How to create Indexes & Citation notes

Things I have tried

Hello. I’ve been studying the Zettelkasten method and learning how to get started with this, as well as migrate a ton of notes from various other places into Obsidian.
The two things I am struggling to solve are how to build an Index and Citation page in Obsidian.

What I’m trying to do

I’ve watched hours of YouTube and read the forums as well as Discord (difficult sorting through all that), as well as read countless articles on the internet and I’m still not sure how to create these two key elements.

Does anyone have ideas or solutions?

What kind of index/citation note are you thinking of?

My citations notes are quite basic: I have a separate citation manager (Bibdesk), and just put the citekey in the obsidian note to identify where the citation comes from. I also have literature notes where I do the same thing (name it with the citekey and then also collect the citations belonging to that book/paper).

For index and such, I find the dataview plugin super helpful, if you set up your notes with the appropriate data.



The Zettelkasten method usually implies two kinds of note linking: note sequences and cross-references (links in Obsidian). The problem or characteristic with simple (yet sophisticated) text-based and link-based programs like Obsidian is that they ignore the note sequence principle in order to maintain simplicity and clarity and to avoid too much metadata. You can argue about the question whether a note sequence principle should be omitted because it certainly lacks dynamics and implements a predefined order that actually is yet to be developed in the process. I have come a way from ZKN3 (with note sequence principle) and have decided to exclusively work with cross-references (as Obsidian does). But that depends on your workflow (how ›strong‹ is your systematic/order supposed to be?) and your specific use case.

With that said, the following is my personal workflow.

regarding citation

I agree with @atiz, the literature can simply be collected in a bibliographic management software (I use JabRef although not using LaTeX or BibKeys). There I have a fix and distinct short citation (stored in a custom field) that I use in Obsidian (and other documents like excerpts) and that distinctly points toward the literature.

regarding index

I do the indexing (by this, I guess, you are actually referring to the process of orienting yourself, of keeping an overview and of navigating to certain notes inside your Zettelkasten) in two ways that serve different purposes:

  • Tags: All notes (in contrast to Luhmann’s approach) get one or multiple tags that place the note in specific contents in which I want to find/rediscover the note later. When in general searching in a specific thematic field I search for the favoured tag (simply click in the tag pane) and look at the results. My tags are very detailed and deeply nested (at least 4 levels, up to 8 or so). The advantage in Obsidian is that the search for a superordinated tag implies the subordinated tag levels. So you always search for a tag and all subordinated tags. This search query can also be applied to the graph view which does an excellent job in giving you orientation (although there are a few feature requests for the graph view pending). There is also a local graph view that shows only the actual note with its links.
  • Maps of Content (MOCs): For a more systematic (and ›predefined‹) search I use »Maps of Content« (MOCs), i.e. notes (notes on a meta level) that contain nested lists, each is a link to a specific note. Here I exclusively place specific thematic focal points (= key aspects of a thematic field). For example there is a MOC for Marx’s Critique of Political Economy where I collect the key aspects of his economic-philosophical thinking (e.g. writings, methodological fundamentals, thematic clusters spanning over different writings). These MOCs require and imply a certain level and quality of development and differentiation of the thematic field. But if you already know that a specific field will be complex and differentiated and know enough of the upcoming thematic aspects and notes, you can create such a MOC from the start. The MOC serves (analogously to Luhmann’s approach, but in a more systematic way, you could say) as a note sequence but the difference is that not every step of certain sequence or argumentation is represented here, rather only the most important steps that serve as points of entry into the note net.

Hopefully this workflow serves as a possible answer for your question.


Thank you for such a thorough and thoughtful reply, AtrusRiven. This is very helpful and gives me more direction.
Do you have a template or useful format for your citation notes?

Thanks, @atiz - you actually provided your solution with BibDesk. I’ve seen some Obsidian users are using external sources like Zotero and BibDesk, and others are creating Source/Citation files directly in Obsidian; which is the primary direction I was looking for. However it seems marrying these two is the best solution. How do you keep track of your Citations in Obsidian via BibDesk?

I just keep a central .bib database where I store all my literature (mostly academic books and articles). They all have a unique citation key and, if I have the pdf, are auto-filed according to certain rules that I can set.

In Obsidian, I use the Citations plugin to create literature notes. I name every note by the citekey (but this is just how I do it; you can name it by the author, title, etc.), and then include the citekey, author, and title in the file itself (you can set up the Citations plugin to do that automatically for you). I also have a link in the file to the pdf (if I have one), and then make whatever note I want to about the paper in question. (I also have my pdf highlights exported to .md that I paste there, with links to the appropriate pages.)
This way I can identify the lit notes very easily. If I need any info that’s not included in Obsidian (publication year, whatever – you could also include these I just try to avoid clutter), I can always look it up in BibDesk. When I want to refer to a lit. note, I use the markdown citations format [@citekey], although I do my final writing in latex so these will get exported via pandoc.

Beside the literature notes I also sometimes have some snippets from a work – e.g., a good quote, or something I want to remember. Then I create a separate note for that, and link to the appropriate lit note from it.

Anyway, I’m sure there are a lot of different setups that work well, I’m just used to this. It requires a few different programs (BibDesk, Pandoc, Highlights – which I use for pdf reading), but it works very well for me. I do think though that it is very worth using a dedicated reference manager, no matter how you set up your system.


What exactly do you mean by »citation notes«? My intermediate step between literature itself and the Zettelkasten note is an excerpt in a LibreOffice-Dokument (basically a table with note-like rows with a specific page range). This excerpt then is transformed into a Zettelkasten note. The methological criterion for creating this Zettelkasten note is a specific question, research interest or systematic approach (when simply storing some information in a systematic way).

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This does help very much! Thank you @atiz & @AtrusRiven. I can definitely use both of these suggestions.

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