Note to Visitors - Sometimes I will integrate other peoples comments/posts into this zettelkasten if they make sense to me, so feel free to either comment on areas of the zettelkasten you find interesting and would like to see fleshed out more or an idea you’d like to see integrated.
Other important aspect to understand about this zettelkasten is that it is geared towards knowledge work and what I call my creative productivity project. In reality your zettelkasten should be wider ranging and include whatever you find interesting. For example the paper based zettelkasten I keep for fun has notes on lo-fi hip hop songs, video game development (not a developer but I find the topic interesting) and the Roman Empire.
Bibliography - will reference books in notes using (Author Date, page) and link to zettelkasten wide bibliography in this note.
Current Research - books I’m trying to prioritize in terms of reading and processing. But that isn’t always easy because I’m hyper curious and love jumping around with reading material. I will often embed further research into notes itself (e.g. Note 72).
Hubs - usually created when I have 5 or more notes in the index around a topic, you see this trend about to happen around the topic of knowledge.
December 2021 Update: Haven’t forgotten about this project, still work on it here and there. I’m not as active here as I don’t find the knowledge work discussions as interesting. I still comment somewhat frequently on Zettelkasten de and am an avid user of Obsidian.
2 - Zettelkasten, at least according to Google translate stands for “note box” in German. I’ve read online that the practice of keeping a note box goes back a long way and technically isn’t unique to sociologist Niklas Luhmann. Other than Luhmann’s note box, I haven’t been able to find any of these (Note 1A - Alternative Note Boxes) online to study, so for the purpose of this thread I will be talking about his note box exclusively.
Goes back to ‘The Art of Note Taking’ by Beatrice Webb, and her use of it goes back well before that. She’s rather more famous than Luhmann, and probably more prolific. One of founders of the London School of Economics, amongst many other things.
4 - Zettelkasten & Structure - Note Taking is about storing information for later retrieval because we have a limited memory. Inherent in the process of storage is structure. In the case of a [paper zettelkasten], the base structure would take the form of writing notes on paper and just putting them in a giant pile. The point of structure is to add order so that you can repeat tasks such as retrieval of a note. The above example would be an undesirable structure as it would take a long time to retrieve the note you are looking for. It would still be better then chaos, where your notes are scattered across a city, written in random places and mediums (chalk on ground, spelled out in someones mowed lawn, stored on a bubble gum wrapper in the dump).
Instead we add layers of structure that facilitate retrieval. Zettelkasten, in a sense, is just a very particular set layers. Part of the issue with the discussion around zettelkasten is that the term (note box) is very broad and the set of layers differs depending on who you talk to. For teaching others zettelkasten, I take what I see as the core layers of structure used by Luhmann and either adopt or adapt them for a digital medium.
@Dor Beatrice Webb in 1926 but the ideas were well established by others. 1898 “Introduction to the Study of History” by Charles Langlois and Charles Seignobos suggest the best way of proceeding is to make notes on separate pieces of paper with each showing it’s origin. Prior to that in 1638 Thomas Harrison explained to Charles I about writing excerpts on small pieces of paper and hanging them on hooks with alphabetized subject headings. Fascinating discussion here: https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v32/n11/keith-thomas/diary
7 - Structuring for Retrieval - An important aspect of the zettelkasten to understand is that Luhmann’s method of structure facilitated his end use case (writing). He created sequences of notes (1 - 1a -1b - 1c), which allowed him to easily pull out all the notes on a given topic when he needed them. Otherwise he could have just used a numbered list for notes (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, new note 6) where the newest note is just the highest number.
What all this suggests is that you should keep in mind how you plan on using your zettelkasten when you start to add layers of structure. Do you plan on using it for writing like Luhmann did? Or do you strictly want to use it as a reference system? Or are you using it to build external models, that once finished, become mental models?
8 - Alternative Note Boxes - there is discussion going on about how Luhmann wasn’t the first to create a zettelkasten. In a perfect world, what I would want to do is study all of the ones created by prolific writers and apply the process of generalization to discover the underlying rules they all share.
While that isn’t possible, it is still interesting to see some of the different manifestations talked about throughout history. To do this I will be looking into several resources.
Paper Machines: About Cards & Catalogs, 1548-1929 (History and Foundations of Information Science)by Markus Krajewski PhD
9 - Note Size - A common question people have regarding the zettelkasten and note taking in general is one of note length. A good way to think of this is through the concept usability of information. We structure information such that it can be used repeatedly. You can think of notes in the same way.
a - smallest unit of usability is the letter. As you see I repeatedly make use of the letter a in this sentence.
word- is the next largest unit
phrase - can be used in multiple contexts
sentence - can be used in multiple contexts but is a bit awkward because it isn’t as usable as a word or phrase but not as robust as a paragraph. A good example of a reusable sentence is a quote. See 2A
paragraph- is often seen as the smallest unit of thought as it is usually what is necessary to get an idea across, with sentences being the parts that support or explain the paragraph (Shore 2016, pg 28).
section - can be thought of as multiple paragraphs.
Because one of the key ideas behind a zettelkasten is to remix ideas such that a note can contribute to multiple sequences of thought, an ideal note length is between a paragraph and a section. If you find yourself wanting to reference a sentence then it is fine to spin it off into its own note. But it’d be a waste of time to do so before that becomes necessary.
Blair, Ann. Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age. New Haven London: Yale University Press, 2010.
DK Publishing, Inc. How the Brain Works. , 2020.
Myers, David G., and C. Nathan DeWall. Psychology . Twelfth edition. New York: Worth Publishers, Macmillan Learning, 2018.
Newport, Cal. So Good They Can’t Ignore You Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love . New York: Business Plus, 2012.
Newport, Cal. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World . First Edition. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2016.
Shore, Zachary. Grad School Essentials: A Crash Course in Scholarly Skills. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2016.
Susskind, Richard E., and Daniel Susskind. The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts . First edition. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2015.
This is also why we write Evergreen notes: so that if we encounter a book which discusses a concept we’ve already written about, we’re pushed to integrate new ideas with our prior conception. Certainly, we normally do this when we read, but we’re limited to our faulty memory of other works which might be related. The externalized note-taking system substantially removes this limitation.
How to Take Smart Notes - Ahrens - Writing ntoes feels like a huge time imposition, but that’s in comparison to an imaginary baseline: reading without writing notes is often all lost time… Evergreen note-writing helps reading efforts accumulate.
Slip 8.1c - The performance of the system is that uniqueness of the performance.
And only in the system is there definite certainty (see also 8.3). If you used to think that there were simple and elementary elements of your own uniqueness (apprehensively simplex, simple, clear and clear ideas, etc.), you were wrong. The simple is only more system- capable, easier to define systematically, easier to incorporate into the system than the complex, and therefore clearer.