Docspell aims to be a simple yet effective document organizer that makes stowing documents away very quick and finding them later reliable (and also fast). It is a bit opinionated and more targeted for home use and small/medium organizations.
In contrast to many DMS, the main focus is not so much to provide all kinds of features to manually create organizational structures, like folder hierarchies, where you place the documents yourself. The approach is to leave it as a big pile of documents, but extract and attach metadata from each document. These are mainly properties that emerge from the document itself. The reason is that this is possible to automate. This makes it very simple to add documents, because there is no time spent to think about where to put it. And it is possible to apply different structures on top later, like show first all documents of a specific correspondent, then all with tag 'invoice', etc. If these properties are attached to all documents, it is really easy to find a document. It even can be combined with fulltext search for the, hopefully rare, desperate cases.
Of course, it is also possible to add custom properties and arbitrary tags.
Docspell analyzes the text to find metadata automatically. It can learn from existing data and can apply NLP techniques to support this. This metadata must be maintained manually in the application. Docspell looks for candidates for:
For tags, it sets all that it thinks do apply. For the others, it will propose a few candidates and sets the most likely one to your item.
This might be wrong, so it is recommended to curate the results. However, very often the correct one is either set or within the proposals where you fix it by a single click.
Besides these properties, there are more metadata you can use to organize your files, for example custom fields, folders and notes.
Docspell is also for programmers. Everything is available via a REST
or HTTP api and can be easily used within your own scripts and tools,
for example using
curl. There are also features for "advanced use"
and many configuration options.
Docspell consists of multiple components that run in separate processes:
The joex is the component that does the “heavy work”, executing long-running tasks, like processing files or importing your mails periodically. While the joex component also exposes a small REST api for controlling it, the main user interface is all inside the rest server api.
The rest server and the job executor can be started multiple times in order to scale out. It must be ensured, that all connect to the same database. And it is also recommended (though not strictly required), that all components can reach each other.
The fulltext search index is another separate component, where currently only SOLR is supported. Fulltext search is optional, so the SOLR component is not required if docspell is run without fulltext search support.
In order to better understand the following pages, some terms are explained.
An item is roughly your document, only that an item may span multiple files, which are called attachments. An item has meta data associated:
doctypecould be used to group tags like
receiptetc. Usually an item is not tagged with more than one tag of a category.
The users of the application are part of a collective. A collective is a group of users that share access to the same items. The account name is therefore comprised of a collective name and a user name.
All users of a collective are equal; they have same permissions to access all items. The items don't belong to a user, but to the collective.
That means, to identify yourself when signing in, you have to give the
collective name and your user name. By default it is separated by a
/, for example
smith/john. If your user name is the same as
the collective name, you can omit one; so
smith/smith can be
abbreviated to just
By default, all users can see all items of their collective. A folder can be used to implement other visibilities: Every user can create a folder and associate members. It is possible to put items in these folders and docspell shows only items that are either in no specific folder or in a folder where the current user is owner or member.
In 2019, I started to think about creating a dms-like tool that is now Docspell. It started at the end of that year with the initial version, including the very basic idea around which I want to create some kind of document management system.
The following anecdote summarizes why I thought yet another dms-like tool might be useful.
I tried some DMS at that time, to see whether they could help me with the ever growing pile of documents. It's not just postal mail, now it gets mixed with invoices via e-mail, bank statements I need to download at some "portal" etc. It's all getting a huge mess. When looking for a specific document, it's hard to find.
I found all the enterprisy DMS are way above of what I need. They are rather difficult to setup and very hard to explain to non-technical people. They offer a lot of features and there is quite some time required to extract what's needed. I then discovered tools, that seem to better suite my needs. Their design were simple and very close to what I was looking for, making it a good fit for single user. There were only a few things to nag:
These are not big complaints, they are solvable somehow. I want to focus on the last point: most systems didn't offer help with organizing the documents. I didn't find any, that included basic machine learning features. On most systems it was possible to organize documents into a custom folder structure. But it was all manually. You would need to move incoming documents into some subfolder. Some systems offered rules that get applied to documents in order to put them into the right place. Many offered tags, too, which relieves some of weight of this text. But they were also all manual. So the idea came to let the computer do a little more to help organize documents.
Let's start with the rules approach: A rule may look like this:
when the document contains a text 'invoice' and 'repair company x', then put it in subfolder B".
This rule can be applied to all the new documents to get automatically placed into this subfolder. I think there are some drawbacks to this approach:
I decided to try out a different approach: a "search-only" one¹. Instead of using a manual created folder structure, I simply search every time using this rule. In essence such a rule is a search query. But searching with rules like the one above is not very efficient. One would need to do fulltext searches, even extracting dates "on the fly" etc. It wouldn't be very reliable either. That's why documents have properties (called metadata). In my case most of them have a correspondent, a date and so on. If these properties were defined on documents, the queries become quite efficient. The idea is now, not to use rules for moving documents to some place, but for attaching properties, information, to each document. This solves a few issues: they can't get easily out of sync, and they can't interfere. Then docspell can help with finding some of these properties automatically. For example: it can propose properties by looking at the text. It can also take existing documents into account when suggesting tags. In docspell, it is not possible to define custom rules, instead it tries to find these rules for you by looking at the text and your previous documents.
That said, there is still a manual process involved, but I found it much lighter. Once in a while, looking at new documents and confirming or fixing the metadata is necessary. This doesn't involve deciding for a place, though. What properties you are interested to track can be configured; should you only need a correspondent and a date, everything else can be hidden.
So in docspell, all documents are just in one big pile… but every
document has metadata attached that can be used to quickly find what
you need. There is no folder structure, but it is possible to later
apply certain hierarchical structures. It would be possible to create
a "folder structure", like the one mentioned above: click on
repair company x; then on tag
year=2019. A UI could be created to present
exactly this hierarchy. Since I can't know your preferred structure
(not even my own…!), the docspell ui allows every combination,
regardless any hierarchies. You can first select a correspondent, then
a tag or the other way around. Usually it's not necessary to go very
That's all about it! I thought why not try this approach and at the same time learn about some technologies around. In the last year, docspell evolved to a quite usable tool, imho. This was only possible, because very nice people gave valueable feedback and ideas!
¹This is inspired by tools like mu and GMail.