Over the past year and change, I’ve read and written a fair amount about note taking practices and their history including the topics of #CommonplaceBooks and . I’ve spent a few minutes aggregating it into a collection for those who are curious: https://boffosocko.com/research/zettelkasten-commonplace-books-and-note-taking-collection/. 🗃️📓🖋️

Victor Margolin’s zettelkasten process for note taking and writing

It’s not as refined or as compartmentalized as Niklas Luhmann’s process, but art historian Victor Margolin broadly outlines his note taking and writing process in reasonable detail in this excellent three minute video. (This may be one of the shortest and best produced encapsulations of these reading/note taking/writing methods I’ve ever seen.)

Though he indicates it was a “process [he] developed”, it is broadly similar to that of the influential “historical method” laid out by Ernst Bernheim and later Seignobos/Langlois in the late 1800s.

Victor Margolin’s note taking and writing process

  • Collecting materials and bibliographies in files based on categories (for chapters)
  • Reads material, excerpts/note making on 5 x 7″ note cards
    • Generally with a title (based on visual in video)
    • excerpts have page number references (much like literature notes, the refinement linking and outlining happens separately later in his mapping and writing processes)
    • filed in a box with tabbed index cards by chapter number with name
    • video indicates that he does write on both sides of cards breaking the usual rule to write only on one side
  • Uses large pad of newsprint (roughly 18″ x 24″ based on visualization) to map out each chapter in visual form using his cards in a non-linear way. Out of the diagrams and clusters he creates a linear narrative form.
  •  Tapes diagrams to wall
  •  Writes in text editor on computer as he references the index cards and the visual map.

I’ve developed a way of working to make this huge project of a world history of design manageable.
—Victor Margolin

Notice here that Victor Margolin doesn’t indicate that it was a process that he was taught, but rather “I’ve developed”. Of course he was likely taught or influenced on the method, particularly as a historian, and that what he really means to communicate is that this is how he’s evolved that process.

I begin with a large amount of information.
—Victor Margolin


As I begin to write a story begins to emerge because, in fact, I’ve already rehearsed this story in several different ways by getting the information for the cards, mapping it out and of course the writing is then the third way of telling the story the one that will ultimately result in the finished chapters.
—Victor Margolin