What is a Literature Note?

Hey, everyone. I’ve been writing up these short lil primers as addendums to the zettelkasten course I’m teaching. Here’s one of the more recent ones. Original post is here. The full text is below. Happy to answer any questions. And, always happy to receive comments and feedback.


What is a Literature Notes

  • A literature note is a single note containing references to all the interesting passages in a book (or other piece of media) that you encounter.
  • A literature note is one of the resources you will use to create zettels.

Ahrens’ literature note is what many zettelers call a reference or bibliographic note. Personally, I prefer the term “reference note,” as that’s both what it is and what it’s for: referencing.

A reference note is a single doc containing all the interesting ideas that caught your attention while reading a book (listening to a podcast or watching a documentary, etc). These very brief mentions are listed in the order they were captured, each with a page number and, if so desired, a tag or topical reference.

A reference note might look like this:


Ahrens, S. (2017). How to Take Smart Notes. 
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

13 reference to speed writing (effort)
14 trying to squeeze too much (squeeze)
15 no effort (effort)
18 ref to bibliography (lit note)
20 index ref (index)
21 need only make a few changes (effort)
24 discrepancies btw lit/perm (perm)

As you can see above, reference note captures are brief jots intended to remind you of what you found interesting. These are not fully developed ideas or lengthy unpackings of a concept. These are, as the name suggests, references to what caught your attention.

Reference notes are not zettels. At some point during or after the process of capturing interesting ideas from your source, you will create individual zettels (what Ahrens calls both “permanent notes” and “the main notes in the slip-box”) based on what of your captures you are currently interested in working on or think might be interesting to work on later.

It’s important to note, however, that not everything you capture need become a zettel. Just because an idea caught your attention during your first pass, does not mean that the idea deserves to be incorporated into the main compartment of your slip-box just yet. Feel free to make as many or as few zettels off of the captures in your reference note, knowing that you can always come back to the reference note later.

This is why Ahrens rightfully describes the literature/reference note as “permanent,” because it is permanently stored in your zettelkasten. It will serve you as both an index of the media source, as well as a source of inspiration for future zettels.

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Thanks for sharing these insights @bobdoto!!! I especially appreciate your example snippet from a reference note because it makes things more concrete. I’m assuming the parentheticals in your snippet are the “topical reference” that you mention just above.

A few questions:

  1. When reading something for the first time, in an area a bit outside of your area of expertise, do you have a process for generating these topic parentheticals? Since you have them as parentheticals and not links, I assume they are not existing notes. Do they come from the source or from your own knowledge?
  2. Do you have an example of how you might note something interesting from a graph or table in your reference note? It sometimes takes me a few minutes of staring at a complicated table or graph(s) to figure out what’s interesting; do you have a way to capture that and help reduce that figuring out effort in future times?
  3. I can imagine how to adapt your listing of page number to something like section-subsection when page isn’t precise enough (e.g. scientific paper with many words per “page”). Such papers often do a lot of referring forwards to future sections for further explanation: do you have a way of capturing things you hope future sections will answer in a way that’s visible when you finally get to those future sections?
  4. Do you ever record things like “I feel like this conflicts with what they said back in some page I don’t remember in chapter 2”? What does that end up looking like in your reference note?
  5. For some references, it’s helpful for me to record some very high-level thoughts. “I really liked this paper because xyz but colleague A didn’t like it because jkl” or “totally lost after section 1, had to give up” - do those end up in your reference note or somewhere else?

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

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Great questions.

  1. If I’m capturing something, it’s probably relevant to something I’m interested in. So, I’d just put whatever topic I mostly associated the capture with.
  2. Not really. Some things just take time to make sense of. But, you can still capture the reference anyway. The whole point is to give you something to refer back to later on. So, capture what’s interesting, and go back later when you think you have something to say about it. At that point, make a zettel.
  3. You can put whatever demarcations are helpful for you. Sometimes I write “(bott)” for bottom of page, etc. Or you could write “33/2” meaning page 33 second paragraph. Etc.
  4. I don’t, but I certainly could.
  5. They might. I’d just put them at the top of the page/note. Whatever might help you in the future.

Thanks for taking the time to read the piece. :slight_smile: