~/everything-else/Personal document management with git
Updated Feb 26, 2021

🗂 Personal document management with git

This tutorial is for my dear friend M. Like any person working on computers, M. struggles with keeping track of changes to files.

This is the simplest possible tutorial that explains how to leverage git for very simple personal projects.

This tutorial covers:

This tutorial does NOT cover branching, stashes, resolving conflicts, merge strategies, rewriting history, pulling from remote, fixups, aliases, configuration, etc. There are millions of tutorials out there that can teach you these advanced topics.

📜 Old school versioning

We’ve all done this at some point, it looks something like this:


Quiz: In this example, which file is the latest and greatest version? I don’t know, and neither do you! If you’re using old school versioning, make damn sure you give a unique version number every time you create a new version!

This versioning strategy works ok with single-file projects. It creates some little clutter, wastes space on disk and makes your laptop heavier to carry). But that seems acceptable.

This approach breaks down as soon as your project consists of multiple files. One could apply the same “versioning” strategy to the entire folder.

🪛 The right tool for the job

To me, using file copies to version files is using a hammer to drive a screw. If you need to drive a screw, use a screwdriver. If you need to version files, use git.

git vs. GitHub

git is a tool installed on your computer. You may use it in a terminal or with a GUI. git transforms a folder into a little database and then uses that database to store and manage your versions.

You can definitely use git without GitHub. You should probably learn to use git before you even look at GitHub.

GitHub is a service from Microsoft. GitLab, BitBucket, and many others offer similar services.

What you get with GitHub:

3, 2, 1, let’s git!

Without further ado, let’s cover the very basics of git.

🍳 my-recipes.git

Let’s say you have a bunch of cooking recipes you’ve collected over the years. They are stored in a Word document on your laptop.


A note on convention

If there is a $ character at the beginning of a line, it’s a prompt. It means i issued a command. If there is no $, then it’s the command output. Lines begining with # are comments Example:

# This is a comment
$ echo foo     <= This is me issuing the command
foo            <= This is the output of the command

Let’s see how to transfer and manage this knowledge-base with git.

1. Create a repository

A repository is a special folder that acts as a database.

I like to name my repository folder project-name.git to easily tell distinguish a regular folder from a repository folder. But this is just personal preference, you can name your repository however you want.

# Create the new empty folder
$ mkdir my-recipes.git

# Enter the directory (the rest of commands are issued from within)

# Turn the current folder (.) into a git repository
$ git init .

Congratulations, you just created your first repository. This still just looks like an empty folder, but it’s not: git initialized an database inside a hidden folder (my-recipes.git/.git/).

You don’t need to know what is inside this hidden folder. You never interact with it directly. But it’s useful to know this is where git does its magic (stores all your versions and other metadata).

2. Add your existing document

One way to look think of git is: If you would like to go back to something at some point in the future, then commit it!

You may at some point in the future want to retrieve your original Word document, so let’s commit it!

# Copy the original recipes into the repository folder.
$ cp ~/Documents/recipes.adoc .

Rather than moving the original file (~/Documents/recipes.adoc) in the repo, I made a copy. Just in case. You really don’t want to lose it while you mess up with git for the first time. We can always delete it later.

Let’s look at the status of your repository folder:

$ git status
On branch master

No commits yet

Untracked files:
  (use "git add <file>..." to include in what will be committed)

nothing added to commit but untracked files present (use "git add" to track)

Let’s explain line by line:

$ git status

I’m invoking the status command of git. Which prints an overview of the status of the local repository folder (there are many more commands, ignore them for now, but if you are curious, try git help which lists them).

On branch master

Branches are an advanced topic, you don’t need to care about them for now. However, notice your screen may actually say main rather than master. This is a recent change of convention, but for our purposes it’s just a name.

No commits yet

You just created this repo fresh a second ago, so there’s no history at all. If history existed, it would give you a recap of the most recent commit.

Untracked files:
  (use "git add <file>..." to include in what will be committed)

Git is saying: “there is a file I haven’t seen before in this folder: recipes.adoc”. It also suggests “if you want to start versioning this file, use git add.

nothing added to commit but untracked files present (use "git add" to track)

This is telling you that you have not staged any files or changes for commit. More on this later.

This status is very verbose, and contains help messages. For the rest of this document, I’ll use the “succint” version, which gives you the same information but more compact:

$ git status --short
?? recipes.adoc

This says the same as before: there is a file, recipes.adoc and I’ve never seen it before ('??' means ‘untracked’).

2.1. First stage and commit

Creating a new version for your repository is done in 2 steps:

  1. Stage: select the files you want to include in the next version.
  2. Commit: create the next version of the repository, which consists of the changes/files you staged.

We want git to start managing/versioning/tracking your recipes file.

So first let’s stage the file:

$ git add recipes.adoc

This stages the document. Notice it does not make any change whatsoever to the file. This is true for pretty much all the comments in this document: git does NOT modify your files. It just tracks them and makes copies in the “magic” folder.

After adding the file to the index (another way to say staged the file, or added the file), take a look at the status:

$ git st --short
A  recipes.adoc

It is saying: “a file i’ve never seen before is staged” A stands for “added”. If you ask for status in the “verbose” mode, it probably says the same with more words:

$ git status
Changes to be committed:
  (use "git rm --cached <file>..." to unstage)
	new file:   recipes.adoc

This is also telling you how to “unstage”. Removing from the staging also does not delete or modify the file, it just means the file goes back to ‘untracked’ status.

Our objective for the first version is to put your file under version control. The file is now staged, so let’s go ahead and commit:

$ git commit -m "Adding the original recipes word document"
[master (root-commit) cdab0fc] Adding the original recipes word document
 1 file changed, 0 insertions(+), 0 deletions(-)
 create mode 100644 recipes.adoc

Commit means “create a new version of the repository with all the changes currently staged”.

A commit requires a message: a short description of what changed in this commit. The message itself doesn’t really matter to git. You could say -m "cacca" and it would be perfectly happy with it.

Commit messages are for you. Your repository is going to quickly grow to hundreds of versions, and it’s going to be nice to scroll them and know what each commit does just by looking at the message.

Congratulation, you just created the first version of your repository!

Let’s look at a status because here is when people can panic.

$ git status
On branch master
nothing to commit, working tree clean

I can hear you screaming: “WTF? Where did my file go???”

As I said before staging and committing do not touch the files they just create metadata. Your file is still there. Go ahead and check.

It is not showing up in status because the file has no changes. The file you have is identical to the file git knows to be the latest committed version. So git doesn’t even bother showing it to you, git cares more about changes to your directory!

3. Multiple files

At this point, you could be happy with what you have: a repository consisting of a single file. Every time you modify the file, you could stage and commit, and over time you would have a versioned file, allowing you to go back to revisit previous versions if you made a mistake.

This is good, but let’s make it better: split recipes into individual files.

$ touch tiramisu.txt cappone.txt carbonara.txt

This just creates 3 empty files.

$ git st --short
?? cappone.txt
?? carbonara.txt

As expected, git is saying: there are 3 files I’ve never seen before.

Let’s add a first version of the recipe. For the sake of this example, I’m starting with a very shitty version of the recipes.

Edit the files to add this content:

Pasta alla Carbonara

1. Cuoci la pasta
2. Aggiungi il sugo
Cappone della Nonna

1. Spenna il cappone
2. Cuocilo in forno

Let’s check status after adding the recipes:

$ git st --short
?? cappone.txt
?? carbonara.txt

Same as before: 2 files never seen before.

Let’s create a new version of the repository by adding these new files (with the current content) and creating a new commit.

$ git add cappone.txt carbonara.txt
$ git commit -m "Importing carbonara and cappone recipes"

So far so good. Now that you have some history (2 commits) we can look back at it.

The log command is the goto for looking at repository history (altough GUIs are usually even easier). The log command has a thousand options, let’s stick to the simplest:

$ git log --oneline
41330d2 (HEAD -> master) Importing carbonara and cappone recipes
cdab0fc Adding the original recipes word document

This list the full history of your repository, most recent on top.

The first code (e.g, 41330d2) it’s just a unique identifier for each commit. Yours will be different than mine even if the files are identical, because the commit author and date will be different for your commits.

Try this alternative view of history, which includes the files changed summary:

$ git log --stat

And feel free to explore more log options described in the manual (hit q to exit):

$ git help log

4. Make history

A git repository records a set of mutation in a specific order.

Let’s make history by changing a file.

Add a step number 3 to the cappone.txt recipe. Edit the file and save.

Status should tell you that the file is different than the last version git is aware of:

$ git status --short
 M cappone.txt

And the diff command can tell you exactly what changed:

$ git diff
diff --git a/cappone.txt b/cappone.txt
index 825997d..660f0eb 100644
--- a/cappone.txt
+++ b/cappone.txt
@@ -2,3 +2,4 @@ Cappone della Nonna

 1. Spenna il cappone
 2. Cuocilo in forno
+3. Riposa 10 minuti

Notice the + in front of the last line. It’s telling you that you added this line, while the rest of the file is unchanged.

This new version is good, so let’s commit it!

$ git add cappone.txt
$ git commit -m "Improved cappone recipe"

Let’s do a different change now, one that touches multiple lines. Add a new step 1 to the carbonara recipe.

After editing, it should look like this:

$ git diff
diff --git a/carbonara.txt b/carbonara.txt
index 78852c9..700ee0a 100644
--- a/carbonara.txt
+++ b/carbonara.txt
@@ -1,4 +1,5 @@
 Pasta alla Carbonara

-1. Cuoci la pasta
-2. Aggiungi il sugo
+1. Bolli l'aqua
+2. Cuoci la pasta
+3. Aggiungi il sugo

Notice how git is not showing this as simply adding a line at the top. It’s telling you the two original lines are gone, and 3 new lines were added.

This time, try to stage your changes using “interactive” add:

$ git add -p
diff --git a/carbonara.txt b/carbonara.txt
index 78852c9..700ee0a 100644
--- a/carbonara.txt
+++ b/carbonara.txt
@@ -1,4 +1,5 @@
 Pasta alla Carbonara

-1. Cuoci la pasta
-2. Aggiungi il sugo
+1. Bolli l'aqua
+2. Cuoci la pasta
+3. Aggiungi il sugo
(1/1) Stage this hunk [y,n,q,a,d,e,?]? y

$ git commit -m "Improved carbonara recipe"