Two basic designs for a PKM library: mind maps vs. mind diagrams

I have been working with Zettelkasten in Obsidian for almost a year now, and have recently got an idea that can answer a basic question I have been struggling with:
Is the library a content overview or is it an idea generator?

I’ve recently realized that I can answer this question using the concepts “mind map” and “mind diagram.”
Mind maps are maps of the content in a topic. The purpose is to create a content overview. It is specified if two elements are connected. The goal will be to sort all relevant information in a single system.
A mind diagram is an idea generator. It specifies how two elements are connected. The goal is to include elements that contribute to thinking.

This figure illustrates the difference between a mind map and a mind diagram. Each element would be one note. Notice that in the mind diagram there are far fewer elements than in the mind map. And that in the mind diagram, an interesting question is generated by comparing two fish lineages. This question is not within taxonomy, as the first two elements are, but within cell biology.

The figure shows two different ways to visualize the connection between elements, but it also represents two different ways to build a library in Obsidian.

Why is this important?
Assessing whether you want to make a mind map or thought diagram will have a lot to say about how you prioritize time. If the intention is to create an overview on a topic, mind maps will be a suitable design. The time will be spent on finding all the elements related to a topic, and putting this into a system.
If the intention is to develop a tool that contributes to thinking and new ideas, then thought diagrams are a suitable approach. Then the time spent going in will compare individual elements, and see what kind of new thoughts arise. Here you will not spend time including all elements in the subject, but looking for new ideas.

In practice, I use both philosophies when building my library. I need both, and I vary with what I spend my time on. You can say that you do not have to choose between one of these methods in the design of the library, but that you can choose between these for each individual link you create. So, when you choose to make a link between two elements, you can ask yourself:
Is the most important thing to show that these elements are connected, or should I show how they are connected?

I’d be grateful for feedback on this line of thought.

Battle beaver


@Battle_beaver Maybe this article would be of interest to you:

Yes, the mind diagram concept has many similarities to cognitive maps outlined in your source. But perhaps this is mostly because cognitive maps seems to be very loosely defined, where form and function is adapted to the situation. Even so, I’ll probably use cognitive maps as a term from now on, if this is already established as a methodology.
In the post above, I outlined cognitive maps (or mind diagrams) as a way of working, not so much for visualization. If I were to use it for visualization, however, it would be with post it notes and printed permanent notes. This is also mentioned in your source as a normal way to apply cognitive maps in other situations.

I think the important question is what the library is used for. Always be aware of the intention of your effort. As I see it, there are three different usages of a PKM library:

  • Storage: storing information in a system
  • Mapping: visualizing or creating overview of information. Mind map is an example of the former, a MOC or index is an example of the latter.
  • Expansion: using the library for thinking. This process was the intention of the mind diagram I illustrated in the first post.

Store and mapping might lead to expansion, but it does not have to.

Why is this important? It tells us how to prioritize our time, depending on what our goals are. I think a common mistake is to focus on storing or mapping, when the real need is expansion. It is true that storage and mapping helps with expansion, but you can start with expansion surprisingly quickly (as demonstrated above, where I produced a question I found quite interesting only by comparing two fish lineages. I’m still kind of eager to explore that line of thought, actually).
Expansion also creates and clarifies needs regarding storing and mapping.

So my point is that I guess mind maps, mind diagrams (cognitive maps) and similar can all be used for storing, mapping and expansion. Mind maps are suitable for storing and mapping. But if your aim is expansion, apply your library as a cognitive map.

Footnote: I am talking both about the visualization of information relationships and the structure of the library.

This is a good take. I think it might be a good PKM practice to choose in advance either of the two possible ways of processing information for your library. This might be sound a little extreme, but don’t you think it would be better to have a dedicated library (1) for the purpose of storage/overview and another (2) for the purpose of creation/expansion?

I was struggling with this problem for a while. Using Obsidian, the temptation was high to use my library to collect information for the purpose of overview. But this didn’t help me so much with research writing, which is my main aim. I then decide to divide my library into two Obsidian vaults called “Archive” and “Zettelkasten”. The first is not just a storage of inputs (I use Zotero for that), but an overview of concepts, authors, and topics I come across during my research. In this library, I make a lot of use of Breadcrumbs plugin which shows the hierarchical relationships between authors, concepts, areas, and topics. The “Zettelkasten” vault is, in the very spirit of its creator, a thinking tool to boost my writing activity.

Now, the difference between the two libraries is not just about the structure (hierarchical vs. horizontal). Also the content of the notes is different in the sense that when I sit down to work on my “Zettelkasten” I write and work differently. The form (template) of the notes is a different one.

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