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.

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: https://www.academia.edu/35101285/Creating_a_Commonplace_Book_CPB_. If you’re a writer, researcher, or journalist, perhaps Steven Johnson’s perspective may be interesting to you instead: https://stevenberlinjohnson.com/the-glass-box-and-the-commonplace-book-639b16c4f3bb

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: https://publicdomainreview.org/collection/john-lockes-method-for-common-place-books-1685).

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.

Creating a commonplace book or zettelkasten index from Hypothes.is tags

I thought it might be useful to have a relatively complete list of cross linked topical headings in my digital notebook (currently Obsidian) which is a mélange of wiki, zettelkasten, journal, project management tool, notebook, and productivity tool. First, let’s be honest that mélange is too poetic based on what I see of how others use Obsidian and similar tools. My version is structured to have very clear delineations between these forms even though I’m using the same tool for various functions.

I find that indexed subject headings can be useful for creating links between my wiki-like pages as well as links between atomic ideas in my digital zettelkasten. Gradually as one’s zettelkasten becomes larger and one works with it more, it becomes easier to recall individual ideas and cross link them. Until this happens or for smaller zettelkasten it can be useful to cross reference subject headings from one zettel to see what those link to and use those as a way to potential create links to other zettels. This method can also be used as a search/discovery aide for connecting edge ideas in new areas to pre-existing portions of one’s zettelkasten as well. Of course at massive scale with decades of work, I suspect this index will have increased value as well.

I don’t hear people talking about these types of indices for their zettelkasten in any of the influencer spaces or on social media. Are people simply skipping this valuable tool? For those enamored of Niklas Luhmann, we should mention that having and maintaining a subject index was a powerful portion of his system, even if the digitized version of his zettelkasten hasn’t yet been fully digitized. I haven’t seen the whole collection myself, but based on the condition of some of the cards in his index, Luhmann heavily used his subject index. (Note to self: I wonder what his whole system would look like in Obsidian?) Having a general key word/subject heading/topic heading index of all the material in one’s system can be very useful for general search and discovery as well. This is one of the reasons that John Locke wrote about a system for indexing one’s commonplace book in 1685. His work here is likely the distal reason Luhmann had one in his system.

Systems that have graphical knowledge graphs may make this process easier as one can look from one zettel out one or two levels to see where those link to.

Since such a large swath of my note taking practice starts by using Hypothes.is as my tool of choice, I’m able to leverage several years of using it to my benefit. Within it I’ve got 9,314 annotations, highlights, and bookmarks tagged with over 3,326 subject headings as of this writing.

To get all my subject heading tags, I used Jon Udell’s excellent facet tool to go to the tag editing interface. There I entered a “max” number larger than my total number of annotations and left the “tag” field empty to have it return the entire list of my tags. I was then able to edit a few of them to concatenate duplicates, fix misspellings, and remove some spurious tags.

An alternate way of doing this is to use a method described in this GitHub issue which shows how to get the tags out of local storage in your web browser. Your mileage may vary though if you use Hypothes.is in multiple browsers, which I do.

I moved this list from the tag editor into a spreadsheet software to massage the list a bit, clean up any character encodings, and then spit out a list of [[wikilinked]] index keywords. I then cut and pasted it into my notebook and threw in some alphabetical headings so that I could more easily jump around the list.

Now I’ve got an excellent tool and interface for more easily searching and browsing the various areas of my multi-purpose digital notebook.

I’m sure there are other methods within various tools of doing this, including searching all files and cutting and pasting those into a page, though in my case this doesn’t capture non-existing files. One might also try a search for a regex phrase like: /(?:(?:(?:<([^ ]+)(?:.*)>)\[\[(?:<\/\1>))|(?:\[\[))(?:(?:(?:<([^ ]+)(?:.*)>)(.+?)(?:<\/\2>))|(.+?))(?:(?:(?:<([^ ]+)(?:.*)>)\]\](?:<\/\5>))|(?:\]\]))/ (found here) or something as simple as /\[\[.*\]\]/ though in my case they don’t quite return what I really want or need.

I’ll likely keep using more local search and discovery, but perhaps having a centralized store of subject headings will offer some more interesting affordances for search and browsing?

Have you created an index for your system? How did you do it?

Tiago, I’ve started into an advanced copy of your forthcoming book and at the end of the introduction you have a footnote:

Other popular terms for such a system include Zettelkasten (meaning “slipbox” in German, coined by influential sociologist Niklas Luhmann), Memex (a word invented by American inventor Vannevar Bush), and digital garden (named by popular online creator Anne-Laure Le Cunff)

Please know that the zettelkasten and its traditions existed prior to Niklas Luhmann. He neither invented them nor coined their name. It’s a commonly repeated myth on the internet that he did and there’s ample evidence of their extensive use prior to his well known example. I’ve documented some brief history on Wikipedia to this effect should you need it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zettelkasten

The earliest concept of a digital garden stems from Mark Bernstein’s essay Hypertext Gardens: Delightful Vistas in 1998. This torch was picked up by academic Mike Caulfield in a 2015 keynote/article The Garden and The Stream: A Technopastoral.

Anne-Laure Le Cunff’s first mention of “digital garden” was on April 21, 2020

Which occurred just after Maggie Appleton’s mention on 2020-04-15

And several days after Justin Tadlock’s article on 2020-04-17 

Before this there was Joel Hooks by at least 2020-02-04 , though he had been thinking about it in late 2019.

He was predated by Tom Critchlow on 2018-10-18 who credits Mike Caulfield’s article from 2015-10-17 as an influence.

Archive.org has versions of the phrase going back into the early 2000’s: https://web.archive.org/web/*/%22digital%20garden%22

Hopefully you’re able to make the edits prior to publication, or at least in an available errata.

The Zettelkasten Method of Note Taking Mirrors Most of the Levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy

Between zettels (the space where new ideas often occur) this morning I realized that there is a high correlation to Bloom’s Taxonomy and the refined methods of keeping a zettelkasten, particularly as delineated by Dr. Sönke Ahrens in his book How to Take Smart Notes. As a result, even if one’s primary goal isn’t writing or creating as framed by Ahrens’, the use of the system as a pedagogical tool can be highly effective for a variety of learning environments.

Recall briefly that Bloom’s Taxonomy levels can be summarized as: remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, and create.

Outlining the similarities

One needs to be able to generally understand an idea(s) to be able to write it down clearly in one’s own words. This is parallel to creating literature notes as one reads. Gaps in one’s understanding will be readily apparent when one realizes that they’re not able to explain an idea simply and clearly.

Regular work within a zettelkasten helps to reinforce memory of ideas for understanding, long term retention, and the ability to easily remember them. Many forms of zettelkasten software have functionality for direct spaced repetition if not dovetails for spaced repetition software like Anki or Mnemosyne.

Applying the knowledge to other situations happens almost naturally with the combinatorial creativity that occurs within a zettelkasten. Raymundus Llullus would be highly jealous here I think.

Analysis is heavily encouraged as one takes new information and actively links it to prior knowledge and ideas; this is also concurrent with the application of knowledge.

Being able to compare and contrast two ideas on separate cards is also part of the analysis portions of Bloom’s taxonomy which also leads into the evaluation phase. Is one idea better than another? How do they dovetail? How might they create new knowledge? Juxtaposed ideas cry out for evaluation.

Finally, as argued by Ahrens, one of the most important reasons for keeping a zettelkasten is to use it to generate or create new ideas and thoughts and then use the zettelkasten as a tool to synthesize them in articles, books, or other media in a clear and justified manner. 

Other examples?

I’m curious to hear if any educators have used the zettelkasten framing specifically for scaffolding the learning process for their students? There are some seeds of this in the social annotation space with tools like Diigo and Hypothes.is, but has anyone specifically brought the framing into their classes?

I’ve seen a few examples of people thinking in this direction and even @CalHistorian specifically framing things this way, but I’m curious to hear about other actual experiences in the field. 

The history of the recommendation and use of commonplace books in education is long and rich (Erasmus, Melanchthon, Agricola, et al.), until it began disappearing in the early 20th century. I’ve seen a few modern teachers suggesting commonplaces, but have yet to run across others suggesting zettelkasten until Ahrens’ book, which isn’t yet widespread, at least in the English speaking world. And even in Ahrens’ case, his framing is geared specifically to writing more so than general learning and education.

Featured image courtesy of Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching (CC BY 2.0

Contextualizing Cornell Notes in the Note Taking Traditions

Have we lost too much of the contextual value of what Cornell notes were originally designed for by Walter Pauk in the 1950’s? Or are we not taking the idea far enough into the writing realm?

Cornell notes come from a time closer to the traditional space of commonplace books, academic thinking, and note taking that was more prevalent in the early 1900’s and from which also sprang the zettelkasten tradition. I can’t help but be reminded that the 10th edition of Pauk’s book How to Study in College (Wadsworth, 2011, p.394), which helped to popularize the idea of Cornell notes with the first edition in 1962, literally ends the book with the relationship of the word ‘topic’ by way of Greek to the Latin ‘loci communes‘ (commonplaces), though it’s worth bearing in mind that it contains no discussion of the commonplace book or its long tradition in our intellectual history.

One was meant to use Cornell notes to capture broad basic ideas and facts (fleeting notes) and things to follow up on for additional research or work. Then they were meant to be revisited to focus on creating questions that might be used for spaced repetition, a research space that has seen tremendous growth and advancement since the simpler times in which the Cornell note taking method was designed.

Additionally one was meant to revisit their notes to draw out the most salient points and ideas. This is part of the practice of taking the original ideas and writing them out clearly in one’s own words to improve one’s understanding of the material. Within a zettelkasten framing, this secondary review is part of the process of creating future useful literature notes or permanent notes that one might also re-use in their future writing and thinking.

Missing from the Cornell notes practice but more directly centered in the zettelkasten practice is taking one’s notes and directly linking them to other related thoughts in one’s system. This places this method closer to the commonplace book tradition than the zettelkasten tradition.

While a more basic and naïve understanding of Cornell notes in current academic environments still works on many levels, students and active researchers might be better advised to look at their practices in view of broader framings like that of Sönke Ahrens’s book How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking.

It also bears noting that one could view the first stage of Cornell notes in light of the practice of keeping a waste book and then later transferring their more permanent and better formed ideas into their commonplace book.

Similarly one might also view full sheets of finished Cornell notes as permanent notes mixed in amidst fleeting notes and held together on pages rather than individual cards. This practice sounds somewhat similar in structure to Sönke Ahrens’s use of Roam Research to compile multiple related ideas in individually linked blocks on a single page holding them together in a pseudo-project page for more immediate and potentially specific future use.

I’m excited to join Dan Allosso‘s book club on How to Take Smart Notes as a means of turning my active reading, annotating, and note taking into papers, articles and books using Obsidian.md and Hypothes.is

Details: 

cc: Ian O’Byrne, Remi Kalir

Replied to a tweet (Twitter)
If you’re curious about doing this from digital to print, you’ll find some interesting pointers/ideas at these two links:

Replied to a thread by AGWilsonn (Twitter)
For academics, a range of sources and spaces may be best from books, articles on down to tweets. The Garden and Stream may be a useful metaphor with respect to your Twitter (stream) use: https://hapgood.us/2015/10/17/the-garden-and-the-stream-a-technopastoral/

For ideas on implementing this (under various names) try: https://indieweb.org/commonplace_book. Micro.blog may be one of the online platforms that does a lot of this with IndieWeb building blocks, allows syndication to twitter, has a low barrier, and a reasonable subscription cost. It’s a social reader that also includes

Examples specific to religious studies I’ve seen, include those considered “florilegia”, Philip Melanchthon, and Jonathan Edwards, just to name a few.

I’m always curious about which methods and tools people use to take best advantage of these knowledge ideas, particularly for collecting, curating, reusing, and ultimately creating. Have you written about your overall experience with Knovigator and how you use it in this context?

Different types of notes and use cases

In taking notes and making annotations recently, I’ve started a list of some of the broad semantic types I’ve come across. 

Ideas

New ideas spurred by reading, potentially for future expansion and refinement.

Questions

Questions relating to the the text. What’s missing? What should have been asked or addressed? What biases exist that should be addressed?

Paraphrases

Paraphrases and [[progressive summaries]] of articles or portions of articles. Restatements of ideas which may be reused in other contexts.

Facts

Basic, usually new, facts highlighted for future use and/or [[spaced repetition]]

Quotes

Old school sententiae, aphorisms, and quotes for use in the future

Replies

Direct communication with others

Phatic notes and Reactions

Reactions, exhortations (Ha!, funny, ROFL, LOL, etc.), reacji, !, ?, ⭐, basic signs of life while reading

Others?

Are there any big holes I’m missing based on your experiences?

Replied to a tweet by @jmeowmeow (Twitter)
@jmeowmeow @miniver @dobbse Build your own?? Lots of ideas and other alternatives for thought here: https://indieweb.org/commonplace_book

Does Spirit hide in the filing cabinet?

On a slip in his zettelkasten (a card catalog or filing cabinet of personal notes), entitled “Does Spirit hide in the filing cabinet?”, Niklas Luhmann wrote a note about people who came to see his system:

“People come, they see everything and nothing more than that, just like in porn movies; consequently, they leave disappointed.”

This is a telling story about people’s perception of the simplicity of the idea of a slip box (zettelkasten, card catalog, commonplace book or whatever you want to call your note taking system).

yellowed index card with the identifier 9/8,3 with almost illegible handwriting in German Niklas Luhmann, Zettelkasten II, index card no. 9/8,3

It’s also a testament to the fact that the value of a zettelkasten is in the upfront work that is required in making valuable notes and linking them. Many people end up trying out the simple looking system and then wonder why it isn’t working for them. The answer is that they’re not working for it.

Just as sex can be fun, working with a system of notes can be fun. (“Just” can be a problematic word, n’cest pas?)  In either framing, both partners need to do some work—neither necessarily the same work. The end result can be magic.

As Potter Stewart might have said, “I may not be able to define proper note taking, but I know it when I see it.”

Liked a tweet by Dr. Matthew Everhard (Twitter)
Requesting my copy now…
Replied to a tweet by krish (Twitter)
@krishkhubchand Why not (also) scribble them down for your future self and place them in your commonplace book/zettelkasten/notebook/other? If you want to be interactive and get feedback, post them to a website or digital garden…