they don't do is change what text is stored in your notes. Without them, the data in your vault would still be the same. It would only take you longer to get the data in there. And since we are talking about text entry, a lot of what is achieved with Obsidian plugins can also be done with external tools like TextExpander or Espanso.
For this plugin category, stalled development is not an issue for the information you have in your vault.
2. Plugins for data retrieval
With the second plugin category, things start to get a bit more complicated. These are plugins that in different ways filter or visualize your notes or information stored in your notes. Breadcrumbs, Block Reference Counts, and Dataview are three examples from this category. These are plugins that make it easier to navigate your notes, helping you get to the note and information you are looking for much quicker.
Abandoned plugins in this category would still leave the information in your vault intact, but could heavily impact your workflows. As one example, in the template for my daily notes, I use Dataview to pull in information for various project notes making the most relevant information available in one unified dashboard view.
Another example is ExcaliBrain, which builds on Dataview and ExcaliDraw and creates a special graph view. If Dataview disappears, I would also (at least for a while) lose access to the ExcaliBrain graph. But in the meantime, I could still see the hierarchies that ExcaliBrain visualizes. These are expressed in markdown, with relationships I define myself. The syntax I use is interpreted by ExcaliBrain, but really readable for a human as well:
A blogpost [by:: [[Anders Thoresson]]] [via:: [[myttl.blog]]].
Without these plugins, the data would still be there, only a lot harder to get to. And, compared to the data entry plugins, harder to replace with external tools.
3. Plugins that add clutter to the markdown files
This is a subset of both the other categories – and the plugins I really think twice about using. Plugins that fall in this category extend the markdown syntax with their own. As a result, rendered content looks nice as long as you use the plugin. But if you look at the raw markdown file, it can look really cluttered. And cluttered means less useful when opened in other applications.
Over the years, I've used my notes folder with a couple of different applications. The Archive, SublimeText, Atom and nvALT to mention a few. I count on Obsidian being around for as long as I need access to my notes, so thinking about a good exit plan is important to me.
The plugins that make data entry easier are a no-brainer for me. They save time here and now, and there is no reason whatsoever to stay away from them.
The same goes for the plugins that make data retrieval easier. If a plugin helps me find the information quicker or helps me see a connection between notes I would otherwise miss, that's good for now.
What I try to stay away from are the plugins that expand on the markdown syntax and add a lot of special code themselves.
For what kind of notes are you using a plugin?
But the decision on what plugins to use and what plugins to be more careful with can't be answered without also considering how you would youse the plugin.
With the previous applications I've used with my markdown files, to only purpose was to store valuable information long term, building on the Zettelkasten method.
With Obsidian, information storage is only one use case. I also use Obsidian as a project log, as a planning tool, and for a few other things as well.
For notes taken when reading, listening, and watching, the kind of notes where I write down learnings from the content I consume, longevity is still much more important compared to notes that act as dashboards in my daily work. For the Zettelkasten part of my vault, I'm much more cautious about what plugins I use.
But a dashboard is a tool here and now, and if there are plugins that make a dashboard more useful, there is no reason to hesitate. Of course, I use it!