This is an ongoing stone in my shoe with regard to Obsidian. You can find other topics here where I have discussed this issue, and I still find it frustrating.
I use Obsidian to manage writing projects for short and medium-length articles, each of which takes hours or days to complete, and then sometimes hangs around a few weeks longer while other people edit and review it, and then I revise the articles and they’re published and the whole project is ready to archive.
Grouping notes and documents together for each article always seems to involve a lot of extra clicks, typing and steps.
I’m currently using folders, with each folder given a project code and meaningful title, which then gets repeated in the notes themselves, because otherwise backlinks aren’t helpful. I have a standing request to Obsidian to show full folder paths in backlinks, but if that’s possible, I haven’t seen it.
Here are the ways that I am aware of to group related notes together:
Tags. Not useful outside Obsidian. Seems basically the same as folders but less useful.
Links and backlinks, obviously. But I fear if I ever have to give up Obsidian, the links and backlinks will stop working and I’ll be left with an undifferentiated pile of documents. Similarly, links and backlinks aren’t useful when using the Mac Finder to access documents, which I often do.
Something involving Dataview, which is a bit more programming than I’m comfortable with, seems like it would be a lot of maintenance, would not be visible outside Obsidian, and possibly would not crosslink–that is to say, I could link from a folder note to its documents, but I could not easily see which project a document is part of, if I’m looking at the document.
How do other people solve the basic problem of grouping three or more related notes together? Are y’all just happy with your links and backlinks and graph views, and the occasional canvas?
Maybe I should give up on the idea of having an organizational system that’s useful outside of Obsidian, and just go all in on the O?
I disagree. You can apply multiple tags to one file, while a file has to live in only one folder. Tags and folders are the same only if all your notes have one grouping.
It’s true that you do become dependent on Obsidian the more features you use. But i think of this more as a spectrum than a binary thing: how costly would it be to use the feature if there is a problem with Obsidian? In the case of tags and links, a text-based search inside the documents gets you started. You only have to use the correct syntax. Dataview queries are a lot harder to replicate from outside Obsidian.
Links and tags are a very basic, central feature of Obsidian. If you give them up for data durability reasons (data lives longer tha obsidian), I think some frustrations are to be expected. Maybe other software you trust more (such as the MacOS finder) could be considered. Another option is this: build an “emergency workflow” using Finder to reassure yourself, and then drink the Obsidian Kool-aid.
Folders are important parts of the filesystem, but avoid thinking about them as contributing any semantic structure to the vault because that would lock you into a non malleable single hierarchy. Though they can still be useful albeit superfluous.
Tags along with metadata and links are the building blocks for the semantic structuring of your PKM.
I have come to see folders as a lightweight non-semantic way to organize data for myself rather than the PKM. For structuring the data for the PKM I rely on linls, tags, and metadata. I found that if I organize folders semantically, I always get trapped by trying to figure out where something fits in and whether I should create a new folder etc. Wherease by type is more straight forward. By type I mean type of note. Typically these are unambiguous and unequivocal. I always know what a particular note’s type is as I am writing it and there is not doubt. And when I am looking for a note while I may have a very fuzzy idea of the name of the note or keywords or tags or metdata etc. to search for, I am always clear on what type of note it is.
Semantic notes: notes for encoding/decoding the world, wrapping ideas in text. Includes:
source or literature notes
“evergreen” / “permanent” notes
MOC’s, indexes, annotated bibliographies etc.
Logistic/administration notes: tasking, todo’s, forms, recommendation letters, meeting notes etc. All the busywork of life that we need to do so we can survive
“Data” notes: facts, figures, tables, language references,
“Utility” notes: technical how-to’s etc.
I currently use tags to pull together a bunch of notes for a theme (e.g., #topic/aviation/aircraft) or purpose (e.g., #project/42). I also use tags to indicate “workflow” stuff (e.g., #flagged/in-progress to drop an anchor at the last edit point in something I was working on so I know where to resume. Tags complement metadata and links as the building blocks of my PKM “semantic” structure (whereas folders are more for logistic organization, and are essentially “invisible” to the PKM semantics and my sense-making).
In my original post, the list hierarchy got messed up which may have obscured what I meant when I referred to “semantic” notes; it should be clearer now,
Another possible confusion is that I am using “semantic” in two contexts. One is in the sense of a note type: Pretty much anything that would find a home in a Zettlekasten or PKM note graph, as opposed to GTD, project logistics, productivity, task management, and all the other stuff that might typically be going on in a “omnivault”.
The other is when I reference the “semantic structuring” of the vault. And by that I just mean the combination of metadata + tags + (if that is your policy) folders that you use to navigate your vault, resurface or discover notes, etc. For e.g., “#topic/astronomy/blah”.
If you decide to decouple the semantic structure of of your vault from the artifactual structuring of the filesystem, then, coupled with Obsidian’s magic refactoring, you can freely reorganize folders as you want, need, or just for experimentation. Folders can still be useful, but without being constraining.
I spent a year or more noodling around with PKMs and zettelkastens and decided I still didn’t really understand it and it’s not for me. I’ve been a business technology journalist for more than 30 years, and have evolved my own systems for managing information.
I’m starting to think I should start simple and build. Move my entire, current, elaborate folder hierarchy aside into a bigger folder that I’ll probably just give today’s date. Then start over again with a single flat folder and let the structure grow organically.
This is almost certainly the correct path for everyone to go from the beginning, including myself if I had such foresight
In my case, this realization came after countless hours of enthusiastic over-engineering driven by the bad strategy of “building the bridges before we get there”, rather than as needed. Eventually we will figure it out, but apart from the time, then there are all those junk/obsolete/failed-experiment clutter to deal with.