A fanned out display of index cards in front of a card index file drawer. Written on the cards' top lines respectively are the names (in last, first order) Charles Langlois and Charles Seignobos; Ernst Bernheim; Beatrice Webb; and Johannes Erich Heyde

Zettelkasten Method State of the Art in 1898

Many people mistakenly credit Niklas Luhmann with the invention of the zettelkasten method, so I’ve been delving into historical note taking practices. I’ve recently come across a well known and influential book on historical method from the late 1800s that has well described version of the slip (box) method.

Originally published in French in 1897 as Introduction aux études historiques and then translated into English by George Godfrey Berry, Henry Holt and Company published Introduction to the Study of History in 1898 by authors Charles Victor Langlois and Charles Seignobos. Along with Ernst Bernheim’s popular Lehrbuch der historischen Methode mit Nachweis der wichtigsten Quellen und Hülfsmittelzum Studium der Geschichte (Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot, 1889), Langlois and Seignobos’ text is one of the first comprehensive manuals discussing the use of scientific techniques in historical research.

Primarily written by Seignobos, Book II, Chapter IV “Critical Classification of Sources” has several sections on the zettelkasten method under the section headings:

  • Importance of classification—The first impulse wrong—Thenote-book system not the best—Nor the ledger-system—Nor the “system” of trusting the memory
  • The system of slips the best—Its drawbacks—Means ofobviating them—The advantage of good “private librarian-ship”

This section describes a slip method for taking notes which is ostensibly a commonplace book method done using slips of paper (fiches in the original French) instead  of notebooks. Their method undergirds portions of the historical method they lay out in the remainder of the book. Seignobos calls the notebook method “utterly wrong” and indicates that similar methods have been “universally condemned” by librarians as a means of storing and maintaining knowledge. Entertainingly he calls the idea of attempting to remember one’s knowledge using pure memory a “barbarous method”. 

The slip method is so ubiquitous by the time of his writing in 1897 that he says “Every one admits nowadays that it is advisable to collect materials on separate cards or slips of paper.”

The Slip Method

The book broadly outlines the note taking process: 

The notes from each document are entered upon a loose leaf furnished with the precisest possible indications of origin. The advantages of this artifice are obvious : the detachability of the slips enables us to group them at will in a host of different combinations ; if necessary, to change their places : it is easy to bring texts of the same kind together, and to incorporate additions, as they are acquired, in the interior of the groups to which they belong. As for documents which are interesting from several points of view, and which ought to appear in several groups, it is sufficient to enter them several times over on different slips ; or they may be represented, as often as may be required, on reference-slips.

Seignobos further advises, as was generally common, “to use slips of uniform size and tough material” though he subtly added the management and productivity advice “to arrange them at the earliest opportunity in covers or drawers or otherwise.”

In terms of the form of notes, he says

But it will always be well to cultivate the mechanical habits of which professional compilers have learnt the value by experience: to write at the head of every slip its date, if there is occasion for it, and a heading in any case; to multiply cross-references and indices; to keep a record, on a separate set of slips, of all the sources utilised, in order to avoid the danger of having to work a second time through materials already dealt with.

Where the Luhmann fans will see a major diversion for the system compared to his internal branching system is in its organization. They describe a handful of potential organizations based on the types of notes and their potential uses, though many of these use cases specific to historical research are now better effected by databases and spreadsheets. As for the broader classes of more traditional literature-based textual notes, they recommend grouping the slips in alphabetical order of the words chosen as subject headings. Here, even in a French text translated to English, the German word Schlagwörter is used. It can be translated as “headwords”, “catchwords” or “topical headings” though modern note takers, particularly in digital contexts, may be more comfortable with the translation “tags”.

While there are descriptions of cross-linking or cross-referencing cards from one to another, there is no use of alpha-numeric identifiers or direct juxtaposition of ideas on cards as was practiced by Luhmann.

The authors specifically credit Ernst Bernheim’s Lehrbuch der historischen Methode several times in the book. While a lot of the credit is geared toward their broader topic of historical method, Bernheim provides a description of note taking very similar to their method. I’ve found several copies of Bernheim’s text in German, but have yet to find any English translations. 

Both Bernheim and Langlois/Seignobos’ work were influential enough in the areas of history specifically and the humanities in general that Beatrice Webb (an influential English sociologist, economist, socialist, labour historian, and social reformer who was a co-founder of the London School of Economics, the Fabian Society, and The New Statesman) cites their work in Appendix C “The Art of Note-Taking” in her 1926 autobiographical work My Apprenticeship, which was incredibly popular and went through multiple reprintings in the nearly full century since its issue. Her personal use of this note taking method would appear to pre-date both books (certainly the Langlois/Seignobos text), however, attesting to its ubiquity in the late 1800s.

What is the “true” zettelkasten method?

Scott Scheper has recently written that personal communication with Luhmann’s youngest son Clemmens Luhmann indicated that Luhmann learned his method in 1951 from the Johannes Erich Heyde text Technik des wissenschaftlichen Arbeitens (with several German editions from 1931 onward). This book’s note taking method is broadly similar to that of the long held commonplace book maintained on index cards as seen in both Langlois/Seignobos (1897) and Webb (1926). One of the few major differences in Heyde was the suggestion to actively make and file multiple copies of the same card under different topical headings potentially using carbon copy paper to speed up the process. While it’s possible that Luhmann may have either learned the modifications of his particular system from someone or modified it himself, it is reasonably obvious that there is a much longer standing tradition as early as Konrad Gessner in 1548 to the middle of the 20th century of a zettelkasten tradition that is more similar to the commonplace book tradition effectuated with index cards (or slips “of a similar size”). Luhmann’s system, while seemingly more popular and talked about since roughly 2013, is by far the exception rather than the rule within the broader history of the “zettelkasten method”. With these facts in mind, we should be talking about a simpler, historical zettelkasten method and a separate, more complex/emergent Luhmann method.

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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.

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