Reframing and simplifying the idea of how to keep a Zettelkasten

Given many of the misconceptions I see online of how to keep a zettelkasten, particularly given the focus on the arcane addressing system used by Niklas Luhmann, perhaps it may be helpful to dramatically reframe the question of how to keep a zettelkasten? One page blog posts from people who’ve only recently seen the idea and are synopsizing it without a year or more practice themselves are highly confusing at best. Can I write something we don’t see enough of in spaces relating to zettelkasten? Perhaps we should briefly consider the intellectual predecessor of the slip box?

(Editor’s note: I’m using content within my own “slip box” to write this.)

Start out by forgetting zettelkasten exist. Instead read about what a commonplace book is and how that (simpler) form of note taking works. This short article outlined as a class assignment is a fascinating way to start and has some illustrative examples: If you’re a writer, researcher, or journalist, perhaps Steven Johnson’s perspective may be interesting to you instead:

The general idea is to collect interesting passages, quotes, and ideas as you read. Keep them in a notebook and call it your commonplace book. If you like call these your “fleeting notes” as some do.

As you do this, start building an index of subject headings for your ideas, perhaps using John Locke’s method (see this for some history and a synopsis:

Once you’ve got this, you’ve really mastered the majority of what a zettelkasten is and have a powerful tool at your disposal. If you feel it’s useful to you, you can add a few more tools and variations to your set up.

Next instead of keeping the ideas in a notebook, put them on index cards so that they’re easier to sort through, move around, and re-arrange. This particularly useful if you want to use them to create an outline of your ideas for writing something with them. Once you’ve got index cards (slips) with ideas on them in a box, you now literally meet the minimum requirements of a zettelkasten (German for “slip box”, though in practice many will have their ideas in a metaphorical slip box using a digital note taking tool.

Next, maybe keep some index cards that have the references and bibliographies from which your excerpting and note taking comes from. Link these bibliographical cards to the cards with your content.

As you go through your notes, ideas, and excerpts, maybe you want to further refine them? Write them out in your own words. Improve their clarity, so that when you go to re-use them, you can simply “excerpt” material you’ve already written for yourself and you’re not plagiarizing others. You can call these improved notes, as some do either “permanent notes” or “evergreen notes”.

Perhaps you’re looking for more creativity, serendipity, and organic surprise in your system? Next you can link individual notes together. In a paper system you can do this by following one note with another or writing addresses on each card and using that addressing system to link them, but in a digital environment you can link one note to many multiple others that are related. If you’re not sure where to start here, look back to your subject headings and pull out cards related to broad categories. Some things will obviously fit more closely than others, so be more selective and only link ideas that are more intimately connected than just the subject heading you’ve used.

Now when you want to write or create something new on a particular topic, ask your slip box a question and attempt to answer it by consulting your index. Find cards related to the topic, pull out those and place them in a useful order to create an outline perhaps using the cross links that already exist. (You’ve done that linking work as you went, so why not use it to make things easier now?) Copy the contents into a document and begin editing.

Beyond the first few steps, you’re really just creating additional complexity to a system to increase the combinatorial complexity of juxtaposed ideas that you could potentially pull back out of your system for writing more interesting text and generating new ideas. Some people may neither want nor need this sort of complexity in their working lives. If you don’t need it, then just keep a simple commonplace book (or commonplace card file) to remind you of the interesting ideas and inspirations you’ve seen and could potentially reuse throughout your life.

The benefit of this method is that beyond creating your index, you’ll always have something useful even if you abandon things later on and quit refining it. If you do go all the way, concentrate on writing out just two short solid ideas every day (Luhmann averaged about 6 per day and Roland Barthes averaged 1 and change). Do it until you have between 500 and 1000 cards (based on some surveys and anecdotal evidence), and you should begin seeing some serendipitous and intriguing results as you use your system for your writing.

We should acknowledge that that (visual) artists and musicians might also keep commonplaces and zettelkasten. As an example, Eminem keeps a zettelkasten, though he calls his “stacking ammo”, but it is so minimal that it is literally just a box and slips of paper with no apparent organization beyond this. If this fits your style and you don’t get any value out of having cards with locators like 3a4b/65m1, then don’t do that (for you) useless make-work. Make sure your system is working for you and you’re not working for your system.

Sadly, it’s generally difficult to find a single blog post that can accurately define what a zettelkasten is, how it’s structured, how it works, and why one would want one much less what one should expect from it. Sönke Ahrens does a reasonably good job, but his explanation is an entire book. Hopefully this distillation will get you moving in a positive direction for having a useful daily practice, but without an excessive amount of work and perhaps a bit less cognitive dissonance. Once you’ve been at it a while, then start looking at Ahrens and others to refine things for your personal preferences and creative needs.

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

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

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 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.

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’m 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.


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

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.

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?

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.

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

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)

This paper by Jason Lustig on Gotthard Deutsch’s was fascinating: While there’s an implication that its use didn’t make him as productive (from a writing perspective) as Niklas Luhmann or S.D. Goitein, I might suggest that it made him a more productive thinker and teacher, which in turn bore results in the form of his students who also picked up the practice from him.

Day Two and Three Refinishing the Shaw-Walker Filing Cabinet

Yesterday I spent several more hours on the Shaw-Walker. I finished removing as much of the rust as I could and did the final rounds of sanding with the 60 grit and 100 grit sandpaper. I vacuumed away a ton of dust and then gave it a good washing down and did a final sponging of it with some acetone. Then I gave five of the sides a good coat of Rust-o-leum anti-rust primer and sat it to dry for 24 hours.

Oblique view of Shaw-Walker filing cabinet with the first coat of anti-rust primer applied.
Oblique view of the back side of the filing cabinet with brown primer on. Generally in excellent shape though there are one or two small dings in the piece.

I got out all the drawers and cleaned and vacuumed them out. Then I removed all the hardware including the filing cabinet rods and file stops, the handles, the name plate frames, and the metal shield on the back of the drawer front that prevents files from coming into contact with the drawer handle bolts. It appears that none of the bolts have ever been removed, so it took some WD-40 and some elbow grease to remove them.

The four filing cabinet drawers and associated hardware including file stops, file rods, and roller assemblies.
A close up o one of the drawer fronts in bad shape. Someone appears to have spilled something on the front which has corroded the finish and rusted part of the corner.

Close up angle on the four drawers in the late afternoon sun.

View into a drawer as the bolts from the drawer handle are being removed.
A corroded drawer handle with signs of WD-40 on the threads of the handle attachment.

Drawer handle assembly fully removed with the drawer, the handle, the interior protection plate, and a glass with the nuts and washers.
View of the drawer tipped with it’s face to the ground to show where the protection plate was inserted into the drawer.
The heavily black tarnished drawer label frames and the drawer handles arranged in a grid.
View of the four drawers fully disassembled with all the hardware arranged around them.
View of the back of one of the worst drawers which is showing signs of rusting through its green paint. I’ll probably strip and refinish this portion of the drawer, but the rest will be left in original condition after a thorough cleaning.
The bottom drawer with the drawer face on the ground showing the extent of the rust damage on the back and bottom of the drawer.
Close up of some of the rusting as well as the corroded metal lock stop mechanism on the right rear bottom of the drawer.

I’ll end up sanding, priming, and painting only the front and edges of each of the drawers, though one or two of the bottom drawers will need some rehabilitation work due to rusting.

Finally I spent a part of the early evening removing the heavy tarnish from the metal fittings. A quick magnet test indicates that they’re all ferrous but they appear to be brass plated. So I mixed up a batch of vinegar, salt, and flour paste (~6:1:4) to scrub off the grime and tarnish. After a quick test on one to confirm the results, I spent some serious scrubbing and polishing to get one set of handle, frame, and rod cleaned up. I finished them off with a polishing cloth and the results aren’t half bad, particularly considering their original condition.

Kitchen station set up with vinegar, a tub of flour, a salt cellar, some measuring spoons, a toothbrush and newspaper for removing the corrosion from one of the file rods, a label frame, and one of the drawer pulls. A magnet test indicates that these are steel cores with what is likely brass plating.
Side by side comparison of two file rods. One has been treated and had most of its tarnish removed to reveal a coppery shine and the other is untreated and grimy and brown with hinds of yellow and green.
A before and after of the tarnish on two file name plate frames. Even the prettier of the two still needs some more work.
Before and after comparisons of name plate frames and file rods.

It took some serious work this morning, but I’ve managed to clean off most of the rest of the tarnish on the remaining handles, frames, and filing rods. They look quite nice, though still show some signs of tarnish and patina. I finally gave up on the backs of the handles as they’re so heavily tarnished I’m not sure it’ll ever come off.

Yesterday’s progress on the 4 drawer Shaw-Walker filing cabinet. I’ve emptied the drawers and removed them along with the rollers and hardware. I’ve also stripped all the original paint and a significant amount of rust, though I still have all of the bottom panel left, which is the worst of the rust. I’m still hoping that I can salvage the bottom.

An oblique view of a 4 drawer Shaw-Walker filing cabinet with the drawers removed. The original paint and rust has been stripped off the sides.

Acquisition: Shaw-Walker Furniture Company 4 drawer vintage filing cabinet

On February 7th, I picked up a Shaw-Walker 4 drawer filing cabinet that someone had decided to leave for scrap. Despite some serious rust and a few physical holes on the bottom, most of the cabinet is in reasonable shape and functional. The locking mechanism is still mostly in place, though the piece is missing the locks and keys. Each of the drawers has one or more file stops, of a few different styles.

It contained a handful of paperclips, some sewing patterns, and some check stubs from 1976. I suspect it’s likely from the late 40s to early 60s, but it’ll require some research to track down a more specific manufacturing date as the interior has no immediate clues.

Given the general condition and rust, I think I’m going to fast track it for refinishing this month before I tackle the monster, which portends quite a bit more work and effort.