I’m going to show you how you can create a “bookmarklet” button in your browser that will capture a note or link directly into Org Mode in your running Emacs. That’s right, you press a button in, say, Chrome, and Emacs pops up and displays your Org capture interface with the current webpage’s information in it.
Fair warning: this is a Mac-only post. What I will talk about is surely possible in Windows, but I have no idea how, so don’t ask. If you do know (or find out) feel free to use the comments section to share your knowledge with everyone else here.
How is this achieved? Through a little bit of magic called “Org Protocol.”
The goal of this exercise is to be able to click a button in Chrome and have your already-running GUI Emacs pop up with a capture buffer open containing the page title and URL of the webpage that was open in Chrome when you did that.
To accomplish this, we will use Org Protocol. The way it works is straightforward to wire up on a Mac, but there are several moving parts. This is what is going to happen:
You click a “bookmarklet” button in your browser, and
ftp://, etc.) and so it defers to the operating system to find a “handler” for that protocol.
Through a bit of OS X magic, an AppleScript application has been registered as a handler of
org-protocol://URLs, so it is run and given this data.
That AppleScript application runs
emacsclientand hands it the URL, and then
emacsclientcommunicates with your already-running Emacs (though the server/client connection) and Org’s Protocol module interprets the URL as a request to capture a specific template, which it carries out.
Why is it done this way? Primarily because the Emacs GUI program doesn’t register itself as a protocol handler on your system. It would be convenient if it did, and maybe someone can write a patch to support that some day, but until then we have this AppleScript layer in between.
Let’s get started.
Build a Protocol Handler
The code necessary to implement a system-level protocol handler in OS X is
surprisingly simple, especially if you write it in AppleScript. Any application
Info.plist defines a “URL scheme” you want to respond to and
that lives in
/Applications is automatically registered as a handler for that
In the AppleScript code, you write an
on open location routine that accepts
the whole URL as an argument, and do what you want with it. In this case, we
take that URL and pass it on as an argument to
Because I am a polite and generous hacker, I have already written this for you (Github). Other solutions do already exist, but I wrote my own for three reasons:
- To learn how (chiefly),
- To display a desktop notification letting you know that it worked, and
- To focus GUI Emacs (if it’s running) when capture is triggered.
The README within the project explains how to install and configure the protocol
handler application. Essentially, edit the path to
emacsclient if necessary
and drop the application itself into
/Applications. That’s it.
If you use terminal Emacs it should work just fine, but when you trigger a capture, the script will not be able to give Emacs the focus because it’s inside of some terminal somewhere that AppleScript can’t see. I recommend using GUI Emacs for many other reasons, but this is another good one.
The canonical guide for configuring Org Protocol is available on the Org Mode website. You should skim that guide and pay special attention to the following details:
org-protocolpackage should be included with your distribution of Org Mode, so you don’t need to install anything.
You do need to
(require 'org-protocol), because that package isn’t loaded by default, and finally
You need to have the Emacs server running.
I have added
(server-start) to my init file so that the Emacs server is always
started when Emacs starts. The overhead involved in running this server
interface is quite low.
If you just want to store a link to the current page for later insertion into an Org file, you don’t need anything else. If you want to capture the current page’s URL, title, and any selected text into a new Org element (using “capture”), you will need to set up a capture template.
Before getting into capture templates, let’s get a simple bookmarklet working.
Storing a Link
To store a link for later insertion into an Org file, I use this bookmarklet:
Note that I’ve added newlines and indentation here strictly for legibility; you should format this as a single continuous line for use in your browser.
If you’ve followed along closely up till now and you have Emacs and its server
running and the Org Protocol Handler app in your
/Applications directory and
you click this bookmarklet, a desktop notification should appear informing you
that the link has been saved.
Within Org you should be able to press
C-c C-l to insert a link, and the first
item should be the URL of the page you were viewing when you pressed the
bookmark button! If not, you screwed something up!
Capture is where things start to get interesting. The URL scheme for capturing a new Org element is:
The value of
<Template> is the template “key” pointing to a specific template
org-capture-templates. You can read about how to configure a
capture template in the Org Mode manual under Capture Templates.
Org Mode will open a capture window using the template indicated when this URL
is sent through
emacsclient. The net effect is that you can use a special
template for these captures that contains placeholders for the interactive link,
page title, and selected text.
Because Org Mode capture templates also specify the destination of the new entry, you can use this to capture general notes, make a list of sites for reading later, or anything else you can think of, just by changing the target template key in the bookmarklet.
Read more about this in the Org Protocol capture templates docs
OK, let’s get this thing working.
The Capture Template
I’m using a template designed to save links for later reading. It looks like this (this is what it would look like if it was my only template, which it isn’t; the variable can contain multiple templates like this):
(setq org-capture-templates '(("l" "A link, for reading later." entry (file+headline "notes.org" "Reading List") "* %:description\n%u\n\n%c\n\n%i" :empty-lines 1)))
The key for this template is the letter “l” (that’s lowercase “L”, for “link”). It is a new “entry” and should be added under the “Reading List” headline in “notes.org.”
The important part is the format string. You can make use of some placeholder values for URL captures:
%cis the interactive link to the captured page
%iis the selected text, if any
%:descriptioncontains the plain text title of the page
In this template I am also using
%u, which is an inactive timestamp. Various
other standard placeholder values are defined in the Org Mode documentation for
So now that we have a capture template, we can send a capture URL to
emacsclient with a bookmarklet like this:
Open some webpage of your choice, maybe select some text on the page, and hit this bookmarklet. Hopefully Emacs will come to the front with a capture window open, ready for you to tweak or edit the new entry and commit it to your notes!
This is one of the most sophisticated things I’ve done with Emacs so far. This functionality ties together OS-level protocol handling, custom AppleScript, and Org Mode configuration to create a way for programs I use all the time to talk to each other and make my life easier.
If you came away from this scratching your head, or if you use Windows and figured out how to make this work there, please leave comments below!
And if you’re in the US or Canada, happy Thanksgiving!