Obsidian for Historians

I’ve been using Obsidian for more than 12 months. I’m using it for one specific purpose, the storing and linking of notes for a future book on the history of north east England in the 19th century. The challenge is managing a plethora of types of crucial linked information people, places, dates, issues (e.g. poverty) local government, industries (e.g. coal), political movements, you name it. My present method is, via the Make.md plug-in, to use a standard list around what, when, who and a link to an index, plus tags. But also adding links within the text. I’ve no idea if this is the best approach. Two worries. I’ve got hundreds of notes. With hundreds more to come. How I’ll be able to bring this lot together when I start writing. I’d love to hear from others who are involved in similar comped and ambitious projects and strategies for meaning things.

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I personally like to work with folders. I have never worked on a project like yours, but it seems like a good idea, at least to me, to sort them into overarching groups like politicts, health, economy, etc. and work with subfolders like

  • politics
    – influential people
    – system
    – consequences
    – …

Alternatively, if you already know how you want to break down your book into chapters, you could use them as top-level folders.
I like linked notes, but bringing order into your vault by breaking it down into clear sections will probably help you when you start writing. I’d use linked notes in your case to easily “traverse” your vault, similar to how you might navigate wikipedia.

This comes from a personal preference, and I know many here like not using folders at all.

Hope that helps :slight_smile:

Links are your friend. I would use folders only to separate different types of data that need different templates. For example, I have separate folders for people, places and things since I have different properties/templates for each (eg. Places include address info, people include date and relationship info). For every person/place/item/concept, create a note, and any time you mention that thing, link to the note. Later, you’ll be able to go to a note about something and see a list of every note where you mentioned it. If you use tags, limit their use for things like status (eg this note is complete, this note needs more information, etc). Links, links, links.

I could imagine that this risks creating orphans that hard to come across again if it’s only of minor importance.

There are ways to display any file with no links, or any links with no file, so it is something that you could periodically check on. Not sure what the alternative is, since if you don’t use links, isn’t every file an orphan?

Hi folks thank you for your lovely and helpful replies. And apologies for this lengthy response.

My existing vault is a mess but at least I know why

  1. A product of not knowing what I was doing when starting with Obsidian and getting carried away with the power of links. This was because many years ago I used a card system to take my notes (not zettle) when doing my postgrad degree.
  2. Not properly understanding the distinction between literature and permanent notes. So I treated my lit notes in the same way I used my cards in the past, one item per card. But chucking in all sorts of links.

Then reading and watching videos I realised that I was making the mistake of treating the lit notes as perminant notes. And that I didn’t need to make millions of lit notes like in the past. That comes with perminant notes.

One thing I have done, as suggested here I think, was to create a templets that listed several file properties at the head of the note subject, person, place, decade tags and link to index note.
I think MAKE.md plug-in likes it this way. (It’s a great plug-in I think)
My new strategy is to record my lit notes as a single note, one note per chapter of a book or paper and no links except the reference. When I complete the paper or chapter I’ll then create my perminant notes from this material, these will contain the links. I’ll also create a series of index’s and a number of broad subject files. Hopefully this will work. What do you reckon?

My problem now is do I set up a new, clean vault and start processing my old notes into it. Or simply clean up the mess of lit notes by converting them into perminant notes in my old vault, either way will be a chore but I’d love some feedback on what you think of my new system and new vault or old.
Cheers Colin

Dear colleagues :wink:

As a historian myself, I turned to Obsidian to address my dissatisfaction with knowledge management.

I’ve been using Obsidian for over two years now, and I’ve come up with a formula that satisfies me and, above all, enables me to produce (articles, courses, books).

Like you, I spent almost a year wondering how I could work with Obsidian (very differently from what I was used to).

I don’t claim to have the solution for our work as historians, but I feel I’ve stabilized my work process.

Here are a few thoughts that I hope will echo your own concerns.

  1. My vault gathers all the informations whatever the use I’m going to make of it (I’m lucky enough to teach subjects that are close to my research objects, but not only).

  2. I only have two folders.

a. A “references” folder where each document (book, article, historical source) is a file with a standardized name (usually AUTHOR’S NAME (DATE) Title) to constitute a link in the other files that refer to it.

b. A “notes amassées”(“collected notes” in French) folder containing everything else.

These notes are roughly of two kinds themselves

I. atomic notes, which are elements drawn from my readings.

II. MOCs on a specific subject that I feed with links to the atomic notes.

  1. I only use tags to differentiate between the “natures” of notes in the first category above (“atomic notes”) (and here, we’re going to discuss a method, which I think is typically historical).
  • #event: a short note describing a specific event, the title of which can be integrated into a MOC. They are deliberately short and have a date at the end of the title (“Publication of (…) in 1965”)

  • #Things: as a good historian of the technology, things play an important role in my work. The #thing tag therefore describes an object, a system, etc. It’s also a short note, full of links to other notes with passages written in the note as well.

  • #Person: the biography entry is very useful in my opinion (after all, history is made up of actors). These are cards on the model of #things but for humans :wink: (I like a lot the “aliases” because I can entitled a note “Foucault Michel” and create an alias “Michel Foucault” to use it as a link in others notes).

  • A flurry of untagged notes that are ideas, quotes (so with the link to the source whether it’s an article, a book or a historical source). Inside, text. If the text is bold and italicized, it’s a personal thought. I didn’t feel the need to create two new types of notes to separate the personal thoughts from the factual elements taken from the readings.

  1. All these notes are densely interlinked, and I also make extensive use of the foreclosure function: ![[Title]], which reveals the content of the note instead of just the link.

It’s this Obsidian function in particular that has helped me evolve in my practice. At first, I had the fantasy of creating atomic notes that I could use as is to write a few things (by copying and pasting notes already taken), then I realized that this wasn’t possible because the way the note is written always requires that it be taken up again to integrate it into a new text (a course, an article, etc.).

Today, I realize that Obsidian allows me to manage “knowledge” and not really “notes” in the sense of “bits of text”.

That’s why my writing process with Obsidian has changed.

  1. Writing with Obsidian:

To write with Obsidian, I roughly build a new Moc with the title of the course, article or chapter being written.

I integrate the necessary notes by foreclosure ( with ![[Title]]) and I write on this basis, leaving, once I’m satisfied, the “hidden link” to the note that was used for writing (with %% Link %%).

So, you’ll tell me that I’m constantly rewriting. Yes, but I don’t see how else to do it, and it’s pretty easy and gives good results. Courses and articles are rewrites of notes previously taken. After all, that’s what we’ve been doing in other forms since before we started working with Obsidian, isn’t it?

Once my draft is deemed “satisfactory”, I export to Word and finalize outside Obsidian.

  1. Some final thoughts
  • On rereading this, I realize that it must not be very clear (and writing in French-English :wink:
    It’s a personal method, and I think the most important thing is to test it and stabilize it. I’m approaching 2,000 references, 10,000 “collected notes”, and I’m quite serene: I’m able to produce, and I think this organization is sustainable. Everything’s going well.

  • I’m more of a gardener than an architect (to take two notions that are popular in the small galaxy of PKM enthusiasts): I go back over my notes, modify them, merge or separate them when necessary. I originally chose Obisidan for its ability to update the link to a note when you change its title. I still find this absolutely brilliant, as it ensures that you can evolve your system without fear of being blocked.

Looking forward to hearing from you!


Hi Benjamin
Thank you for your thoughtful and helpful response. I’ll certainly be considering how your way of doing things might inform mine. It’s reassuring to know that you’ve found the use of MOCs useful, (I call them index’s)

Like you, if I understand you correctly, as soon as you start writing a ‘ literature note’ as a historian you immediately start to think about the links and about key questions. For example yesterday at the start of a chapter in a book about public health in the nineteenth century in Britain there was a table showing the astonishing growth of the major northern industrial cities. Just a simple table raises dozens of questions and potential uses.

Then I read a blog by an expert on poverty in the uk arguing that there is a terrible similarity between the poverty of the 19th century with now and that includes absolute destitution (you don’t need to look too hard to see this)

Two important notes but if a very different type.

Connecting the complex relationships between these and a myriad of other notes so they can be made use of, and not form a morass of links is the challenge.

Anyway think my so called perminant notes are emerging as essentialy draft working paragraphs, pages, sections, that can be revisited when properly drafting the chapters of the book. Does this make sense.

My beef, and it’s not their fault, with very many of those writing and talking about Obsidian, is that many seem to be from the world of coding and software, so develop systems framed within their paradigm. 2. For so many it’s seems to be about look at my perfect system.

Finally is the Zettle approach as much a hinderance as a help ? Yet another system to get obsessed with. Mind you I can’t think of a better alternative and it can be adapted.