As you may know by now, I’m a massive fan of Roam Research. It’s a fantastic tool for thought and has the potential to become a powerful enabler of collective intelligence. But for various reasons, you may not want to rely on a SaaS to save your notes. For instance, a friend of mine mentioned their notes were mostly work-related and highly confidential—they just can’t put that data on a third-party’s server. If you are looking for a free, open source, and self-hosted alternative to Roam Research, here are a few options.
- TiddlyBlink. Based on TiddlyWiki, this is the most solid and intuitive alternative I have found. Linking to an inexisting page will create a new one, backlinks are shown as references below each note, you can open notes side by side, easily search through pages, and more. You can keep on using [[ to link to pages or create new pages, so you won’t be lost. Some people even use it as a static site generator. It’s completely open source, private, offline, and customisable. Because it’s just one HTML + JS file, you also have many options to host it in the cloud or sync it with Dropbox. It’s better to have a basic understanding of how the command line works to set it up, but then you’re good to go. Here is a short guide to get started.
- Idea Stew. From the same creator as TiddlyBlink, this is another TiddlyWiki add-on for people who tend to take lots of notes from source material (as opposed to writing essays or other original content). In the words of Dave Gifford: “Idea Stew speeds up the process for taking notes on a source and indexing the note by topic by having the note be a bridge between the source and the topic.” Watch the walk-through video.
- TiddlyRoam. Want the knowledge graph? TiddlyRoam combines TiddlyWiki, TiddlyBlink, and TiddlyMap so you have most of the pure text-based functionalities of Roam as well as a live map of all the nodes in your knowledge graph. You can also install TiddlyMap separately.
- Org-roam. People are raving about this one. After watching this amazing video by Matt Williams I was both excited about the software and defeated by the idea of going through all these hoops just to get to try it. It looks great but unstable, so I haven’t installed it. If you’re okay with being a bit more of an early adopter and have your install fail because of some incompatibilities, Org-roam is almost an exact replica of Roam.
- DocuWiki. This is a modular wiki which supports backlinks by default. Great community and fairly simple to install (if you have ever installed WordPress it’s a similar process). Install one of the inclusion plugins to easily embed a page inside another. There is also a modified version called DocuRoam, which supports transclusion out of the box, as well as daily summaries, revision history, and markdown. Watch the demo video or see some screenshots.
Other alternatives include Zim, Freeplane, Trillium, and Wikidpad, but they all lack many of the core features of Roam, and tend to be either too close to mind maps or too hierarchical. I haven’t tried any of them.
If you don’t mind getting your hands dirty, there are a few projects on Github. For instance, Connor Finley implemented some of the key functionalities of Roam and published the code publicly.
It’s missing data binding, individual blocks, and the knowledge graph, but if you want to contribute you could submit a pull request.
More ambitious, Athens aims to offer a full open-source version of Roam, as well as an open protocol for bi-directional links that affords interoperability between Roam and its open source alternatives. It’s very early but there’s a motivated team of Roam enthusiasts working on it.
Please keep in mind that by using a self-hosted note-taking tool, you won’t be able to collaborate as easily with other people—you can read about the future of collective thinking Conor White Sullivan envisions in our interview. You also have a higher risk of breaking something. The ease of use and low maintenance cost is part of the appeal of a SaaS such as Roam. But an open source tool—especially the ones that allow for metaprogramming such as TiddlyWiki—will let you tinker and create the tool you need while ensuring you own and can protect your data.