An Argument For Acknowledging Multiple Disciplines In PKM

This was inspired by a discussion on the Obsidian Discord, started by @Battle_beaver’s post over at Two basic designs for a PKM library: mind maps vs. mind diagrams.

TL;DR

I present “PKM” as a collection of at least two fundamental disciplines, and argue that acknowledging this separation of ideas has benefits for us as individuals and as a community. I suggest two categories: “The Library” in which we act as “librarians” and “The Study Room” in which we act as “students”, and suggest that these two roles, while mutually beneficial, utilize unique sets of skills.

Read If

  • You have ever had a discussion in PKM where it took too long to even figure out where the other person was coming from.
  • Are interested in PKM theory.
  • Find yourself struggling to organize or struggling to think within your PKM system. Especially if you find yourself struggling to do one when you meant to do the other.

The Argument

Something I have observed in the PKM community is a tendency to have difficulty explaining what, exactly, PKM is. This doesn’t surprise me so much; defining abstract ideas is hard. What surprises me is how often people who have been “doing” PKM for years find themselves talking about different things, having difficulty understanding which of their fundamental assumptions regarding the nature of PKM the other party doesn’t share.

I suspect the reasons for these fundamental miscommunications run very deep. But one particular area jumped out at me that I wanted to write about: PKM is at least two things, but is usually only acknowledged as one.

By this I mean that, to be successful in “managing one’s knowledge” (for the majority of use cases I have seen), you need TWO unique skillsets. The only person I have seen acknowledge this is @nickmilo in his Linking Your Thinking course. But his observation was only around the different mindsets from which different individuals approach PKM. I want to go further, and suggest that there are different sets of skills and optimizations which are best applied in isolation from each other, depending on which “area” of PKM we are facilitating.

I call these areas “The Library” and “The Study Room”.

When in The Library, we are librarians. Our goals are to organize, optimize, categorize, and otherwise prepare knowledge for consumption.

When in The Study Room, we are students. Our goals are to research or combine old ideas from our library, and to record new ideas. We may bring in new brand new resources as well (research material), and take notes on them for future use.

To be effective in each of these roles is a completely different set of skills! In fact, I contend they are often opposing mindsets!

If you have come to study, but instead end up thinking about alphabetization and the pros / cons of the Dewey (or Johnny) decimal systems work, you aren’t going to have an effective thinking session. You’re acting like a librarian, not a student.

If you have come to organize, but let your mind wander, reading and experiencing everything you have stored previously, you won’t have an effective organizational session. You’re acting like a student, not a librarian.

In both cases, the consequences for distraction from a given role are potentially severe. If you are a poor librarian, then you cannot find what you need as a student. If you are a a poor student, your library stagnates and you lose many of the benefits PKM promises for better thinking and accelerating production of knowledge.

So, it seems to me these roles are separate and mutually beneficial. They also overlap, to some extent. After all, a good librarian is often a good student, and there’s no reason a good student cannot be a librarian! Why not be both at once?

But I maintain they are separate roles best thought of and executed separately, simply because the attentional space necessary to execute them well is sufficient that focusing on one will always detract from the other.

In Conclusion

I believe these two roles are the fundamental disciplines of PKM, and that we can strengthen our discussions and approaches to PKM by acknowledging and adopting terms for these different sets of skills. They don’t have to be my terms… just any shared terms for these ideas.

Some of us, I suspect, are natural librarians. Some, natural students. Maybe some are both. But when discussing any problem one has encountered in PKM, I think it is beneficial to at least first ask “Is this a librarian problem or a student problem?”.

On an individual level, simply recognizing the need to change mindsets may bring some level of clarity to the situation.

On a community level, I hope recognizing these fundamental disciplines may help us miscommunicate just a little bit less, and understand where others are coming from just a little bit more. I also believe we benefit by studying each discipline’s unique skills and attributes and recognizing which discipline they belong to, to better help apply them at the most effective time.

All the best, and thank you for reading,

– Price

P.S.

If there’s existing writing on this topic, I would love to read it!

5 Likes

Thanks for sharing this. I wish I had longer to respond.

One thing that jumped out about the different mindsets is that the two tandem. I am a librarian, so I can have a good place to study. And I study, so I need a good library to work from. I was thinking about how to apply this, and I think that means that your librarianship should store and organize things in a way that help you, the student. And you the student, as you wander about the world learning and coming across things, that you hand the things off to your librarian that need to be organized and stored.

It’s a lot like the discussion; around what to keep in your PKM and links versus tags. Good libraries have only what the students need. Nothing more because more makes it hard to find what you need. And students have to learn how to work with the library, so they get the best advantage out of it.

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Thank you for reading it and chiming in!

I did wonder if I should put in a part on application. And I probably will follow up with more of that in the future, but everything you said was absolutely correct.

To me, the primary application is remembering to approach our work within PKM intentionally as either a librarian or a student at that one point in time. The next application is using this as a framework for discussing, as a community, how we become better librarians and students, specifically.

How do we practice these skills, in pursuit of mastery? That’s what I want to know!

Agree. I’ve previously said that good note taking fundamentally comes down to the following practices:

  • Reading (or watching, listening, etc) analytically with an eye towards identifying ideas that wind throughout the work
  • Extracting those ideas and decomposing them into atomic units
  • Synthesizing multiple atomic ideas into new ideas gained through insight

So its analytical decomposition followed by recomposition/synthesis.

Those are the fundamental activities described by Luhmann and also by Mortimer Adler in his text How to Read a Book.

These are also the fundamental activities described by Piotr Wozniak in his work through his SuperMemo spaced repetition learning system and his extensive online writings on fluidity and speed in learning and insight making.

And they are the fundamental activities described in e.g. Learning How to Learn both the Coursera course and the book.

A sound note taking system enables both of these.

And the fact is that both of these are difficult skills to learn and master. Most people are not taught how to do either let alone both. And this difficulty is what many newcomers run into. They begin with Obsidian and then quickly run into barriers where they are forced to confront the reality that they don’t have the understanding and skills (yet) to overcome the problems they encounter in their note taking system. And without sound guidance and mentoring, and a lot of effort on their part to learn and internalize the principles, they never go deeper or worse abandon the tool and techniques entirely.

TLDR: Notes give you a space to think. Thinking is hard work. And there’s no free lunch.

2 Likes

One of the best posts I’ve read on here that acknowledges your PKM is only as strong as the theories behind them.

I think I would have ended up abandoning Obsidian had I not been introduced to some ideas of PKM, much like Davecan spoke of in their post. I only was able to properly get a handle on obsidian by studying @nickmilo 's videos on his Linking Your Thinking youtube channel. That’s when things finally took off. Cheers for that @nickmilo ! You’re a Mad C ( Mad C = Awesome Person! - I’m Aussie if you can’t tell already haha ).

Your post pointed out how PKMs are a central part of this community, but, it seems, really really freaking difficult to explain what PKM is, and that’s just with fellow members let alone to people new to the idea of PKM. It really seems to be subjective to the personal preferences of the individual user, but preferences are only found through trial and error at the moment.

Thank you for articulating so well one of the biggest hills in PKM, the need for isolating “areas” of pkm. It’s a balancing game and maybe the biggest learning curve, depending where you are at in your own “process” (might be the word). You usually find yourself working either isolating or merging these areas. I personally think there are more areas than “The Library” and “The Study Room” but I haven’t got any names for them yet. Have to agree 100% the two you established in your post are often opposing mindsets, especially given one is all about organizing and the other is about mixing. You can’t do one without the other being up to scratch and the stronger you want one to be the weaker the other needs to be. Hence why you find yourself focusing on your “librarian” skill set when you go to come up with ideas, or be a good “student” because you have to make changes to your “librarian” area to start coming up with ideas. Leading you to feeling like you are breaking your “librarian” area and feeling like “I just cleaned up this mess!”. Ying meet Yang…Try and play nice.

You made an interesting point before you began your conclusion of the need for separate attention, as the necessary attention to execute one of the two needed skills will detract from the other if both are tried. Would a solution to this would be a third skill to bring these two areas together with a single line of execution where one compliments the other?
Though, simply recognizing the need to change mindsets may be the solution most effective for everyone with this issue.
Just throwing this out there, would the creation of different disciplines within the PKM community help? Maybe the LYT kit and PARA kit aren’t just templates, they need to be full blown established and recognized disciplines within the PKM System?

Your conclusion had a good idea, Obsidian may need a PKM lingo guide. The use of categorizing “librarian problems” and “student problems” will do wonders when it comes to discussion, I’m going to be adopting those in my future posts. I might work on some kind of basic lingo guide myself if I get the time. Start the ball rolling. Though whether it’s a good idea trusting an Aussie with the creation of adoptable terms is anyone’s guess. They won’t be crude slang… pinkey swear… what is that American expression?.. Scout’s Honour? Haha!

Davecan made an excellent point about the method used in Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book, at one stage I wrote out that method in Obsidian and tried to turn it into a template that prompted the use of the different tools within the method. Never heard of Supermemo though @davecan, I will be checking it out. Cheers for that one @davecan, I’ve been looking for something on fluidity. Couldn’t agree more with Davecan that either skillset of “librarian” or “student” or any PKM skills for that matter don’t seem to be taught to many people. Yet the more I work with PKM, the more it seems like the most basic school that should be taught in a school system after reading and writing.

As for practicing these skills in pursuit of mastery, I just hold a basic single page reference guide to the process I have created and let repetition take it’s hold. Hopefully it will become like muscle memory.

I don’t actually have much existing writing on this topic, which is why I appreciate your post and this community alot, there are so many times where I feel like I’m fishing in the dark on the subject of PKM theory. So not much existing writing just my own chicken scratch but I will reply to this post if I come across something.

If there was any way for me to say where I am coming from I think the best way to say is, Librarian or Student, I am not a natural at either, and that’s entirely a me problem. So I coming from a place of kind of struggling to get a natural feel on this system. I have been working on my own PKM theories which mostly revolves around Obsidian’s capacity to take your notes and create it’s own (for lack of a better word) “Organisms” of information which result in idea generation…by Obsidian. Sometimes without my own brainstorming… which gets a little spooky. I discovered, at least for myself, through these experiments, something you mentioned in your post, the nature of PKM. Only, it seemed that a combination of my notes and the tools and functions of obsidian seemed to create it’s own “nature”. This might be the “Third” area of PKM besides the “Librarian” and the “Student” but I have yet to properly categorize this as a “area” of PKM.

Well I got alot out of this post that will enrich further discussions. Having a common language for PKM will really help people communicate their personal theories for their own PKMs.

Hope this post gets viewed alot this person’s onto something

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First of all, that’s a super thoughtful response and thank you so much for writing it all out! Both to you and @davecan.

it seems, really really freaking difficult to explain what PKM is, and that’s just with fellow members let alone to people new to the idea of PKM. It really seems to be subjective to the personal preferences of the individual user, but preferences are only found through trial and error at the moment.

Yes, I firmly believe that if we don’t work out some of these theoretical aspects of PKM, we’re going to be cursed to the “this trick worked once, let’s all try it” cycle forever. Our best systems today, including LYT, are that way (and I say that as someone who considers @nickmilo a friend and also thinks LYT is an amazing achievement. I don’t mean to deride either in any way.). Same with, say, PARA (though I’m less aware of that system, so maybe it goes deeper than I know). Heck, even Zettelkasten itself is usually presented as just “It worked for Luhmann, maybe it’ll work for us.”

We have these frameworks, but no one really knows what they’re running on, and as a result it’s almost impossible to discuss meaningfully across platforms. We have trouble trading learnings. We have trouble understanding why things work for some people and not for others. For a group who’s stated goal is managing knowledge, we don’t seem to have put knowledge of our system at the center of our system, and that concerns me. And, of course, it also makes it difficult to learn the skills needed for PKM, as we experience that push-and-pull struggle for our attention, without any terminology to recognize what’s happening.

But to swing back, I also want to directly acknowledge that these frameworks are important as well. We’re too far away from figuring the theory of this thing out to just wait. People like Nick are going to town making sure we’re being pragmatic, functional, and effective, and I love to see it.

…personally think there are more areas than “The Library” and “The Study Room” but I haven’t got any names for them yet.

I would be shocked if that weren’t the case. Nick’s "planet of PKM’ (https://twitter.com/NickMilo/status/1384157688540528651?s=20) expresses some possibilities, but I think they all fall under “The Library” and “The Study Room”. They’re still valuable and useful, though, as they can probably be used to further break down understanding being a Librarian or a Student for developing sets of skills.

You made an interesting point before you began your conclusion of the need for separate attention, as the necessary attention to execute one of the two needed skills will detract from the other if both are tried. Would a solution to this would be a third skill to bring these two areas together with a single line of execution where one compliments the other?

I’m not convinced that’s the case, yet, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be. It’s quite possible there’s a skill to, for instance, pruning existing evergreen notes which uses skills from both areas. I’m not sure, but it would have to be unique from the other two.

Obsidian may need a PKM lingo guide.

My feeling is that this is not Obsidian’s problem but “our” problem. The next problem is that I don’t know who to include in “our”. :stuck_out_tongue: The “PKM Community” as a whole, in my mind. Beyond that, the whole “knowledge worker” community as well. At least. Anyone who cares about externally storing, creating, and utilizing knowledge.

I say this because I think it effects anyone in PKM, using Obsidian or not. “We” have to acknowledge and agree on these terms. This post’s objective is really just to get to acknowledgement that these are even ideas that we should pay attention to, en masse. To raise the concern that if we don’t pay attention to these issues a lot of our pragmatic work is just going in circles.

Well I got alot out of this post that will enrich further discussions. Having a common language for PKM will really help people communicate their personal theories for their own PKMs.

Thank you so much for engaging in such a thoughtful manner. I wasn’t sure if this idea would gain traction, but you two have given me enough of a boost to keep going with my thoughts along these lines. I do hope, over time, more people will see this as an interesting and useful part of us all figuring out what PKM is. I personally think we’ve barely scratched the surface.

All the best!

We have these frameworks, but no one really knows what they’re running on, and as a result it’s almost impossible to discuss meaningfully across platforms. We have trouble trading learnings.

I disagree with this. While its true that many people conflate Obsidian the tool with various PKM methods there are also many people who do distinguish between the two.

That’s actually critical for newcomers to understand:

  • Obsidian is a tool that can implement multiple PKM workflows
  • PKMs are frameworks that each can be implemented in multiple tools

The two are orthogonal. Too many people IMO conflate Obsidian with LYT or other frameworks and it leads to confusion. You don’t have to use Obsidian in any particular way, its just a tool. And likewise any of those frameworks can be implemented in many different tools.

Personally I use a Zettelkasten-based approach and it not only worked for Luhmann but it works quite well for me as well. :slight_smile:

Incidentally I’m not a fan of the term PKM other than accepting it for what it is – a vague fuzzy all-encompassing term that can’t really be meaningfully broken down much further than that. It’s a generic acronym meant to abstract away a group of concepts for reasoning at a particular level, nothing more.

It’s like the term ICT “Information and Communication Technology.” It’s used to reason in general about anything ranging from smartphones to laptops to desktops to IOT devices to to social media apps to productivity apps to … literally anything used in communications.

That’s useful for discussions at an extremely broad generic level but not useful for actual use by most people.

When it comes to actual practical use it fundamentally boils down to:

  • Focus on extracting the ideas from whatever work you are studying
  • Break down that ideas into individual atomic units
  • Synthesize those ideas to create new insights and knowledge

That’s essentially the Zettelkasten approach. And “coincidentally” is also fundamentally what studying is about. It’s also essentially never taught to students. But its the fundamental core of what makes a good student. And most people can learn these basic skills with some practice and apply them and vastly expand their knowledge.

I disagree with this. While its true that many people conflate Obsidian the tool with various PKM methods there are also many people who do distinguish between the two.

There might be a miscommunication here, because:

The two are orthogonal. Too many people IMO conflate Obsidian with LYT or other frameworks and it leads to confusion. You don’t have to use Obsidian in any particular way, its just a tool. And likewise any of those frameworks can be implemented in many different tools.

I fully agree with that, which sounded like the basis of your disagreement. I do stand by “it’s almost impossible to discuss meaningfully across platforms” because I have seen it so frequently in discussion, such as in the Obsidian Discord. I think this is a failing of language. Most people–including me–seem to only have language for their process, not for their problems in the “PKM” space.

It’s a generic acronym meant to abstract away a group of concepts for reasoning at a particular level, nothing more.

I agree, which is kind of what I’m hoping we can decompose into more meaningful concepts. I think your ICT example is very on point. “IT” (as in “information technology”) comes to mind as well.

When it comes to actual practical use it fundamentally boils down to:

  • Focus on extracting the ideas from whatever work you are studying
  • Break down that ideas into individual atomic units
  • Synthesize those ideas to create new insights and knowledge

In principle, I agree. And I really like those points as a summary of what we’re after, but they also seem like bit of a Draw the Owl situation. The whole question, to me, is how do we “best” go about doing those things. How do we practice them, and become better?

For instance: “Break down that ideas into individual atomic units”.

The definition of what an “atomic unit” is doesn’t seem widely agreed on, despite getting discussed a lot (“conceptually atomic notes” vs “evergreen notes” vs “whatever fits on an index card”, etc…); and it might be difficult for someone rolling their own system in Obsidian to reconcile their ideas of an “atomic unit” with someone doing pure Zettelkasten’s “atomic unit”, leading to a misunderstanding of what the fundamental problem that “Break down that ideas into individual atomic units” is supposed to be solving in the first place.

Ideally, we would both look at that and say “Well that’s an X problem”, where “X” is some shared language that expresses this fundamental issue of managing knowledge. In the very simple scheme I suggested, I might say “This is a Librarian problem, and your goal is to focus on storing these big ideas in a way that can be quickly retrieved later on, from different contexts.” Some of the value there comes in the exclusion of the student role, therefore implicitly saying “Don’t go off trying to synthesize new ideas while you’re breaking them down.”

In any case, thank you for your earlier reading recommendations (I’ve read most of them but not all), and for giving your thought to this question! It definitely forces me to refine my thinking and my language for expressing it.