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Putting Your org Files Under Version Control.


Since I discovered org mode it has gradually become my "Information sink" and most of my life seems to have moved into it. I wanted a system that allowed me to move my org files around between different computers which was easy to use and kept my files under version control.

I use bzr for my version control, but the system I describe should work with any of the distributed VCS systems, such as Mercurial and git. Since org mode is maintained in git and many org users are using git, I have tried to give examples using both bzr and git.

This isn't intended to be an in depth discussion of version control, but more of a quick overview of how you can use a version control system with org to keep various computer in sync and as a backup system.

At home I normally work with my org files on an nfs share using one of our desktop computers. The org files themselves are stored on my local server. They are also automatically mirrored with a repository on my Web server each night.

If I go away before I set off, I will update the local branch of my org files that I keep on my notebook using bzr. If I forget to update my local copy, I can update my notebook repository from my home server, or my web server as long as I have an Internet connection.

If I can't connect to the Internet, the org files on my notebook are not usually more than 24 hours out of sync with the copy on my server. I can carry on working and then merge my changes when I get home, or can access the Internet.


I am assuming you already have Emacs and org installed. If you are using a Debian based system installing git and bzr is simply a matter of:

apt-get install bzr bzrtools
apt-get git-core  

If you want to push changes to a remote server, you might also want to install the ncftp client.

Getting Started.

Creating a Repository.

The first step is to create a repository in the directory where you keep your org files:

cd ~/Documents/org
bzr init

If you are using git:

git init  

Excluding Files from the Repository.

You might have things, such as emacs backup files, in your org directory that you don't want included in your VCS. A simple way to avoid them being added is to create a .bzrignore file in the org file directory:

In my .bzrignore I simply have:


With git you can create a .gitignore file, which has a very similar syntax to .bzrignore.

Adding Files to Your Repository.

Now you need to add your org files to the repository. In the directory where you keep you org files:

bzr add *.org  

For git users:

git add *.org  

Committing Changes.

Once you have added your files to the repository you need to commit the changes to update the repository:

bzr commit -m "Imported sources."  

For git users:

git commit -a -m "Imported sources."  

Commit makes a snapshot of the working state of the files. You can choose to commit changes at any time. There are several Emacs packages, which will let you do this directly from Emacs. I also run a cron job which commits any changes automatically each evening. The shell script I use is:

cd ~/Documents/org
bzr commit -m "automatic commit via cron."  

If you want to commit files selectively, rather than all uncommited files, you can specify the file names on the command line:

bzr commit -m "Made some changes."  

Working With Your org Files On More Than One Computer.

You will probably want to work on your org files on more than one computer. The traditional method would be to copy all your org files between your various computers. This is error prone and you might end up accidentally overwriting new files with older versions.

A better way to synchronise files between your computers is to use your version control system. Not only do your org files get updated, but you also get their complete version history. The steps you need to take to maintain versions of your org files on different computers are described below.

Note that there are several methods which you could use, the one I describe works for me.

Creating a Local Branch.

First create a local copy of your org files by making a branch. You can then continue working on your files locally and then use bzr or git to merge changes back to your main copy of org when required.

To create an initial working branch on your local computer:

bzr branch ~nfs/firewall/Documents/org ~/Documents/org  

For git users:

git clone ~nfs/firewall/Documents/org ~/Documents/org

This command creates a local branch on my notebook from the repository on my file server. Note that bzr and git will create the directory for the branch. If the directory already exists you will get an error.

The general format of the branch command is:

bzr branch location directory

bzr understands a wide variety of transport protocols, which you could use to create your initial branch:

aftp:// Access using active FTP.
bzr:// Fast access using the Bazaar smart server.
bzr+ssh:// Fast access using the Bazaar smart server over SSH.
file:// Access using the standard filesystem (default)
ftp:// Access using passive FTP.
http:// Read-only access of branches exported on the web.
https:// Read-only access of branches exported on the web using SSL.
sftp:// Access using SFTP (most SSH servers provide SFTP).

You now have a complete copy of your org files from the file server and their version history in ~/Documents/org. You can simply fire up Emacs and work on the org files in that directory.

If you use git the syntax is very similar. This example uses ssh:

git clone url directory
git clone ssh:// ~/Documents/org

At any point you can commit your changes to the local repository using the commit command:

bzr commit -m "Committing changes made on my notebook."

Merging Changes from a Local Branch to Your Server.

When you return back home or to the office, you will probably want to update the copy of org on your local server from your notebook:

  • First you need to commit any local changes that you have made.
  • Next you need to use the push command to send your changes back to

the server. The basic command is:

bzr push  

If you don't specify a destination location the push is made to the branch that this branch originated from. If you are the only person working with your org files, the push should update your remote copy without requiring any further action. If there are any conflicts take a look at the bzr manual on Resolving Conflicts for more information on how to fix the conflicts.

Note that once the push has completed the it needs to be committed on the server to update your working tree:

cd ~/nfs/firewall/Documents/org
bzr commit -m "Merged changes from my notebook."  

Up to the point of committing the merge you can choose to throw away any changes by using the revert option in bzr.

Git uses the same command:

git push 

Unlike bzr, git will auto commit changes after a merge. If you don't like this behaviour use the –no-commit option to make it behave like bzr.

Updating an Existing Branch of Your org Files.

Once you have a local branch on your computer, you can update it from your server at any time using the following command:

bzr pull  

By default pull uses the location where you originally branched from. this will pull any changes from the remote location and merge them with your local copy.

The command with git is the same

git pull   

Creating a Central Repository.

In order to give your system maximum resilience you may want to create a central repository somewhere off site that is accessible from the Internet. Using an off site server will also increase your backup karma.

Typically you will only want to store history and not working copies of your files in your central repository. So you can create the repository with the no-trees option:

bzr init-repo --no-trees s  

You can now use bzr to push your local branch to the central repository:

cd ~/Documents/org
bzr push s  

Git is a bit more complicated. The goal is to create a bare repository on the remote server. If you have ssh access to the server you can do it like this:

mkdir myrepo.git
cd myrepo.git
git init --bare

Alternatively create the directory on your local computer and move it to your server via ftp or some other method.

Now you need to push your local repository to the server:

cd ~/my_local_git_repo/.git

Edit the config file in the .git directory and add something like:

[remote "origin"]
 url =
 fetch = +refs/heads/*:refs/remotes/origin/*

If you don't want to edit the config file directly you can add the required information like this:

git remote add origin

Note that you can call "origin" anything you like. Assuming that you have ssh access to your server you should now be able to push your changes to the server:

git-push push origin master

Using a USB Stick as a Central Repository.

You can create a central repository on a USB stick. You might want to do this if you take files between your home and work computers and can't use the internet to synchronize your files because there is a firewall in the way.

There are some special considerations required when using a usb stick:

  • You need to specify that you can used mixed case in filenames, or you will have problems creating names like HEAD with git. Note this is only a problem with usb sticks formatted as FAT or VFAT.

If you are using the gnome desktop fire up gconf-editor and navigate to system->storage->default\options->vfat. Edit the key "mountoptions" and change its value to [shortname=mixed,uid=].

This option is the default with recent versions of Ubuntu such as Intrepid.

Creating the Repository on the USB Stick.

Using bzr to create a bare repository:

bzr init-repo --no-trees /media/disk/bzr-repo    

Now populate the repository with your org files:

bzr push file:///media/disk/bzr-repo

Using git the command you need to create the directory and a bare repo on your usb stick:

cd /media/usbstick
mkdir myrepo.git
cd myrepo.git
git init --bare

Now edit the config file in the .git directory of your local repo and add the following:

[remote "usbstick"]
  url = /media/53141017-f3e3-407f-a08f-20b91064b7f3/repos/org.git/
  fetch = +refs/heads/*:refs/remotes/usbstick/*  

You can now push to the usb stick:

git push usbstick master

You may wish to mount your usb stick in /etc/fstab using the disk's UUID to ensure that the mount point is always the same.

Once you have made the initial push you can sync your changes to the usb stick like this:

cd ~/Documents/org

# bzr will default to using the saved initial location,
# so you don't need to specify a location. 
git push usbstick master

The git example assumes that the remote on the usb stick is named "origin" (the default) and the branch that you want to push from is named "master" (the default).

Getting Your org Files from the USB Stick.

To get your org files from the usb stick on another computer for the first time.

With bzr:

bzr branch /media/usbdisk/bzr-repo ~/Documents/org

With git:

git clone /media/disk/org.git ~/Documents/org

In subsequent sessions, once the local repository has been populated, you should use the "pull" command.

Getting Your Local Changes onto the USB Stick.

When you have finished working on your local org files you need to commit your changes to the local repository:

bzr commit -m "Commit before push to usb stick."
git commit -m "Commit before push to usb stick."

To update the repo on your USB stick you need to push your changes:

bzr push
git push

Day to Day Use.

Assuming that you have successfully set up a repo on your usb stick and have repos on your work and home computers your work flow would look something like:

Home. Edit your org files Commit your changes (bzr commit) Push the changes to your usb stick (bzr push)


  • Plug in your usb stick.
  • Get the changes - bzr pull
  • Work on your files in Emacs.
  • Commit the changes you made - bzr commit -m "Commit before push to usb stick."
  • Push your changes to the usb stick - bzr push
  • Unplug the usb stick and go home.

Update the Local Branch on Your Notebook from the Central Repository.

Sometimes you might want to update your local branch from your central repository, rather than from your local server. One reason for wanting to do this is if you are away from home and your local computer's branch is quite out of date. If you automatically update your central repository daily from a cron script, the files on there should never be more than one day old, so if you have an Internet connection you can get a more recent version of your files from the central repository.

The pull command will do this, but you need to specify the location on the command line:

bzr pull s  

Day to Day Usage.

I have three different scenarios for using my system:

Working at Home.

My org files are on my home server in a directory accessible via nfs. I can either load my files via an nfs share, or run Emacs in a terminal on the file server.

Away from Home.

Update the files on my laptop before I leave:

cd ~/Documents/org
bzr pull

Launch Emacs using a different .emacs, which has its org configuration set to point to the files on my local hard disk, rather than the nfs share.

When I get back home I can update the files on my server by doing a

cd ~/Documents/org
bzr push  

Note that push updates the repository, but not the working copy of the files. To update the working copy on your server you need to run bzr update. Alternatively, you can use the Push and Update plugin from , which automates this process for you.

You can set up anacron to update the org files on your laptop when you startup, or shutdown which keeps the files on your local hard drive up to date in most circumstances.

Away from Home and I Forgot to Update My Files Before Leaving.

If the files on my laptop aren't up to date, I can use bzr to pull a copy from my web server via my mobile phone. If I can't get a signal, or find a wifi hotspot, the files on my laptop shouldn't be more than 24 hrs out of date. I can just work on my local copy and merge the changes when I get back home.


So far my system has proved quite robust. It's also useful having the full version history of my org files on each computer.

Further Information.

Useful bzr Plugins.

rspush Pushes changes using rsync. Useful if your collection of files is very large.
fastimport Import exports streams to bzr repositories.
automirror Automatically mirror the project's current state to another branch.

Moving Data Between bzr and git.

While I was writing this tutorial I needed to move my data between my bzr repository and a git repository, so I could test out the various git commands. In the process I learnt quite a bit about moving data between bzr and git, which I thought I would record here in case someone finds it useful.

Moving Your Data from bzr to git.

Like most things this is easy once you know how. You need the bzr fast-import plugin. You can get this from . Note that although the plugin is named fastimport it does fast exporting too!

First you need to create an empty git repo:

mkdir ~/devel/org-git
cd ~/devel/org-git
git init

Now import your bzr repo into the empty git repo:

bzr fast-export --export-marks=.git/bzr.mark ~/Documents/org/.bzr | git-fast-import --export-marks=.git/git.mark

If all goes well all your revisions will be imported into the git repo. To start working on your org files you first need to check them out:

git checkout master

You should also be able to import new bzr changes incrementally into git:

bzr fast-export --import-marks=.git/bzr.mark --export-marks=.git/bzr.mark ~/Documents/org.bzr/trunk | git fast-import --import-marks=.git/git.mark --export-marks=.git/git.mark

Moving Data from git to bzr.

You can also move your data from a git repository to a bzr one. As above you will need to install the bzr fastimport plugin. The procedure is based on the one described in the bzr documentation:

Create an empty bzr repository:

bzr init-repo bzr-org

Now use git's fast-export to export all the branches and pipe the output to bzr's fast-import.

$ git fast-export -M --all | (cd bzr-org; bzr fast-import -)

Using git fast-export's -M flag embeds git's inferred filenames into the output. If you don't want this, drop the -M flag.

Git Screencasts.

I find screencasts a good way of learning things. Unfortunately there don't seem to be any for bzr at the time of writing. However, there are several excellent ones for git:

Back up

Maybe a full versioning system is not what you're looking for and backups are enough. Greg Newman has a blog entry about backing up Org-mode files under Mac.

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