In late January 2021 I noticed some error messages in OneNote on Android. Synchronization issues. Usually nothing tragic. I moved over to my notebook, clicked on the "synchronize" button (dealing with errors on big screens usally works better for me) aaaaand the notebook was gone. Reset to empty. All notes gone.

That was a bit concerning. But no reason to panic just yet. Booted up the PC. Opened OneNote. Saw my notes. For a second. It then also synchronized to an empty notebook.

So all copies gone. more than 10 years of notes. Every conference, every meetup, every course I visited I documented in OneNote. The travels that I was planning to do. Cooking recipes. A lot of stuff. 

Time to panic. As I was unable to find any trace if my old notebooks (only in errors on Android these old notebooks where mentioned, but unavailable).

After looking through every computer and folder and finding noting, I decided to contact the OneNote support. As OneNote ist part of my Office365 subscription. A bit hard to reach them? "Call me back" expects you to live in the united states or Germany. Okey. So Chat-Support it is! Went through the Bot questions. Poor thing could not help me. Talking to a human. Nice invention. Could not really do much, but he or she suggested to contact OneDrive support, as I synced all notebooks they should be there somewhere.

OneDrive Support Bot it then. Went though the bot questions. Could not really do much. Do I want to email a human? Nice invention. Wrote a lengthy email about my vanished notebooks. After two weeks of back and forth the summary is this: they are gone.

Ich habe mir die Protokolle für Ihr Konto angeschaut, speziell für die Datei, die Sie erwähnt haben. Unsere Protokolle zeigen an, dass dieses Element am 13. Dezember 2020 von einer Person von der OneDrive-Website gelöscht wurde. Sobald die Artikel gelöscht wurden, gingen sie in den Papierkorb. Da die Protokolle zeigen, dass die Elemente nach 30 Tagen nicht aus dem Papierkorb wiederhergestellt wurden, wurden die Ordner und ihr Inhalt dauerhaft gelöscht. Dies bedeutet, dass wir die Ordner oder deren Inhalt nicht wiederherstellen können.

It seems I deleted the notebooks on December 13th. As I only noted they are sort of missing in late January the recycle bin was emptied - which is done automatically after 30 days. No more restore.

I can't explain how this happened. Or what happened at all. I'm willing to accept that it was me messing something up. But I never had issues with OneNote or OneDrive. So time for forensics.

I do backups. Lucky me. Step one are copies on my Synology NAS. I synchronize both OneDrive there and store the backups there too. No trace of those OneNote files. Quite weird. Level two is a copy of these files on AWS. I keep backups for around two years. 750TB of stuff. Mainly Windows crap. No OneNote files either...

I am getting mad! So. Where do we stand and what happened. 

OneNote does store local copies. In C:\Users\wemu\AppData\Local\Microsoft\OneNote - not in AppData\Roaming, as most other tools I use. No in Local. That folder is not part of the backups. Of course its not.

OneNote itself at some point put only references to my notebooks into my OneDrive. In the Documents folder there are some .url files that represent these notebooks. I usually don't use that Documents folder. It does look like a Toolbar folder from Internet Explorer. Maybe that's what happened... me randomly deleting folders that look unimportant.

But where are all the "*.one" files that contain my stuff?

As it turns out, there are two OneNote. OneNote and OneNote for Windows 10. One comes with Office 365, one is installed via the Microsoft Store.

In OneNote you can turn on a feature to create daily backups. It's not turned on by default? At least it was not on for me. Since I prefer the navigation on OneNote for Windows 10 I wasn't using OneNote much. And that has to run every now and then to create those backup files.

Then there is OneNote fancy-ness itself: you can create a new notebook directly in OneDrive. This will create one of those .url files into your OneDrive folder. If you create a zip File of your whole OneDrive folder, your notebook will not be part of it, only that reference will be. Dear lord this is so stupid.

If you create a notebook "on you PC" you can still put it in some OneDrive folder, but now a .one file will be created.

Management Summary

  • OneNote for Windows 10 is nice to work with, but does not give you any control of the .one files, should you be willing to have them backed up. Only if you are very careful when creating notebooks.
  • OneDrive as part of the Office 365 subscription empties the recycle bin after 30 days. No settings available. You may have 1TB of storage and still 900GB available. But it s really important to have that emptied at this pace...
    It may be better to create you own "Recycle Bin" folder and move stuff in there... this 30 day policy is stupid.
  • OneNote (from the Office 365 setup) has more control on backups and files, but has to be used to do that. At least this way the notebooks will be part of your backups.
  • Creating a notebook directly on OneDrive does only create a .url file. The notebook is now owned by the cloud. It's not yours anymore.
  • Creating a notebook on your local PC (even inside the OneDrive folder) creates .one files that can be backup-ed.

I don't understand this mess.


Backups are good. Thing is that Microsoft is a bit messy with that needs to be part of it, and even a disk image would not have helped here! Because the cloud is your friend! Until it isn't anymore.

The only safe way seems to be to make sure you actually see those .one files after you created a new notebook. Or use OneNote and turn on the backup feature.

Is this on by default? No. Good defaults are what should be done here!

After some weeks of sadness I gave up. I tried a few "undelete" tools on all the PCs that had the notebooks. None found anything OneNote related. 

I did not use these notes every day. So the notes where taken more for myself. It might be my way of remembering this. So it's not a catastrophic disaster. I moan more about the notes that I took for future things.

If I will continue using OneNote is undecided. I want sane defaults that work in my favour, which are not in place.

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