Rules against quotes in Zettelkasten? A closer look at Ahrens on Quotes and Collecting

I’ve seen several places in the note taking or zettelkasten communities the general advice that one should not include quotes in or amongst their notes. The general source of this “rule” seems to stem from Sonke Ahrens’ book Smart Notes. However, suggesting that Ahrens has a “rule” against quotes is a dramatic misreading of his intent. I imagine that this potentially stems from someone reading and excerpting his intent incorrectly and then others passing it along indiscriminately in the dreadful litany of one-page blogposts about how one should keep a zettelkasten.

The word “quote” (or close variations like “quotes” and “quotation(s)”) only appear 19 times in the first edition of Ahrens’ book.

In most of the contexts which have what one might call an “anti-quote” connotation, he’s directly recommending against the practice of indiscriminate highlighting/excerpting and collecting of general quotes specifically because they don’t aid in creating understanding by the reader. Instead he repeatedly recommends that one internalize the information by rewriting it in their own words instead. This helps the reader to better understand and know what the author is trying to convey. This also allows the reader to have material in their collection already written in their own words for later reuse.

Talking about “literature notes” Ahrens writes:

He did not just copy ideas or quotes from the texts he [Luhmann] read, but made a transition from one context to another.

Be extra selective with quotes – don’t copy them to skip the step of really understanding what they mean. Keep these notes together with the bibliographic details in one place – your reference system.

Places where quote appears in a context which argues against indiscriminate collection of quotes:

A typical mistake is made by many diligent students who are adhering to the advice to keep a scientific journal. A friend of mine does not let any idea, interesting finding or quote he stumbles upon dwindle away and writes everything down.

As well, the mere copying of quotes almost always changes their meaning by stripping them out of context, even though the words aren’t changed. This is a common beginner mistake, which can only lead to a patchwork of ideas, but never a coherent thought.

It is so much easier to develop an interesting text from a lively discussion with a lot of pros and cons than from a collection of one-sided notes and seemingly fitting quotes

Even doctoral students sometimes just collect de-contextualised quotes from a text – probably the worst possible approach to research imaginable.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Lonka recommends what Luhmann recommends: Writing brief accounts on the main ideas of a text instead of collecting quotes.

Now let’s take a quick look at some of Ahrens’ “pro quote” passages which provide the opposite view of when and where quotes can be useful:

The available books fall roughly into two categories. The first teaches the formal requirements: style, structure or how to quote correctly.

It would certainly make things a lot easier if you already had everything you need right in front of you: The ideas, the arguments, the quotes, long developed passages, complete with bibliography and references.

You follow up on a footnote, go back to research and might add a fitting quote to one of your papers in the making.

In this textual infrastructure, this so-often taught workflow, it indeed does not make much sense to rewrite these notes and put them into a box, only to take them out again later when a certain quote or reference is needed during writing and thinking.

How is one to have useful/impactful/fitting/necessary quotes at hand if they haven’t excerpted them as they read? In these portions he is actively suggesting that quotes from one’s reading in their notes can be a good thing and can help in making persuasive arguments. The secret is that they need to be done judiciously. One needs to be able to quote in a manner which keeps the original context and argument, but which can also fit into your current context and provide support or further argumentation.

As an example of terrible decontextualization, who hasn’t attended a wedding that featured a reading of 1 Corinthians 13? The passage seems wholly appropriate for a church wedding reading, but when you consider that it’s excerpted out of context you might reconsider using it at your own wedding. Go back and try reading it in light of being sandwiched between Corinthians 12 and 14 and you’ll change your mind that chapter 13 is about the sort of romantic love and implied by a wedding. Once you’ve done this, there’s added comedic subtext to scenes like the following from Wedding Crashers (New Line Cinema, 2005):

Father O’Neil: And now for our second reading I’d like to ask the bride’s sister Gloria up to the lectern.
John Beckwith: 20 bucks First Corinthians.
Jeremy Grey: Double or nothing Colossians 3:12.
Gloria Cleary: And now a reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

To prevent embarrassment of this sort, perhaps when you’re quoting a source directly you ought to provide at least a short note about the context in which the words were provided?

Any good rhetorician will tell you that quoting works in your writing can be incredibly helpful in building context and creating authority.

If anything, Ahrens’ book is missing a section on “how to quote correctly”, and this is a stumbling block of his text. As a quick remedy, one could read a bit of Seneca perhaps?

“We should follow, men say, the example of the bees, who flit about and cull the flowers that are suitable for producing honey, and then arrange and assort in their cells all that they have brought in; these bees, as our Vergil says: ‘pack close the flowering honey And swell their cells with nectar sweet.’”
—Seneca in 84th letter to Luculius (“On Gathering Ideas”), Epistles 66-92. With an English translation by Richard G. Gummere. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (Loeb Classical Library, 2006), 277-285.

Beyond just Ahrens there are several thousands of years of prior art seen in the commonplace book tradition where quotes feature not only prominently but at times almost exclusively. Quotes, particularly sententiae, are some of the most excerpted and transmitted bits of knowledge in the entire Western canon. Without quotes, the entire tradition of excerpting and note taking might not exist.

Of course properly quoting is a sub-art in and of itself within rhetoric and the ars excerpendi.

Fellow note taking writer Umberto Eco warns against this same sort of indiscriminate collecting without actively making the knowledge your own. In How to Write a Thesis (MIT Press, 2015, p125), instead of railing against indiscriminate highlighting, or digital cutting and pasting, Eco talks about another sort of technological collection tool more rampant in the 1990s and early 2000s which facilitated this sort of pattern: the photocopier.

Beware the “alibi of photocopies”! Photocopies are indispensable instruments. They allow you to keep with you a text you have already read in the library, and to take home a text you have not read yet. But a set of photocopies can become an alibi. A student makes hundreds of pages of photocopies and takes them home, and the manual labor he exercises in doing so gives him the impression that he possesses the work. Owning the photocopies exempts the student from actually reading them. This sort of vertigo of accumulation, a neocapitalism of information, happens to many. Defend yourself from this trap: as soon as you have the photocopy, read it and annotate it immediately. If you are not in a great hurry, do not photocopy something new before you own (that is, before you have read and annotated) the previous set of photocopies. There are many things that I do not know because I photocopied a text and then relaxed as if I had read it.

Many people may highlight, tag, or collect a variety of quotes within a text, but this activity is only a simulacrum of understanding and knowledge acquisition. This pattern can be particularly egregious in digital contexts where cutting and pasting has be come even easier and simpler than using a photocopier.  Writing it down and summarizing important ideas in your own words will actively help you on your way to ownership of the material you’re consuming.

A zettelkasten with no quotes—by definition—shouldn’t carry the name. So let’s lay to rest that dreadful idea that quotes aren’t allowed in a zettelkasten.

And if you’re just starting out on your zettelkasten or commonplace book journey and don’t know where to begin, I’ve recommended before writing down the following apropos quote and continuing from there:

No piece of information is superior to any other. Power lies in having them all on file and then finding the connections. There are always connections; you have only to want to find them.
—Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum (Secker & Warburg)

The Memindex Method: an early precursor of the Memex, Hipster PDA, 43 Folders, GTD, BaSB, and Bullet Journal systems

Wilson Memindex Co., Rochester, NY

It was fascinating to run across the Memindex, a productivity tool from the Wilson Memindex Co., advertised in a December 1906 issue of System: The Magazine of Business. Memindex seems to be an obvious portmanteau of the words memory and index.

Black and white advertisement for the Memindex featuring a notebook like card system and a wooden card index. The headline reads: Let your mind go free.

Do not tax your brain trying to remember. Get the MEMINDEX HABIT and you can FORGET WITH IMPUNITY. An ideal reminder and handy system for keeping all memoranda where they will appear at the right time. Saves time, money, opportunity. A brain saver. No other device answers its purpose. A Great Help for Busy Men, Used and recommended by Bankers, Manufacturers, Salesmen, Lawyers, Doctors, Merchants, Insurance Men, Architects, Educators, Contractors, Railway Managers Engineers, Ministers, etc., all over the world. Order now and get ready to Begin the New Year Right. Rest of ’06 free with each outfit. Express prepaid on receipt of price. Personal checks accepted.
Also a valuable card index for desk use. Dated cards from tray are carried in the handy pocket case, 2 to 4 weeks at a time. To-day’s card always at the front. No leaves to turn. Helps you to PLAN YOUR WORK WORK YOUR PLAN ACCOMPLISH MORE You need it. Three years’ sales show that most all business and professional men need it. GET IT NOW. WILSON MEMINDEX CO. 93 Mills St., Rochester, N. Y.

Early Computer Science Influence?

The Memindex product appears several decades prior to Vannevar Bush’s “coinage” of memex in As We May Think (The Atlantic, July 1945). While many credit Bush for an early instantiation of the internet using the model of a desk, microfiche, and a filing system, almost all of these moving parts had already existed in late 19th century networked office furniture and were just waiting for automation and computerization. The primary difference in this Memindex card system and Bush’s Memex is the higher information density made available through the use of microfiche. Now it turns out his coinage of memex appears to have been in the zeitgeist decades prior as well. I’ve got evidence that the Wilson Memindex was sold well into the early 1950s. (My current dating is to 1952, though later examples may exist.) Below I’ve pictured some cards from the same year as Bush’s now famous piece in the Atlantic.

Six different cards from a 1945 set of Memindex featuring cards for automobile expenses; a list of orderable supplies including cards, guide cards, and leather cases; an advertisement for Griptite Bands for holding cards; a pocket calendar for 1945, and a small instruction card on how the cards and system should be used.

Most people are more familiar with the popular 20th century magazine System than they realize. Created and published by A. W Shaw, one of the partners of Shaw-Walker, a major manufacturer of office furniture in the early 20th century, the popular magazine was sold to McGraw-Hill Company in 1927/8 and renamed Businessweek which was later sold again and renamed Bloomberg Businessweek.

Relationship to other modern productivity methods

Some will certainly see close ties of this early product to the idea of the “hipster PDA” or Hawk Sugano’s Pile of Index Cards which appeared in 2006. It also doesn’t take much imagination for one to look at the back of a Wilson Memindex envelope from 1909 or an ad from the 1930s to see the similarity to the 43 folders system, bits of Getting Things Done (GTD), or the Bullet Journal methods in common use today. The 1909 envelope also appears to combine a predecessor to the 43 folders idea mixed with the hipster PDA in a coherent pocket and desk-based system.

With alphabetic tabs for the desktop version, one could easily have used this for “Building a Second Brain” as described by modern productivity gurus who almost exclusively suggest digital tools for maintaining their systems now. The 1909 envelop specifically recommends using the system as “comprehensive card index” which is essentially what most second brain or zettelkasten systems are, though there is a broad disconnect between some of this and the reimagining of the zettelkasten in current craze for using Niklas Luhmann-esque organization methods which have some different aims.

What’s interesting beyond the similarities of the systems is the means by which they were sold and spread. Older systems like the Memindex or related general office filing and indexing systems (Shaw-Walker),  were primarily selling physical products/hardware like boxes, filing cabinets, holders, cards, and dividers as much as they were selling a process or idea. Mid- and late-century companies like  Day-Timer or FranklinCovey also sold physical stationery products (calendars, planners, boxes, binders, books, ) but also began more heavily selling ideas like “productivity” and “leadership”. Modern productivity gurus are generally selling the ideas of the systems and making their money not on the physical items, software or programs which implement them, but with consulting fees, class fees, subscriptions, books which describe their systems, or even advertising against page or video views.

The 1906 version of the Memindex was popular enough to already be offered with the following options of materials for the distinguishing tastes of consumers: 

  • Cowhide Seal Leather Case and hardwood tray
  • Am. Russia Leather Case and plain oak tray
  • Genuine Morocco Case and quartered oak tray

What options is your current productivity guru or system offering? What are the differentiations and affordances it’s offering compared to similar systems in the early 1900s? Where is the “rich Corinthian leather“?

Memindex advertisement on the back of a standard business envelope picturing a hand held card holder for up to three weeks of cards and the sister desk-based card index with  a variety of date and alphabetical tabbed indexes.
Memindex envelope from 1909
A small desk-based card index with tabs for the days of the week and months as well as an alphabetical index.
1930’s Memindex advertisement featuring a pedestal based system with a pocket card holder.

The Memindex Method

The basic Memindex method consists of using 2 3/4″ x 4 1/2″ (vest pocket sized) or 3 x 5 1/2″ cards depending on one’s size preference to jot down to do lists or tickler items on individually dated cards which are kept in a desk-based wooden card index with tabs for both months as well as alphabetic tabs in some systems. One then keeps a small pocket-sized card holder with the coming three weeks’ worth of cards on their person for active daily use and files them away as the days go by. 

Advertisement for the Memindex outlining their method of use.
1930’s advertisement for the Memindex Jr.

Apparently the truism “everything old is new again” is true yet again.

Angle down on a wooden Memindex box with a front locking mechanism. On the front visible card are the words "Jot here reminders of important things to be done this month, so you can see all at a glance."
Memindex box with lock from 1937
A fascinating combination of office furniture types in 1906! 

1906 Advertisement for a combination card index table and telephone stand featuring a desk with the satellite combination table next to it.

The Adjustable Table Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan manufactured a combination table for both telephones and index cards. It was designed as an accessory to be stood next to one’s desk to accommodate a telephone at the beginning of the telephone era and also served as storage for one’s card index.

Given the broad business-based use of the card index at the time and the newness of the telephone, this piece of furniture likely was not designed as an early proto-rolodex, though it certainly could have been (and very well may have likely been) used as such in practice.

First Use of Zettelkasten in an English Language Setting?

The idea of having and maintaining a Zettelkasten has become increasingly popular since the »Zettelkästen. Maschinen der Phantasie« exhibition at Marbach in March 2013 and the appearance of the website in late 2013 and has grown significantly with the Cambrian explosion of a variety of digital note taking tools since 2018.

But here’s a fun little historical linguistic puzzle:

What was the first use of the word Zettelkasten in a predominantly English language setting?

In my own notes/research the first occurrence I’ve been able to identify in an English language setting is on Manfred Kuehn’s blog in Taking note: Luhmann’s Zettelkasten on 2007-12-16. He’d just started his blog earlier that month.

Has anyone seen an earlier usage? Can you find one? Can you beat this December 2007 date or something close by a different author?

Google’s nGram Viewer doesn’t indicate any instances of it from 1800-2019 in its English search, though does provide a graph for German with peaks in the 1850s, 1892 (just after Ernst Bernheim’s Lehrbuch der Historischen Methode in 1889), 1912, 1925, and again in 1991.

Twitter search from 2006-2007 finds nothing and there are only two results in German both mentioning Luhmann.

My best guess for earlier versions of the appearance zettelkasten in English might stem from the work/publications of S. D. Goitein or Gotthard Deutsch, but I’ve yet to see anything there. 

For those who speak German, what might you posit as a motivating source for the rise of the word in the 1850s or any of the other later peaks?

In Chapter 1: American Exceptionalism of Myth America (Basic Books, 2023) historian David A. Bell indicates that Jay Lovestone and Joseph Stalin originated the idea of American exceptionalism in 1920, but in Democracy: An American Novel (1880, p.72) Henry Adams seems to capture an early precursor of the sentiment:

“Ah!” exclaimed the baron, with his wickedest leer, “what for is my conclusion good? You Americans believe yourselves to be excepted from the operation of general laws. You care not for experience. I have lived seventy-five years, and all that time in the midst of corruption. I am corrupt myself, only I do have courage to proclaim it, and you others have it not. Rome, Paris, Vienna, Petersburg, London, all are corrupt; only Washington is pure! Well, I declare to you that in all my experience I have found no society which has had elements of corruption like the United States. The children in the street are corrupt, and know how to cheat me. The cities are all corrupt, and also the towns and the counties and the States’ legislatures and the judges. Every where men betray trusts both public and private, steal money, run away with public funds.

Had a flavor of American exceptionalism been brewing for decades before Stalin’s comment? Adams’ posthumous Pulitzer Prize for The Education of Henry Adams (1907, 1918) in 1919 may have brought his earlier writings back to the public conscious for the 1920 citation?

Adams, Henry. Democracy: An American Novel. Leisure Hour Series 112. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1880.

A Quick Look at Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Zettelkasten: Zettel 1967

In response to a post last week, Stephen Downes reminded me that Ludwig Wittgenstein had a zettelkasten practice. In particular there is a translated and published book Zettel from 1967 which contains 717 zettels from Wittgenstein’s Nachlass, or works left behind following his death in 1951. I’ve had a copy lying around for a bit, but finally spent some time with it. The book cleverly has a parallel text form with the German on one side of the page and the English on the facing page. I’ve also seen translations of the book in both Spanish and Italian for those who might prefer those.

While the individual entries themselves are as fascinating as dipping randomly into some of Henry David Thoreau’s journals or Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s Waste Books, the brief introductory material by the editors was immediately the most interesting to me. 

In the book, the editors (one a student, the other his friend and colleague and both his literary executors) indicate that many of Wittgenstein’s zettels “were for the most part cut from extensive typescripts of his, other copies of which still exist.” Perhaps not knowing of the commonplace book or zettelkasten traditions, they may have dramatically mistaken the notes in his zettelkasten as having originated in his typescripts rather than them having originated as notes which then later made it into his typescripts! I’m left wondering what in particular about the originals may have made them think it was typescript to zettel?! They even indicate having gone so far as to edit some of the zettel using the typescripts to fill in missing material, so those reading them from the note stage forward may wish to take caution for these.

If it’s true that the two editors were unaware of his note taking habits, then it would seem obvious that Wittgenstein didn’t pass along his note taking methods to his students, given that Anscombe was close enough to have visited his deathbed and been named a literary executor. Given the mid-century timeframe, it’s likely that the card index note taking methods were already passing out of vogue at this time.

Some more digging into the actual original materials may be necessary here. Were these the only slips he left behind? Were there others? Did he dispose of his notes as works from them were published?

Based on the dating provided by Anscombe and von Wright, Wittgenstein’s slips dated from 1929 to 1948. Supposing that the notes preceded the typescripts and not the other way around as Anscombe and von Wright indicate, the majority of the notes were turned into written work (typescripts) which were dictated from 1945-1948.

Some of the manuscript notes in Wittgenstein’s zettelkasten were according to the editors “apparently written to add to the remarks on a particular matter preserved in the box”. So much like Niklas Luhmann’s wooden conversation partner, Wittgenstein was not only having conversations with the texts he was reading, he was creating a conversation between himself and his pre-existing notes thus extending his lines of thought within his zettelkasten.

However the form of these notes is structurally different from Luhmann’s. Peter Geach apparently made an arrangement of Wittgenstein’s slips which was broadly kept in the edited and published version Zettel. Fragments on the same topic were clipped together indicating that Wittgenstein’s method was most likely by “conversation”, subject, or possibly topical headings. However there were also a large number of slips “lying loose in the box.” Perhaps these were notes which he had yet to file or which some intervening archivist may have re-arranged? In any case this particular source doesn’t indicate the use of alphabetical dividers or other tabbed divisions.

In any case, Geach otherwise arranged all the materials as best as he could according to subject matter. As a result the printed book version isn’t necessarily the arrangement that Wittgenstein would have made, but the editors of the book felt that at least Geach’s arrangement made it an “instructive and readable compilation”. Many of the zettels are closely related and seem to form coherent ideas or streams of thought. Some remind me a bit of Twitter threads. 

Ultimately I’m left wondering, what was Wittgenstein’s reading, note taking, and process? Was it note taking, arranging/outlining, and then dictation followed by editing? Dictating certainly would have been easier/faster if he’d already written down his cards and could simply read from them to a secretary.

For those hoping for lots of answers about his particular practice, not much is to be gleaned here except for looking directly at the collection as a whole. Most fascinating to me is seeing a softer conversational and decontextualized nature in the notes which I’ve also seen in Luhmann’s. Of course without the context and references, many are unlikely to mean much to some without some heavy reading or studying.

Puzzling out Wittgenstein’s active practice is likely going to require some more direct access to the source materials or subsequent works from other scholars who have been through them and his other materials more thoroughly.


Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Zettel. Edited by Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe and Georg Henrik von Wright,. Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe. Second California Paperback Printing. 1967. Reprint, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 2007.

Book cover of Zettel by Ludwig Wittgenstein

Vintage wooden desk top Shaw-Walker 11 inch card index for 3 x 5″ cards

I’ve been watching the secondary market for used card indexes for a while and finally caved and purchased a vintage wooden desk top Shaw-Walker 11 inch card index for 3 x 5″ index cards. It was dusty and dirty and in reasonably good shape, but with some cleaning and some wood polish, it’s in much better shape.

Close up of the black and gold lettered Shaw-Walker Logo on the front of a 3 x 5 inch card index

I removed the original tacks on the bottom which appeared to have once held down some red felt. I cut out a new rectangle of green felt and reattached the tacks so that the index won’t scratch up my desktop. The dovetails are in good shape, but it seems like in a year or two some of the joins may need to be re-glued.

In all, for a small $10.00 investment, it’s a stunning addition for my zettelkasten card collection. Compared to some of the cardboard and metal options out there, it was half the price, but is far prettier and infinitely more durable.

Of course I’ve got a strong preference for 4 x 6″, so I’ll be on the look out for something bigger, but this was just too good a deal to pass up. Perhaps I’ll use it like a Memindex or a related productivity tool?

Oblique angle on a Shaw-Walker 11 inch 3 x 5 inch card index View from the back of the wooden card stop mechanism on an 11 inch card index. Close up of a reddish sticker on the bottom of a wooden card index. View of the bottom of a Shaw-Walker card index featuring two slats separated by a metal rod.