Best practice for historical research?

So I’ve spent a few days researching about Zettelkasten and Obsidian and finally it seems like I have a decent idea about the 3 step note taking process.

Yet, I remain very confused about the organisational aspect and somehow I have not been able to find many examples of people doing research.

My goal is to study multiple books on a subject for e.g. WW2 and use the zettelkasten process with that. Of course, with primary focus on information retention and quick retrieval in future.

If someone has a link to any such examples or to people doing this, I would really appreciate it, coz after a few days, I still don’t seem very confident with this.

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Anyone ? Or any examples whatsoever of historical note taking from books?

Not sure if this is what you’re looking for, but here’s my system. I have four note folders and one for all attachments: References, People, Notes, and Inbox. Each book goes into References with the note title as the book title. I usually add information about the date of publication and location of the book. There’s also a link to the author, who is in the People folder.
As I read the book any notes I make go on a zettelkasten note (using the plugin) with a link to the book. These go into the Inbox, and get reviewed every few days. During that review I may add to the note, make additional links to people or events, and where appropriate add new notes for questions or followup items. When done, I move the note to Notes.
On top of all this, I have a Map Of Contents (MOC) that starts with my areas of interest, then at the next level more details. The really neat thing with a MOC is you can order and reorder your notes as you want. For WW2, I might have one MOC by year, a second one for each Theater of Operations, and a third based on campaigns: Torch, Overlord, Barbarossa, that sort of thing.
You don’t have to do this all at once. My system has evolved over time, for example I started out with many more folders but have consolidated them down to the four above.
Hope this helps.


I’m a medieval historian and I use a system that suits my historical research rather than any theoretical Zettelkasten system. It has similarities to rfreeborn56.

I have a list of sources, including manuscripts, that I want to consult for my research, perhaps with a note of the pages or sections to look up. The next stage is to find out where I can get hold of a copy, whether in my local university, a distant library somewhere, internet access, or perhaps buying it myself second hand. I download catalogue entries with Zotero or enter them by hand. When I’m ready to start reading a work, I create a note called e.g. Crouch English Aristocracy. I start with the full bibliography entry for the work, dragged over from Zotero. I then give details of where I found the work and the date(s) I read it. I leave space for comments on the author and the work as a whole, add a keyword or two, and finish with an automatic embedded list of any other notes I have that mention and .

I make separate notes, all linked to my first note, calling them e.g. CrouchE 51 Knights as a social group. This shows what the note is about, and it keeps all the notes from one source together and in order. I rarely note everything from a book, but instead choose to write notes on (a) details of relevant evidence, usually copied verbatim, to use for or against various interpretations, mine or other people’s; and (b) the comments that arise in my mind as I read the author’s interpretations; for this I need to paraphrase or copy verbatim enough of the passage to provide sufficient context to explain my comments. I like my notes to be self-contained, so that, with luck, I don’t have to go back to the original source again. I therefore distinguish carefully between quotes, paraphrases and my comments, and I include exact page numbers and all relevant footnotes. I add keywords, and links to other notes, and each note has an automatic footer listing its back links. All these notes are to be kept permanently for future reference.

When preparing for writing, I use what I think of as a Connection note, where I collect all my possibly relevant notes together. I start by using my keywords. I can collect all notes with keyword X and all notes with keyword Y, or I can limit them to notes that have both keyword X and keyword Y. These notes may have Out links or Back links that are relevant. I sort the notes into sections. Within each section I open the notes in separate floating windows which I can then arrange into a suitable order ready to use them for writing. The same Reading note may appear in more than one Connection note. I also keep all my Connection notes for future reference. I’m always worried that if I throw anything away I’m bound to need it later on. Fortunately, computer hard disks don’t need all the space that used to be taken up by my old index cards.

I therefore have the three types of notes, each type with its own icon. These are all kept in a single directory. I have a separate directory for pdf files of texts, and another one for images. I can put links to these in my Reading notes. For what it’s worth, I still use a very old personal wiki system, ConnectedText, for my notes. It may be that future changes to Windows will stop ConnectedText from working. I am therefore always on the lookout for a replacement. Obsidian looks as if it may well become a possibility.


Do yourself a big favor and start by slowing down and really, properly, understanding the fundamentals of zettelkasten.

“How to take smart notes” by Sonke Ahrens.

It’s a short book, only ~150 pages, and an excellent walk through of the system.
This will explain the zettelksaten method and its best practices for research.

Historical research is research. The commonalties are much greater than the differences.
The nuances of your particular field will come easily if you have a good understanding of the fundamentals.

After really studying and understanding the fundamentals, then I’d try stalking historians who have been experimenting with zettelkasten and PKM tools already.
You might want to stalk @Calhistorian and his twitter posts like this one.

He’s spent a long time thinking about PKM as it applies to history and you can learn.

But if you race ahead without the fundamentals, you’ll regret it. With time, it’ll become harder to find what you want. You’ll wish you’d spent more time focusing on the fundamentals.

Sorry if this sounds imperious. The reason I know this, and am telling you this is because I raced ahead myself :upside_down_face: I’m writing this to try to save you frustrations that won’t arise for a year or so in the future. If you read between the lines, this forum is littered with stories of people eagerly racing ahead onlyto rue not having the foundations in place.

And since you’re focusing on WW2 history, consider this quote.

“Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.”
Winston Churchill

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I have a similar approach to note-taking as @pgrh , and am also a (former) ConnectedText user. (I keep all the ConnectedText notes in the vault alongside Obsidian-native md files, and just link and revisit these notes in Obsidian as they arise in my research. Such is the compatibility of markdown(-ish) files).

One difference is that I use daily notes, which I use to focus my activities, note possible new directions, track my progress, and basically “speak to myself” about the research process. The gap in this process for me is finding the relevant “Reading notes” to put into a “Connection note”. I find tags too crude a way to connect notes, and linking relies too much on my memory of what I have in my vault. The result is I have about 55-60 core papers that I return to again and again, and no manner of tags and additional links seems to change that number.

I find it hard to respond to a question such as this:

  • I don’t believe Luhmann’s zettelkasten is a good system for students (for instance, it’s not an optimal strategy for memorisation);
  • I don’t think Ahrens’ book is a great guide to Luhmann’s process (it’s full of ideas of his own);
  • I believe the folgezettel process is important to the way it worked and not simply an artefact of the limited technology at his disposal;
  • I don’t think it is a good system for unfamiliar areas of study (Luhmann always knew enough to know where to place his cards).

At the same time, atomic notes and linking should be useful to anyone - possibly especially students in unfamiliar fields.

My suggestion would be:

  1. write one note
  2. write a second note
  3. work out how the second note relates to the first; write that down as a third note;
  4. create links from the third note to the first and second notes and from the second note to the first.
  5. Proceed as before.
    Structures should emerge in time.

Hi there @rfreeborn56! Could you possibly be a bit more specific about how you set up your different MOCs? Or maybe share a screen clipping? It sounds a lot like what I’m hoping to achieve with my notes, but I’m having trouble envisioning how it work in practice. For example, what does your MOC by year look like?

I’m a newbie and would be very grateful for an illustrative example!

Hi ds4478:

The image below is my main article/book page which is built from a template. The Dewey Decimal row is the link to the MOCs where I want this document to appear - it’s not strict Dewey Decimal but it works for me :slight_smile:. The References section is a dataview query showing everywhere I’ve referenced this article/book. Research locations is something I build manually.

The MOC’s are a dataview query pulling together the links in the Dewey Decimal section. There’s no specific logic to the MOC structure - I’ve built them as items generate enough interest to have multiple notes.

The MOC by year has become unmanageable for me. I’m currently researching the Release Timeline and Timelines community plugins which appear to have potential. My other option is Aeon timeline which I’ve used for other things, but defeats my objective of having everything in one place.

I hope this helps. Feel free to PM me if you have any additional questions

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