Differentiating online variations of the Commonplace Book: Digital Gardens, Wikis, Zettlekasten, Waste Books, Florilegia, and Second Brains

A fluorescence of note taking tools

Over the past three or so years there has been a fluorescence of digital note taking tools and platforms.

Some of these include:

Open source projects like Org Mode, Logseq, Foam, Jupyter, Trilium, Databyss, Athens, Dendron, Anagora, and Hypothes.is.

Closed sourced projects like: Roam Research, Notion, Knovigator, Amplenote, RemNote, Memex, Nototo, nvUltra, and Are.na.

Some are based on earlier incarnations of note taking and writing tools like OneNote, Evernote, Simple Note, TiddlyWiki, DEVONthink, Scrivener, etc.

This brief list doesn’t take into account a sea of other mobile apps and platforms in addition to a broad array of social media platforms that people use for similar note taking or annotations.

My particular interest in some of this note taking field comes in the growing number of people who are working in public and sharing their notes in online settings with others. This has been happening organically since the rise of the internet and has happened on blogs within the blogosphere and on personal and communal wikis.

As was highlighted (pun intended) at the recent I Annotate 2021 conference, the note taking space seems to have been coming to a new boil. With the expansion of the ideas of keeping a zettelkasten or a digital garden, these versions of notebooks seem to be a significant part of this new note taking craze.

One thing I have noticed, however, is a dramatic lack of continuity in the history of note taking within the longue durée of Western civilization. (Other cultures including oral cultures have similar traditions, but for our purposes here, I won’t go into them except to say that they’re highly valuable, spectacularly rich, and something of which we should all be aware.)

Many of these products are selling themselves based on ideas or philosophies which sound and even feel solid, but they’re completely ignoring their predecessors to the tune of feeling like they’re trying to reinvent the wheel. As a result, some of the pitches for these products sound like they’re selling snake oil rather than tried and true methods that go back over 2,000 years of intellectual history. I can only presume that modern education is failing us all dramatically. People are “taught” (maybe told is the better verb) to take notes in school, but they’re never told why, what to do with them, or how to leverage them for maximum efficiency. Perhaps the idea has been so heavily imbued into our culture we’ve honestly forgotten the basic parts and reasoning behind it?

Even Vannevar Bush’s dream of the Memex as stated in his article As We May Think (The Atlantic, 1945), which many of these note taking applications might point to as an inspiration, ignores this same tradition and background, so perhaps these app creators and users aren’t all to blame?

Delineating Online Forms

I’ve been doing some serious reading and research into these traditions to help uncover our missing shared history. I’ll write something longer and more specific about them at a later date.

In the meanwhile, I want to outline just a bit about the various flavors as they relate to some of the more public online versions that I see in the related internet spaces. I hope to help better delineate what they have in common, how they differ, and what they may still add to the mix to get us to a more robust version of Bush’s dream.

Other’s thoughts and comments about these various incarnations and their forms and functions are both encouraged and appreciated.

Commonplace books

Historically commonplace books are one of the oldest and most influential structures in the note taking, writing, and thinking space. They have generally been physical books written by hand that contain notes which are categorized by headings (or in a modern context categories or tags. Often they’re created with an index to help their creators find and organize their notes.

They originated in ancient Greece and Rome out of the thought of Aristotle and Cicero as a tool for thinking and writing and have generally enjoyed a solid place in history since. A huge variety of commonplaces have been either copied by hand or published in print book form over the centuries.

Most significant thinkers, writers, and creators throughout history have kept something resembling a commonplace book. While many may want to attribute the output of historical figures like Erasmus, Newton, Darwin, Leibnitz, Locke, or Emerson to sheer genius (and many often do), I might suggest that their works were the result of sustained work of creating personal commonplace books—somewhat like a portable Google search engine for their day, but honed to their particular interests. (One naturally can’t ignore their other many privileges like wealth, education, and time to do this work, which were also certainly a significant factor in their success.)

Many people over the past quarter of a century have used a variety of digital forms to keep digital commonplace books including public versions on blogs, wikis, and other software for either public or private consumption.


Florilegia are a subcategory of commonplace book starting around 900 CE but flourishing in the 12th and 13th centuries and primarily kept by theologians and preachers. The first were a series of short excerpted passages often arranged in order of their appearance in a single text, but eventually were arranged systematically under discrete headings. Medieval florilegia where overwhelmingly, and often exclusively, concerned with religious topics from the works of scriptures, the moral dicta of the Doctors of the Church, and—less frequently—the teachings of approved, classical moral philosophers. The idea and form of florilegium generally merged back into the idea of the commonplace book which had renewed interest and wide popularity during the Renaissance.

These didn’t add any new or innovative features over what had come before. Perhaps, if anything, they were a regression because they so heavily focused only on religion as a topic.

Few (if any) examples of florilegia can be found in modern digital contexts. Though I have seen some people talk about using digital note taking tools for religious study, I have yet to see public versions online.


Born out of the commonplace tradition with modifications by Conrad Gessner (1516-1565) and descriptions by Johann Jacob Moser (1701–1785), the Zettelkasten, a German word translated as “slip box”, is generally a collection of highly curated atomic notes collected on slips of paper or index cards. Zettelkasten were made simpler to create and maintain with the introduction of the mass manufacture of index cards (and card boxes and furniture) in the early 20th century. Slips of paper which were moveable within books or files and later on index cards were a significant innovation in terms of storing and organizing a commonplace book.

Generally zettels (or cards) are organized by topics and often contain dates and other taxonomies or serialized numbers as a means of linking them to other cards within the system. The cross linking of these cards (and thus ideas) were certainly a historical physical precursor of the internet we have today, simply in digital form.

Almost all the current references I’ve seen online to Zettelkasten mention Niklas Luhmann as their inspiration, but none of them reference any other well-known historical examples despite the fact the idea has been around and evolving for several centuries now.

This productivity system and sets of digital tools around it came to greater attention in Germany in 2013 with the exhibition “Zettelkästen: Machines of Fantasy” at the Museum of Modern Literature, Marbach am Neckar and in 2014 with the launch of the zettelkasten.de website. A subsequent boost in the English speaking world occurred following the publication of Sönke Ahrens’s book How to Take Smart Notes – One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers in February 2017. The recent ability to use platforms like Roam Research, Obsidian, Notion, et al. has helped to fan the flames of their popularization.

More often than not, most of these digital tools (like their card-based predecessors) are geared toward private personal use rather than an open public model. Roam Research and Obsidian Publish have features which allow public publishing. TiddlyWiki is also an excellent tool for this as its so-called Tiddlers have a card-based appearance and can be placed in custom orders as well as transcluded, but again not many are available to the online public.

Waste books/Sudelbücher

This sub-genre of notebooks comes out of the tradition of double-entry book keeping where accountants often kept a daily diary of all transactions in chronological order. These temporary notes were then later moved into a more permanent accounting ledger and the remaining book was considered “waste”.

In the commonplace book tradition, these books for temporary notes or (fleeting notes in a Zettelkasten framing), might eventually be copied over, expanded, and indexed into one’s permanent commonplace collection.

In modern digital settings, one might consider some of the ephemeral social media stream platforms like Twitter to be a digital version of a waste book, though to my knowledge I may be the first person to suggest this connection. (To be clear, others have certainly mentioned Twitter as being a waste and even a wasteland.)


Inspired, in part, by Apple’s HyperCard, Ward Cunningham created the first public wiki on his website on March 25, 1995. Apple had designed a system allowing users to create virtual “card stacks” supporting links among the various cards (sound familiar?). HyperCard was designed as a single user system.

Wikis allowed multiple users to author and edit pages on the web with a basic web browser. They were also able to create meaningful links and associations between pages, whether they existed or not using [[WikiLinks]]. They were meant to allow the average visitor to participate in an ongoing process of creation and collaboration.

Here there is some innovative user interface as well as the ability to collaborate with others in keeping a commonplace book. Transclusion of one page into another is a useful feature here.

Personal wikis have been used (as have many blogs) for information aggregation and dissemination over the years in a manner similar to their historical predecessors.

Second brain

Second brain is a marketing term which stands in for the idea of the original commonplace book. It popped up in the note taking context in early 2017 for promoting the use of commonplace books techniques using Tiago Forte’s expensive online course Building a Second Brain which focused on capturing, organizing, and sharing your knowledge using (digital) notes. It is a platform agnostic method for improving productivity wholly using the commonplace underpinning.

Google searches for this term will be heavily mixed in with results about the gastrointestinal system being the body’s “second brain”, the enteric nervous system, second brain tumors, a debunked theory that dinosaurs had two brains, and other general health-related topics.

Some websites, personal wikis and other online versions will use the phrase second brain, but they generally have no innovative features that are missing from prior efforts. Again, I view the phrase simply as marketing with no additional substance.

Digital Gardens

Informed heavily by their cultural predecessors in commonplace books, zettelkasten, and wikis, digital gardens are digital first note collections which are primarily public by default and encourage the idea of working in public.

Digital Gardens arose more formally in 2019 and 2020 out of the work and influence of Mark Bernstein’s 1998 essay Hypertext Gardens: Delightful Vistas, Ward Cunningham’s Smallest Federated Wiki (which just celebrated it’s 10th anniversary), Mike Caulfield’s essays including The Garden and the Stream: A Technopastoral as well as some influence from the broader IndieWeb Community and their focus on design and user interface.

Digital garden design can often use the gardening metaphor to focus attention on an active tending and care of one’s personal knowledge base and building toward new knowledge or creations. The idea of planting a knowledge “seed” (a note), tending it gradually over time with regular watering and feeding in a progression of 🌱 Seedlings → 🌿 Budding → 🌳 Evergreen is a common feature.

There are a growing number of people with personal digital gardens in public. Many are built on pre-existing wiki software like WikiMedia, the Smallest Federated Wiki, or TiddlyWiki, static site generators like Jekyll, note taking platforms like Obsidian Publish and Roam Research, or even out of common blogging software like WordPress. A growing common feature of these platforms is that they not only link out to resources on the open web, but contain bidirectional links within themselves using either custom code (in a wiki-like manner) or using the W3C Webmention specification.

The Future?

With luck, application and platform designers and users will come to know more about the traditions, uses, and workflows of our rich cultural note taking history. Beyond this there are a few innovations, particularly in the public-facing arena which could be useful, but which aren’t broadly seen or available yet.

Still missing from the overall personal knowledge and note taking space is a more tightly integrated version of both a garden and a stream (in Mike Caulfield’s excellent framing) that easily allows interaction between the two arenas. Some of the more blog-based sites with notes, bookmarks, articles and IndieWeb friendly building blocks like Webmention, feeds (RSS, JSON Feed, h-feed), Micropub, and Microsub integrations may come the closest to this ideal.

One of the most fascinating recent entrants on the scene is Flancian’s Anagora which he uses as a personal commonplace book in a wiki-esque style. Over other incarnations it also has the ability to pull in and aggregate the notes of other digital commonplace books to create a larger marketplace of ideas. It also includes collaborative note taking space using Etherpad, which I’ve seen as a standalone tool, but never integrated into a digital commonplace book.

Ultimately, my dream—similar to that of Bush’s—is for individual commonplace books to be able to communicate not only with their users in the Luhmann-esqe sense, but also communicate with each other.

Niklas Luhmann apparently said:

Ohne zu schreiben, kann man nicht denken; jedenfalls nicht in anspruchsvoller, anschlussfähiger Weise.

(Translation) You cannot think without writing; at least not in a sophisticated, connectable way.

I think his conceptualization of “connectable” was much more limited and limiting than he might have guessed. Vannevar Bush, as the academic advisor of Claude Shannon, the godfather of the modern digital age, was more prepared to envision it.

(Luhmann’s “you” in his quote is obviously only a Western cultural referent which erases the existence of oral based cultures which have other ways to do their sophisticated thinking. His ignorant framing on the topic shouldn’t be a shared one.)

This post has grown out of my own personal commonplace book, portions of which are on housed on my blog, in a wiki, and in a private repository of which I hope to make more public soon. Further thoughts, ideas and expansions of it are more than welcome.

I’ve slowly been updating pieces of the history along with examples on shared commonplaces in both the IndieWeb Wiki and Wikipedia under the appropriate headings. Feel free to browse those or contribute to them as you would, at least until our digital commonplace books can communicate with each other.

I’d also invite those who are interested in this topic and who have or want online spaces to do this sort of thing to join us at the proposed upcoming Gardens and Streams II IndieWebCamp Pop up session which is being planned for later this Summer or early Fall. Comment below, stop by the page or chat to indicate your interest in attending.


Published by

Chris Aldrich

I'm a biomedical and electrical engineer with interests in information theory, complexity, evolution, genetics, signal processing, IndieWeb, theoretical mathematics, and big history. I'm also a talent manager-producer-publisher in the entertainment industry with expertise in representation, distribution, finance, production, content delivery, and new media.

235 thoughts on “Differentiating online variations of the Commonplace Book: Digital Gardens, Wikis, Zettlekasten, Waste Books, Florilegia, and Second Brains”

  1. A fluorescence of note taking tools

  2. A fluorescence of note taking tools

  3. Interesting history and comparison of personal compendiums of information and forms of personal note taking over the years!
    I dove into using a digital garden 9 months ago, and decided to use WordPress primarily because I already knew how to use it and set it up, and other platforms sounded a bit excessive considering I wasn’t sure how I’d like it. Turns out I love keeping a digital garden, so it could be a good time to revisit what works well and what could improve it.
    A couple things I want to figure out a better way to do are create a landing page that’s category-focused versus chronological and work out bidirectional linking / better interlinking. Looking forward to hearing others’ thoughts about improvements too!
    Another aspect I need to think about a bit is developing a process or system for revisiting notes and refining and connecting those thoughts. As you point out, what’s the point of the notes. What do I want out of this – is it enough that the process of logging something I’ve read nudges me to reflect on it? Maybe, or maybe there’s something more tangible I’d like as a further step.

    “People are “taught” (maybe told is the better verb) to take notes in school, but they’re never told why, what to do with them, or how to leverage them for maximum efficiency.”

    I like the distinction pointed out that digital gardens are intended to be public, while many of the other forms are chiefly personal. I’m not sure why the public aspect appeals to me, but I like that approach better than a private database – maybe because it feels similar to blogging? I’m curious what value one person’s notes are to others – whether the public element is actually useful – when I’ve tried to share notes taken at events with others, and something indelible isn’t translated without that original experience. But, often I find it’s not only notes I’m taking, but also starting to make connections and process / reflect – which seems potentially more useful or interesting to others? Is it useful to the person writing to know that what’s written may be readable by others and that spurs deeper thought in reflection – or is that more blog-like than note-like?

  4. Thanks for this, Chris! I’ve been experimenting with various tools to create my own workflow for a commonplace book of my own. This article gives me new ideas. The issue that has arisen with every incarnation so far is workflow. Nothing has been easy enough so far for me to use on every device. At the moment I’m playing with Caulfield’s Wikity WordPress theme. It has promise. I’m also thinking about using PMWiki with my students this fall in one of my classes to capture some of their work publicly. Again, thanks for this article and I look forward to the pop up.

    1. Chris Aldrich says:

      Most welcome! Hope all is well in your world.

      Having a system that works (easily) across devices is the highest of priorities on my list of must-haves as well. For the most part I’ve generally relied on solid desktop/laptop browser UI and struggled with mobile UI and bookmarklets or external tools to get things working reasonably. A recent workflow I’ve been working with: https://boffosocko.com/2020/08/29/a-note-taking-problem-and-a-proposed-solution/

      I did quite like Wikity, but overall I think it would have been better built as a plugin rather than a theme. The concept of a Federated Wiki did work pretty well with it though. I imagine that it might be quite fun to have a Wikity with Webmentions enabled, but haven’t experimented here yet.

      I’ve not played with PMWiki before, but it does look very nice. Most of my past experience has been with MediaWiki and DocuWiki which have been pleasant. I also like TiddlyWiki quite a bit, but it was a bit of an odyssey puzzling out how to get it online; I’m not quite sure how one might do a multi-user version, or even if it’s possible.

      I keep meaning to create a list of more substantial personal online wikis (outside of the newer craze for digital gardens which tend to be more sparse), but here’s an awesome one I’ve found recently that I love for its size, complexity, and content: http://whitneyannetrettien.com/whiki/index.php

  5. This is an interesting topic to be because, arguably, all of these are variations of the personal learning environment. One value of this post is the list – with links – to the related projects. And as Chris Aldrich notes, “they’re completely ignoring their predecessors to the tune of feeling like they’re trying to reinvent the wheel.” Indeed, he says, we’re taught to take notes in school, but nobody ever tells us why! What I think is that taking notes is only half the equation, as valuable as it may be. Exploring through those notes, using them in creative products, and sharing or applying the result of your work: all these are equally important. And, adds Aldrich, “my dream—similar to that of Bush’s—is for individual commonplace books to be able to communicate not only with their users in the Luhmann-esqe sense, but also communicate with each other.” Image: Building a Second Brain.

  6. Alan Levine says:

    Fantastic list, many new to me.

    Added in the annotations, but what about the various methods of using locations on notecards to organize them and do a “database” query with a rod inserted into the stack? Then the notched card database stuff https://hackaday.com/2019/06/18/before-computers-notched-card-databases/

    Also, what about Dave Winer’s outline organizers? And tagging taxonomies?

    1. Chris Aldrich says:

      I did so want to go into edge-notched cards and the transition of Melvil Dewey’s Library Bureau empire dying out just as IBM became ascendant. And then there was the transition to punched card programming shortly thereafter. But I worried about having hit a 2,000 word limit and testing my reader’s patience, for something that was going a bit further afield than note taking.

      In my youth I actually wrote a few working short punch-card programs in FORTRAN, but only as toy examples. I also experimented with some cryptography using edge-notched cards as well. If you want to go crazy, Claude Shannon building computers out hydraulics at MIT can be a fun rabbit hole. Fortunately his masters thesis translating Boolean algebra into electronics saved us all the exercise.

      Winer’s outlines and OPML work are also awesome. I’ve recently been watching some use it to create personal, shareable online libraries. I want to explore potential historical relationships there with Peter Ramus’ outlines and structural replacements for mnemotechniques. He may be one of the original EdTech villains despite Walter Ong calling Ramus’s use of outlines, ‘a reorganization of the whole of knowledge and indeed of the whole human lifeworld.’

      Taxonomies? Don’t get me started… 😉 If you’ve not come across John Locke’s work on taxonomies/indices, you might appreciate this overview: https://publicdomainreview.org/collection/john-lockes-method-for-common-place-books-1685

      If you’re into this sort of nerdery, you might like:
      Markus Krajewski. Paper Machines. About cards & catalogs, 1548-1929. MIT Press, Cambridge 2011, ISBN 978-0-262-01589-9. I ran across it a bit ago, and have a copy on it’s way to me.

  7. Would love links to any descriptions of the systems used by Conrad Gessner (1516-1565) or Johann Jacob Moser (1701–1785)

    Luhman wrote a description of his, it was adopted by Robert Green, who taught Ryan Holiday, who wrote the post I read.

    Not all the ancients are ancestors.

    Commonplace books are great, I looked into those extensively in 2016/2017 as I searched for analog metaphors.

    Your post says nothing at all to suggest Luhman didn’t “invent” “Zettelkasten” (no one says he was only one writing on scraps of paper), you list two names and no links

    If you’re generalizing Zettelkasten to “All Non-Linear Knowledge Management Strategies” You should include Mortimer Adler and the Syntopicon, and John Locke’s guide to how to set up a commonplace book

    This isn’t a game of calling “dibs”

    it’s about 🧠s

    Also @rydercarroll
    and bullet journal for more modern take on commonplace books

    #bujo on Pinterest

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    1. Chris Aldrich says:

      Would love links to any descriptions of the systems used by Conrad Gessner (1516-1565) or Johann Jacob Moser (1701–1785)

      I’m only halfway down the rabbit hole on some of these sources myself, a task made harder by my lack of facility with German. I am reasonably positive that the Gessner and Moser references are going to spring directly out of the commonplace book tradition, but include some of the innovation of having notes on slips of paper so that they’re more easily re-arranged.

      I’m also sitting on a huge trove of unpublished research which provides a lot more evidence and a trail of context which is missing from the short provocative statement I’ve made. I’ve added a few snippets to the Wikipedia page on Zettelkasten which outlines pieces for the curious.

      I suspect soon enough I’ll have a handful of journal articles and/or a book to cover some of the more modern history of notes and note taking that picks up where Earle Havens’ Commonplace Books: A History of Manuscripts and Printed Books from Antiquity to the Twentieth Century (Yale, 2001) leaves off.

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    2. Chris Aldrich says:

      Not all the ancients are ancestors.

      I’ll definitely grant this and admit that there may be independent invention or re-discovery of ideas.

      However, I’ll also mention that it’s far, far less likely that any of these people truly invented very much novel along the way, particularly since Western culture has been swimming in the proverbial waters of writing, rhetoric, and the commonplace book tradition for so long that we too often forget that we’re actually swimming in water.

      It’s incredibly easy to reinvent the wheel when everything around you is made of circles, hubs, and axles.

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    3. Chris Aldrich says:

      Your post says nothing at all to suggest Luhman didn’t “invent” “Zettelkasten” (no one says he was only one writing on scraps of paper), you list two names and no links

      My post was more in reaction to the overly common suggestions and statements that Luhmann did invent it and the fact that he’s almost always the only quoted user. The link was meant to give some additional context, not proof.

      There are a number of direct predecessors including Hans Blumenberg and Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. For quick/easy reference here try:
      * https://jhiblog.org/2019/04/17/ruminant-machines-a-twentieth-century-episode-in-the-material-history-of-ideas/
      * https://muse.jhu.edu/article/715738

      If you want some serious innovation, why not try famous biologist Carl Linnaeus for the invention of the index card? See: http://humanities.exeter.ac.uk/history/research/centres/medicalhistory/past/writing/

      (Though even in this space, I suspect that others were already doing similar things.)

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    4. Chris Aldrich says:

      This isn’t a game of calling “dibs”

      It’s definitely not a game of “dibs”, but we’re all fooling ourselves if we’re not taking a look at the incredibly rich history of these ideas.

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    5. Chris Aldrich says:

      and bullet journal for more modern take on commonplace books

      Bullet Journals certainly are informed by the commonplace tradition, but are an incredibly specialized version of lists for productivity.

      Perhaps there’s more influence by Peter Ramus’ outlining tradition here as well?

      I’ve seen a student’s written version of the idea of a Bullet Journal technique which came out of a study habits manual in the 1990’s. It didn’t quite have the simplicity of the modern BuJo idea or the annotations, but in substance it was the same idea. I’ll have to dig up a reference for this.

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    6. Chris Aldrich says:

      If you’re generalizing Zettelkasten to “All Non-Linear Knowledge Management Strategies” You should include Mortimer Adler and the Syntopicon, and John Locke’s guide to how to set up a commonplace book

      Let’s be honest that these are some of the lowest hanging fruit on the tree of this incredibly deep history.

      Adler as an encyclopedist was assuredly more than aware of the commonplace tradition and likely knew or read any/many of the following:
      * Rodolphus Agricola. De formando studio (written 1484, published 1508)
      * Dediderius Erasmus. De ratione studii (1512) and De duplici copia verborum ac rerum (1512)
      * Philp Melanchthon. De locis communibus ratio (1539)

      One could certainly say that Adler had a Zettelkasten of his own or at least a shared one.

      These were instrumental in popularizing the idea of the commonplace book not only in the Renaissance, but firmly placed them in the foundations of education for the coming centuries.

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  8. You’re right. There is a sophistication of ideas in Luhmann’s essay on “Communicating with Slip Boxes” which is lacking from most of the written and video commentary I’ve encountered so far.

  9. What do you get out of Luhmann’s paper if you leave aside for the moment all the technology of cards, slip boxes, indexes, links, and back links?

    What remains is still the core of something powerful.

    The paper is called “𝘊𝘰𝘮𝘮𝘶𝘯𝘪𝘤𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘯𝘨 with Slip Boxes” …

  10. “Theoretical publications do therefore not result from simply copying what can already be found in the slip box. The communication with the slip box becomes fruitful only at a high level of generalisation namely that of establishing communicative relations of relations.”

  11. Differentiating online variations of the Commonplace Book: Digital Gardens, Wikis, Zettlekasten, Waste Books, Florilegia, and Second Brains by Chris Aldrich (boffosocko.com)

    A fluorescence of note taking tools
    Over the past three or so years there has been a fluorescence of digital note taking tools and platforms.
    Some of these include:
    Open source projects like Org Mode, Logseq, Foam, Jupyter, Trilium, Databyss, Athens, Dendron, Anagora, and Hypothes.is.
    Closed sourced…

    A great collection and short history of the notetaking space and commonplace book. Again, a topic worth exploring for me. But I’m afraid it ends up another rabbithole with tons of sideways and ideas. I’m most interested in the intersection of notetaking tools, blogging culture, indieweb technology and personal communication. For instance, this note is published in public. With the use of webmentions, Chris gets a notification I talk about his work. He then chooses to (automatically) publish this response to his original blogpost and perhaps build on it. But a more interesting approach can be if I make a private note in Obsidian or any outliner tool, linking to Chris’ post. Chris still gets a notification, I give (frictionless) permission for him to see the part of the outline I write in private. Maybe we can work together on the thoughts in this outliner as well. Based on temporary and blockbased permission.
    Most of the technology is already there. It’s what makes the internet. Hyperlinks and notifications. But the two-way hyperlink as Doug Engelbart envisioned is a concept that can bring communities and communication even more forward.


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  13. Steve says:

    People are “taught” (maybe told is the better verb) to take notes in school, but they’re never told why, what to do with them, or how to leverage them for maximum efficiency.

    Do you know of any papers, articles, blog posts or books to read that describe the why and how of note-taking?

    1. Chris Aldrich says:

      Sorry, I’m just seeing this Steve. How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers by Sönke Ahrens is one of the better ones I’ve seen lately. It’s relatively in-depth and has lots of good advice.

      Much shorter and quite elegant is The Intellectual Life: It’s Spirit, Conditions, Methods by Antonin Sertillanges (1918), particularly a section from Chapter 7. I haven’t read the rest, but later chapters on writing are probably pretty solid too.

  14. ledgerback says:

    This Article was mentioned on old.reddit.com

    1. Chris Aldrich says:

      You’re definitely right about that. I’d found it a year back and it’s on my list to read through more of what I can find via the Archive.
      Notes: https://hypothes.is/users/chrisaldrich?q=takingnotenow

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  15. This Article was mentioned on notes.andymatuschak.org:


    The 20th-century German sociologist Niklas Luhmann managed to publish 70 books. He credits much of his success to his Zettelkasten, or “slip box.” It’s an unusual system for developing ideas over long periods of time by slowly iterating on thousands of atomic slips of paper, all densely linked to each other. Over time, it evolved into what Luhmann considered to be an independent thought partner in his research, capable of carrying on a conversation with him and eliciting ideas which genuinely surprised him.

    Though Luhmann is often mentioned most in association with the concept, it apparently significantly predates him:

    Born out of the commonplace tradition with modifications by Conrad Gessner (1516-1565) and descriptions by Johann Jacob Moser (1701–1785), the Zettelkasten, a German word translated as “slip box”, is generally a collection of highly curated atomic notes collected on slips of paper or index cards.

    —Chris Aldrich

    Arno Schmidt, a modernist German author, used this method extensively and published a book called Zettels Traum (“Slip Dream”) which interpolates scholarly commentary (in a zettel-ish style) with a primary narrative. (video, article)

    See also: Similarities and differences between evergreen note-writing and Zettelkasten


    Luhmann, N. (1992). Communicating with Slip Boxes. In A. Kieserling (Ed.), & M. Kuehn (Trans.), Universität als Milieu: Kleine Schriften (pp. 53–61). Retrieved from http://luhmann.surge.sh/communicating-with-slip-boxes

  16. @inscript @flancianKonrad Gessner is one of the more interesting and influential slip users.For the early 20th century influences try Antonin Sertillanges, Paul Chavigny, and Beatrice Webb.https://hyp.is/hqaHQDq_Eeyx-Nd3_QncSw/en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zettelkasten

    Antonin Sertillanges’ book The Intellectual Life is published in 1918 in which he outlines in chapter 7 the broad strokes a version of the zettelkasten method, though writing in French he doesn’t use the German name or give the method a specific name.[11] The book was published in French, Italian, and English in more than 50 editions over the span of 40 years. In it, Sertillanges recommends taking notes on slips of “strong paper of a uniform size” either self made with a paper cutter or by “special firms that will spare you the trouble, providing slips of every size and color as well as the necessary boxes and accessories.” He also recommends a “certain number of tagged slips, guide-cards, so as to number each category visibly after having numbered each slip, in the corner or in the middle.” He goes on to suggest creating a catalog or index of subjects with division and subdivisions and recommends the “very ingenious system”, the decimal system, for organizing one’s research. For the details of this refers the reader to Organization of intellectual work: practical recipes for use by students of all faculties and workers by Paul Chavigny [fr][12]. Sertillanges recommends against the previous patterns seen with commonplace books where one does note taking in books or on slips of paper which might be pasted into books as they don’t “easily allow classification” or “readily lend themselves to use at the moment of writing.”

  17. A zettelkasten is note taking system featuring atomic notes which are densely interlinked and are used primarily for writing and acting as an external memory.

  18. Lachlan says:

    I’d be interested in hearing more about the ways oral cultures did their thinking, if you have resources on that handy. Otherwise if you recall your source for that could you pass it on?

    1. Chris Aldrich says:

      Below are some sources to give you a start on orality. I’ve arranged them in a suggested watching/reading order with some introductory material before more technical sources which will give you jumping off points for further research.

      • Modern Memory, Ancient Methods. TEDxMelbourne. Melbourne, Australia, 2018. https://www.ted.com/talks/lynne_kelly_modern_memory_ancient_methods.
      • Kelly, Lynne. The Memory Code. Allen & Unwin, 2016.
      • Kelly, Lynne. Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies: Orality, Memory and the Transmission of Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781107444973.
      • Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. Taylor & Francis, 2007.
      • Parry, Milman, and Adam Parry. The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry. Oxford University Press, 1971.
      • Neale, Margo, and Lynne Kelly. Songlines: The Power and Promise. First Knowledges, 1.0. Thames & Hudson, 2020.
      1. Lachlan says:

        Thanks a lot, Chris! The video was pretty inspiring… I’m eager to continue on with some of those books/papers to find out more.

  19. TC says:

    Nice article. I remember reading about “zibaldones” and “hodgepodges” in the context of note taking. How do they fit ?

    1. Chris Aldrich says:

      Those definitely fit into the traditions, but often show varying levels of topics and (usually less) organization (and less indexing).

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