Once combined via linking, further thinking and writing, they can be released as novel ideas for everyone to use.
Once combined via linking, further thinking and writing, they can be released as novel ideas for everyone to use.
If you feel the need to categorize and separate them in such a surgical fashion, then let your index be the place where this happens. This is what indices are for! Put the locations into the index to create the semantic separation. Math related material gets indexed under “M” and history under “H”. Now those ideas can be mixed up in your box, but they’re still findable. DO NOT USE OR CONSIDER YOUR NUMBERS AS TOPICAL HEADINGS!!! Don’t make the fatal mistake of thinking this. The numbers are just that, numbers. They are there solely for you to be able to easily find the geographic location of individual cards quickly or perhaps recreate an order if you remove and mix a bunch for fun or (heaven forfend) accidentally tip your box out onto the floor. Each part has of the system has its job: the numbers allow you to find things where you expect them to be and the index does the work of tracking and separating topics if you need that.
The broader zettelkasten, tools for thought, and creativity community does a terrible job of explaining the “why” portion of what is going on here with respect to Luhmann’s set up. Your zettelkasten is a crucible of ideas placed in juxtaposition with each other. Traversing through them and allowing them to collide in interesting and random ways is part of what will create a pre-programmed serendipity, surprise, and combinatorial creativity for your ideas. They help you to become more fruitful, inventive, and creative.
Broadly the same thing is happening with respect to the structure of commonplace books. There one needs to do more work of randomly reading through and revisiting portions to cause the work or serendipity and admixture, but the end results are roughly the same. With a Luhmann-esque zettelkasten, it’s a bit easier for your favorite ideas to accumulate into one place (or neighborhood) for easier growth because you can move them around and juxtapose them as you add them rather than traversing from page 57 in one notebook to page 532 in another.
If you use your numbers as topical or category headings you’ll artificially create dreadful neighborhoods for your ideas to live in. You want a diversity of ideas mixing together to create new ideas. To get a sense of this visually, play the game Parable of the Polygons in which one categorizes and separates (or doesn’t) triangles and squares. The game created by Vi Hart and Nicky Case based on the research of Thomas Schelling (Dynamic Models of Segregation, 1971) provides a solid and visual example of the sort of statistical mechanics going on with ideas in your zettelkasten when they’re categorized rigidly. If you rigidly categorize ideas and separate them, you’ll drastically minimize the chance of creating the sort of useful serendipity of intermixed and innovative ideas. A zettelkasten isn’t simply the aggregation repository many use it for—it’s a rumination device, a serendipity engine, a creativity accelerator. To get the best and most of this effect, one must carefully help to structure their card index to generate it.
It’s much harder to know what happens when you mix anthropology with complexity theory if they’re in separate parts of your mental library, but if those are the things that get you going, then definitely put them right next to each other in your slip box. See what happens. If they’re interesting and useful and they’ve got explicit numerical locators and are cross referenced in your index, they are unlikely to get lost. Be experimental occasionally. Don’t put that card on Henry David Thoreau in the section on writers, nature, or Concord, Massachusetts—especially if those aren’t interesting to you. Besides, everyone has already worn down those associative trails, paved them, and re-paved them. Instead put him next to your work on innovation and pencils because it’s much easier to become a writer, philosopher, and intellectual when your family’s successful pencil manufacturing business can pay for you to attend Harvard and your house was always full of writing instruments from a young age. Now you’ve got something interesting and creative. (And if you really must, you can always link the card numerically to the other transcendentalists across the way.)
In case they didn’t hear it in the back, I’ll shout it again:
ACTIVELY WORK AGAINST YOUR NATURAL URGE TO USE YOUR ZETTELKASTEN NUMBERS AS TOPICAL HEADINGS! MIX IT UP INSTEAD.
Are you collecting examples of things for students? (seeing examples can be incredibly powerful, especially for defining spaces) for yourself? Are you using them for exploring a particular space? To clarify your thinking/thought process? To think more critically? To write an article, blog, or book? To make videos or other content?
Your own website is a version of many of these things in itself. You read, you collect, you write, you interlink ideas and expand on them. You’re doing it much more naturally than you think.
I find that having an idea of the broader space, what various practices look like, and use cases for them provides me a lot more flexibility for what may work or not work for my particular use case. I can then pick and choose for what suits me best, knowing that I don’t have to spend as much time and effort experimenting to invent a system from scratch but can evolve something pre-existing to suit my current needs best.
It’s like learning to cook. There are thousands of methods (not even counting cuisine specific portions) for cooking a variety of meals. Knowing what these are and their outcomes can be incredibly helpful for creatively coming up with new meals. By analogy students are often only learning to heat water to boil an egg, but with some additional techniques they can bake complicated French pâtissier. Often if you know a handful of cooking methods you can go much further and farther using combinations of techniques and ingredients.
What I’m looking for in the reading, note taking, and creation space is a baseline version of Peter Hertzmann’s 50 Ways to Cook a Carrot combined with Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking. Generally cooking is seen as an overly complex and difficult topic, something that is emphasized on most aspirational cooking shows. But cooking schools break the material down into small pieces which makes the processes much easier and more broadly applicable. Once you’ve got these building blocks mastered, you can be much more creative with what you can create.
How can we combine these small building blocks of reading and note taking practices for students in the 4th – 8th grades so that they can begin to leverage them in high school and certainly by college? Is there a way to frame them within teaching rhetoric and critical thinking to improve not only learning outcomes, but to improve lifelong learning and thinking?
Filling up notebooks is great - but what happens when you need one obscure factoid that's stashed somewhere among dozens of notebooks? Searchability is Analog's Achilles heel.
I wanted a simple, searchable index of all the topics in all my notebooks. So I built it, and you can use it too. Indxd lets you quickly enter notebooks and their topics, then search and browse everything.
Ostensibly allows one to digitally index their paper notebooks (page numbers optional). It emails you weekly text updates, so you’ve got a back up of your data if the site/service disappears.
This could potentially be used by those who have analog zettelkasten practices, but want the digital search and some back up of their system.
ᔥ @Gaby @pimoore so a good friend of mine makes INDXD which is for indexing analog notebooks and being able to find things. I don’t personally use it, but I know @patrickrhone has written about it before. ()in
Historically, Zettelkasten as used to describe both Luhmann’s notes and his method is patently in the minority compared to the vast prior Zettelkasten tradition, dating back at least to Konrad Gessner in 1548, which could be broadly framed as a commonplace book kept on index cards, usually organized by topic or subject headings and kept in a card index.
If you’ve been watching the tools for thought space, the note taking space, or the productivity spaces over the past several years, you’ve run across the seemingly foreign idea of Zettelkasten if not possibly tried it out for yourself. Surely by now there are several hundred short one page blog posts that make cursory, but excited attempts to describe what a zettelkasten is, how it works, and why you might want one. Aside from the excitement they all share, nearly all of them will mention the now famous example of Nicholas Luhmann’s collection of over 90,000 notes, and his prolific writing output of hundreds of papers and scores of books. Almost all of them will also inevitably make the error, courtesy of the availability heuristic compounded by the lack of appropriate history and context, of stating that Niklas Luhmann invented the idea of Zettelkasten.
However, in the growing amounts of literature about zettelkasten online there is a massive swath of history and knowledge often missing from what could and should be a broader discussion. The so-called “Zettelkasten Method” you hear about in 99% of the cases is specifically the variation of that method practiced by Niklas Luhmann. Historically, however, the idea of a zettelkasten (or slip box) as practiced by the vast majority of people—and there have assuredly been many—from the mid 1500s to now—is really that of the idea of a commonplace book kept using index cards. Some will be organized by subject headings while others won’t. Some of these will have indexes and some won’t. Some, surprisingly, aren’t even kept in boxes.
So what was a Zettelkasten before we were overwhelmed with all the conversation about Niklas Luhmann’s instantiation?
Since antiquity, writers and thinkers have used what has come to be called the commonplace book tradition. They typically collected quotes (sententiae), thoughts, and ideas in books and notebooks for later review and potential reuse in their own writing. From the 8th to the 12th centuries there was a closely related practice of keeping florilegium that was used in Christian settings and particularly popular within the mendicant orders of the Catholic church. These were focused more on religious topics and ideas and were often used for creating sermons as their ultimate output.
In the 16th century, Swiss physician Konrad Gessner (1516 – 1565), building on the commonplace tradition, realized that one’s notes or excerpts might be easier to use if they were cut out of their places on the page and re-arrangeable. Gessner’s method in brief:
- When reading, everything of importance and whatever appears useful should be copied onto a good sheet of paper.
- A new line should be used for every idea.
- “Finally, cut out everything you have copied with a pair of scissors; arrange the slips as you desire, first into larger clusters which can then be subdivided again as often as necessary.”
- As soon as the desired order is produced, arranged, and sorted on tables or in small boxes, it should be fixed or copied directly.
—Gessner, Konrad. Pandectarum sive Partitionum Universalium. 1548. Zurich: Christoph Froschauer. Fol. 19-20 (Tr. Markus Krajewski via Paper Machines) 1
Subsequent note takers and composers eventually realized that, while useful, Gessner’s method could be improved by using “slips of equal size” (thus making it easier to flip through and prevent smaller slips from getting lost) and by indexing them or cross referencing them internally. Because note taking was frequently done on scraps of paper which were often kept in piles by topic, if one didn’t file or properly manage them, they came to be known as “scrap heaps”, a phrase which has linguistically gained the meaning of “trash”, as lack of indexing or coherence made them useless to anyone but their originator.
Indexing of commonplace books became much more common with the publication of John Locke’s Méthode nouvelle de dresser des recueils in Le Clerc’s Bibliothèque universelle vol. 2 (1685) (cf. Catalogue générale des livres imprimés (Paris, Bibliothéque nationale. Département des imprimés) v. 99, col. 192-195) which was translated with Le Clerc’s Observations (Lond., 1697, Lowdnes. v.4, p. 1379-1380) and was posthumously published as the stand alone text A new method of making common-place-books (1706).2
Using cards of equal size became more common following the “invention” of the index card by Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) who hand cut his own cards used and reused his research materials throughout his career.3 Of course, taking notes on index cards was far easier in the early 20th century with the rise of library card catalogs, the Dewey Decimal System, and Melvil Dewey’s Boston-based company Library Bureau. Mass manufacturing of these cards improved both quality and pricing making it much easier to source one’s own cards. Dewey’s push for profits included expanding his library wares into the business sector, a practice which became more common after his own company adopted a card file-based system for its own office work.
In addition to early popular handbooks on commonplace book methods by Desiderius Erasmus, Rudolph Agricola, and Phillip Melanchthon, which were written for both teachers and students, one can find a growing number of texts which are either dedicated to note taking practices which heavily feature slips of paper or index cards or give them significant discussion. Some of these include:
This brief, but limited collection, shows that there was certainly a long and illustrious note taking tradition using slips or index cards. It doesn’t highlight the fact that often these methods were also handed down from teacher to student, which was also a major mode of transmission and somewhat similar to current messy person-to-person transmission on the internet using examples and conversation on various fora and social platforms.
Of course, the most recent resurgence of these commonplace and older zettelkasten ideas comes to us courtesy of a handful of interesting practitioners who have kept the memory alive as well as helped to push some of them into digital form. A limited selection of some of these include:
While there are thousands upon thousands of practitioners of the commonplace book tradition using the notebook format, there is a smaller less well known set who have used these methods with index cards or other slip-like formats. I’ll present just a handful of some that I’m aware of, but I’m sure that there are thousands upon thousands more.
Niklas Luhmann has, for the last several years, almost entirely defined much of popular culture’s conceptualization of the idea of what a zettelkasten is, when, in fact, he represents only the tiniest tip of the iceberg of a much broader tradition.
Rather than spend our time on rehashing what is already a massive and still growing volume of words, work, and available research on Luhmann’s particular practice, perhaps a more productive question is how his version manages to capture so much mind share? In large part, I attribute it to the fact that the prior tradition has significantly waned from cultural consciousness, making it seem like the idea is new while pitches for Luhmann’s system simultaneously tout it as being almost wholly responsible for Niklas Luhmann’s outsized productivity.
To some extent, our “new” definition (at least in the English language) of a Zettelkasten is driven by a several factors:
Given some of the basic discussion above outlining some of this history will point out a fraction of some of we’ve all been missing. I’ll leave the aphorism “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” here to gild this lily. Hopefully those in the space will look more closely at the well-worn cow paths of analog history in deciding how to pave our (digital) futures. Students looking to improve upon their own practices will hopefully have more examples to examine and use as models.
It bears mention that Vannevar’s influential essay “As We May Think” in the July 1945 issue of The Atlantic is entirely underpinned by the commonplace book and zettelkasten traditions pervading Western thought and culture. Rather than acknowledge this tradition explicitly, he creates the neologism “Memex” which stands in for a networked and connected zettelkasten. Given that his essay appears at the cusp of the waning of these older traditions and that following technologists would not have been as knowledgeable of them, Bush did a massive disservice to the computing field by specifically leaving the earlier words out of his essay. Had he mentioned them, designers and programmers would have had them as more explicit examples to emulate in their work.
Many of our note taking traditions were explicitly taught and learned from either handbooks, transmitted from teacher to student, or from practitioner to practitioner. (We definitely see a lot of this mode online now via blogposts, Twitter, YouTube, and fora (including https://zettelkasten.de, r/zettelkasten, and r/antinet, amongst a slew of productivity writers and influencers who make a living promoting variations of these ideas.) But historically, outside of older phrases like florilegia and commonplace books, there weren’t concrete names or brands for these practices.
Compare the traditional zettelkasten to the ideas of a “card catalog” or a “rolodex”. The card catalog has an immediate definition as a physical object consisting of wooden filing cabinets specifically for index cards containing information about the subjects, titles, and authors of books. The rolodex is now a generic term (like Kleenex is for tissues or Xerox for photocopies) stemming from the company product Rolodex for a previously ubiquitous piece of office furniture. Having both explicit terms for their physical instantiations and their specific uses helped to drive the ubiquity of both compared to the humble, generic card index, which while ubiquitous in physical form in early 20th century offices was never defined explicitly with respect to a specific form of note taking practice. Just as academics in English speaking countries referred to their generic card indexes, those in Germany and France talked about their Zettelkasten and fichier boîte, respectively. The linguistic shift occurs broadly with the transmission of zettelkasten from German into English spheres around the time of the German exhibition “Zettelkästen. Machines of Fantasy” at the Museum of Modern Literature, Marbach am Neckar in 2013 where we begin to equate the physical objects with a particular method. It bears noting that the Marbach exhibition featured a number of very similar Zettelkasten (the physical item consisting of boxes and slips), but with a variety of zettelkasten methods, the majority of which were more similar to each other than the “different” one represented by Luhmann’s.
One can’t help but notice the proliferation of specific method names for slightly different practices within the now growing space. These specific names for practices literally give both a name and power to the space and help to make it grow. Some of these names include: Zettelkasten itself as a name for Luhmann’s method; Smart Notes (Sönke Ahrens’ delineation of Luhmann’s method, Linking Your Thinking (aka LYT, Nick Milo’s method); Building a Second Brain (BaSB, Tiago Forte’s method); ANTInet (Scott P. Scheper’s analog branded version of Luhmann’s method); and even Pile of Index Cards (PoIC, Hawk Sugano’s productivity-based method from 2006). The naming tends to expand here as many of these examples have a commercial need to differentiate these practices to make them sellable to a larger audience. Should one really consider it a coincidence that Obsidian is so heavily used by those in Tiago Forte’s Building a Second Brain camp when Obsidian’s tag line on their home page boldly declares “A second brain, for you, forever.”?
This naming craze even extends to a proliferation of names for note types within each system including fleeting notes, permanent notes, literature notes, atomic notes, evergreen notes, source notes, point notes, concept notes, claim notes, etc. Of course the power of naming begins to wane here as the over-proliferation of names causes semantic collisions and worries when these systems and their adherents talk about related ideas online in broader overlapping publics. One would presume that over time this list of names will settle down and roughly standardize around a much smaller (dare I say atomic?), possibly mutually exclusive set.
The lack of a specific name to distinguish the methods and uses of card indexes from each other in the early 20th century further muddles the picture of their use. How does one specifically differentiate the use of a card index for business versus note taking versus a library card catalogue? The library card catalogue has a both a named object and a method (verb) and is much more easily distinguished than the card index being used for either business or note taking use, and in fact there may have been reasonable overlap of business and note taking use making their distinct uses less clear. As an example, in The Crown season 1 episode 4 “Act of God” (Netflix, 2016) there is a scene portraying former British Prime Minister Clement Atlee in his office in which he is prominently bookended in the background by two four drawer card indexes: one 3 x 5″ and the other 4 x 6″. Are these for general business filing use and document tracking or were they full of ideas from his reading and thinking?
Tangential names exist for practices in the German part of the tradition. For example there is the phrase Wissenschaftliches Arbeiten which translates as “scientific work”. This phrase arises out of Ernst Bernheim’s framing of the zettelkasten practice within his formulation of historical method, or how a professional historian might scientifically approach their work. The phrase not only pops up in the title of the book which likely inspired Niklas Luhmann’s practice, but curiously and even surprisingly, searching on the term within the Internet Archive reveals 106 works, predominantly textbooks in the English language, about research methods, note taking, and writing geared toward masters and Ph.D. students.
The lack of a named method, generally makes finding written examples of these practices in the historical record more difficult as one must search for generic words (index cards, slips, notes) used within the practice rather than specific method words with dramatically higher signal-to-noise ratios.
Knowledge about these note taking practices has almost always been geared toward academic settings and even there it has been primarily geared toward masters and Ph.D. level students who would more profitably use them over extended time horizons for not only their thesis work, but their extended careers. While early manuals on commonplace methods were written for broader student audiences, it’s exceedingly rare to find works written for non-specialist or popular audiences. It’s only within the last decade or so that one finds general note taking advice or practices for knowledge workers or those interested in greater productivity in their work. Advice of the sort and form given by Twyla Tharp or Anne Lamott is the exception rather than the rule.
Beyond the modes of written transmission of these practices and methods which have been geared toward academics, the primary mode of transmission is from either teacher to student or from practitioner to practitioner. This transmission mode is often much “quieter” and ostensibly hidden from historical view without significant work. There are media studies and history scholars who look at the notebooks and records of students and teachers to follow some of these methods, so some of these specific practices may surface over time.
These “manual” transmission modes are “high touch” (requiring a lot of work) and as a result are very slow to diffuse. Quite often they fail to adequately inspire or communicate their immense long term value. In a zettel in his second zettelkasten entitled “Does Spirit hide in the filing cabinet” (literally, though one could translate it as “Is there a Ghost in the machine?”), Niklas Luhmann wrote a note about people disappointed in seeing his system in person: “People come, they see everything [his boxes, slips, and notes] and nothing more than that, just like in porn movies; consequently, they leave disappointed.” 9
In Appendix C of her autobiography, Beatrice Webb found difficulty in explaining the massive value she found in her note taking practice and resorted to telling the reader to trust her experience:
“What is the use of this pedantic method of note-taking, involving masses of paper and a lot of hard thinking, not to mention the shuffling and reshuffling, which is apparently the final cause of this intolerable elaboration?” will be asked by the post-graduate student eager to publish an epoch-making treatise on the History of Government, or, perchance, on the History of Freedom, within the two years he has allotted to the taking of his doctorate. The only answer I can give is to cite our own experience.
My own anecdotal experience of research and note taking with index cards dates to 1985 when, in sixth grade, I was admonished to take my notes on index cards so that I could later string them together in outline form to create a narrative. While this was done with good intentions, there was no indication of doing this as a life-long practice nor was there any discussion of potential long term uses or potential beneficial affordances or effects. To make matters worse, my natural memory for storing ideas for a 3 page essay with only a handful of sources was strong enough that note taking seemed a waste of time. Never anticipating the need to be able to think and write over a lifetime, I filed the idea into the proverbial circular bin. I suspect this is the case for the vast majority students in the latter half of the twentieth century.
These historically hidden transmission modes can be contrasted directly with a more public facing and readily visible transmission mode of these practices which now occurs online. Social media, blogs, online fora and video platforms makes it dramatically easier for individual users to write about and pass along their particular experiences and affordances they find in specific methods, tools, and modes of use.
The hidden value proposition of the older methods can be contrasted with the incessant drumbeat of the value and productivity inherently “promised” by those describing Niklas Luhmann’s system. Look at all the books and papers he wrote in his lifetime! The system explains it all! It’s so simple. You can do this too! Reframed, one could almost visualize Ron Popeil pitching the idea of Luhmann’s zettelkasten and having his audience chant “Set it and forget it!”
The rise of the Zettelkasten as a name for both a specific object and a specific practice (Luhmann’s) in English started roughly in 2007. The first instances come from the work of Manfred Kuehn on note taking with his blog Taking Note starting in 2007 and ending in 2018, though large portions are still fortunately archived on the Internet Archive. He was definitely aware of Niklas Luhmann’s note taking practices and even translated Luhmann’s 1981 article “Kommunikation mit Zettelkästen” into English. This is supplemented on March 4, 2013 with the opening of the Marbach exhibition followed closely by the launch on June 20, 2013 and subsequent growth of the website https://zettelkasten.de begun by Christian Tietze and featuring both a blog as well as a forum for questions and further discussion of the practice. While these started a low brew of Luhmann’s method within the productivity and writing communities in the mid 2010s, things continued to heat up with the release of Sönke Ahrens’ English language book How to Take Smart Notes in 2017. Full boil was reached after 2018 and during the COVID-19 pandemic as a massive swath of note taking applications like Roam Research, Obsidian, and Notion came to the forefront of internet culture which was ostensibly idle enough to need ideas and tools like these to fill their new found free time and distract them from their pandemic worries.
In addition to all these applications, which could be used to implement digital versions of Luhmann’s method, a lot of the hype behind the idea of this particular Zettelkasten Method (again, the one specifically practiced by Luhmann) is driven by the often quoted prolific writing output of Luhmann. It’s as if no one prior to him had been creative or productive within the history of ideas. Surely his output is notable for its size, but he also had more freedom and flexibility by being employed full time as a research professor at a German University where it was both his life-long vocation and avocation to produce this output. Certainly his modification of earlier commonplacing techniques helped him along, but if one looks at the historical record, nearly every famous writer or researcher in the Western tradition had some sort of note taking or commonplace book practice upon which to build. In a handful of cases, we see well known intellectuals of their day writing down some of these ideas and influential methods in handbooks, addenda to other works, or in autobiographies including Erasmus, Agricola, Melanchthon, John Locke, Beatrice Webb, Jacques Barzun, and Umberto Eco.
Of course, there are surely other uses of the term zettelkasten in various places and languages—this is a well known feature of ever-evolving words in active use. One which comes quickly from my old word horde is the current use of zettelkasten within German speaking countries of an office product consisting of a stack of slips of note paper held in a box. There are a variety of these available for sale within the German version of Amazon.
It also bears pointing out that card indexes were used in the early 1900s for a variety of business use functionalities including for accounting, general back office management and file maintenance, as indexes for larger filing systems, as early proto-rolodexes, and what would now be known as customer relationship management purposes.
I’ve made some presumptions about the level of familiarity readers may have with the commonplace book tradition and that of Niklas Luhmann’s practice. It may be helpful for those missing parts of one or both to have some quick resources to fall back on as well as to describe the broad differences.
For the commonplace tradition, I can heartily recommend Earle Havens’ Commonplace Books: A History of Manuscripts and Printed Books from Antiquity to the Twentieth Century (Yale, 2001) short but reasonably wide ranging text as a crash course on the topic. Additionally Colleen Kennedy has an excellent 12 page primer she developed for classroom use on how to actively implement and create one’s own commonplace book which takes into account some of the historical practices seen in the literature.
Broadly, the commonplace book tradition involves excerpting ideas (ars excerpendi), quotes, or writing one’s own ideas into a notebook either pre-broken into topical categories (love, war, civility, productivity, etc.), or indexed after the fact with cross-references to particular pages. In index card or early zettelkasten form, this process is easier as each idea is placed on its own card and placed behind a tabbed card with a single topic heading written on it. As a result, one might have dozens of cards (generally unordered) on the topic of “Hope”, for example, and when writing about that topic, one would ostensibly go to that section of their index, pull out those related cards, sort through them, identify one appropriate for the piece, and insert the relevant idea(s) into their writing. One might thus look at the essays of Montaigne and discern that he’d taken years of reading and excerpting and formed essays around topics in his collection based on his experience and thinking.
While broadly similar, Luhmann’s practice puts far less emphasis on the index portion of the work, but relies on juxtaposing ideas that are close in thought next to each other. This means that he needs a method for both ordering and finding specific cards. He chose a decimal numbering system, which (mathematically) allows for infinite internal branching and growth and was likely based on Melvil Dewey’s system from half a century prior. One could frame his system as building a book in reverse, so he would take an idea, create a single index entry for it, and then number it and place it in his system. Rather than indexing each further related idea, he would visit the index, find that idea and then find the section of related prior cards. He could then install his new idea behind the most closely related idea already in the system. Repeating this thousands and thousands of times creates a complex branching tree structure of inter-related ideas. Once a particular interesting branch becomes large enough, one can reverse the process and turn it into a paper or book. Traversing one’s tree and its branches of knowledge regularly generates not only reminds one of prior knowledge, but also tends to generate new ideas.
While the method is very simple in form, it can generate a great deal of complexity. One will notice that instead of having a single card index tab labeled “Sociology” with thousands of (unordered) cards behind it, as would be likely in the earlier tradition, Luhmann’s index only contains a few links into the idea of sociology from whence things branch out into multiple directions. Thus his index can focus on the more specific to find what he needs rather than the broad. This also allows for greater levels of inter-disciplinarity across ideas which may have otherwise been split into different topic headings.
In the near future, I expect to write out a theory of how Niklas Luhmann may have evolved his practice from the older zettelkasten practice which will surely point out a number of differences in the practices as well as affordances each provides. While we have some indications of where Luhmann’s practice originated historically, it is presently unknown whether he evolved his own practice from the prior or if someone else did that work and communicated the method to him personally and from which he continued to use and evolve it.
For those interested in more specifics on Luhmann’s practice, I might recommend the Getting Started page at zettelkasten.de, the first seven chapters of Dan Allosso and Salvatore Allosso’s book How to Make Notes and Write, or Sönke Ahrens’ book. Looking directly at the digital archive of Luhmann’s zettelkasten can be of immense value. Similarly the digital archives of Jonathan Edwards’ commonplace book (which are known as “the Miscellanies” rather than the traditional commonplace book) and its surrounding research as well as the digitized hybrid notebook/index card version of H. Ross Ashby’s notes can provide some fabulous insight as to how one might structure or use their own notes.
Using some of this history, I’ve previously outlined a progressive zettelkasten method with levels of slowly increasing complexity which may be an easier method for people to immediately begin working towards some creative goal without getting bogged down in the weeds. It combines the older traditions with Luhmann’s traditions to provide the practitioner with a potential formula to determine the level of complexity that may be right for them. Different practices and levels of complexity can be used for different end goals. (Why go “full-Luhmann” when “stacking ammo” is useful enough and fits your lifestyle and goals?)
Other variations of these two broadly different traditions might include keeping a traditionally indexed commonplace slip box with quotes, aphorisms, summaries of others’ ideas, and even fleeting notes in one box while maintaining a more densely linked version of a Luhmannian-based zettelkasten of one’s own best thoughts with refinements in a separate box.
Naturally the methods and instantiations one could arrive at are far richer and potentially more useful and practical if one is aware of more of the possibilities involved in the fuller spectrum of historical practices.
Editor’s note: I wrote this essay of approximately 7,000 words in about half a day’s work, including outlining, footnoting, and editing by drawing material directly from my own hybrid commonplace books/Luhmann-based Zettelkasten.
Allosso, Dan, and S. F. Allosso. How to Make Notes and Write. Minnesota State Pressbooks, 2022. https://minnstate.pressbooks.pub/write/.
Ahrens, Sönke. How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers. Create Space, 2017.
Bernstein, Mark. “Hypertext Gardens: Delightful Vistas.” Hypertext essay. Eastgate Systems, 1998. http://www.eastgate.com/garden/Enter.html.
Bush, Vannevar. “As We May Think.” The Atlantic, July 1, 1945. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1945/07/as-we-may-think/303881/.
Havens, Earle. Commonplace Books: A History of Manuscripts and Printed Books from Antiquity to the Twentieth Century. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library New Haven, CT, 2001.
Kennedy, Colleen E. “Creating a Commonplace Book (CPB).” Accessed August 31, 2021. https://www.academia.edu/35101285/Creating_a_Commonplace_Book_CPB_.
Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. 25th Anniversary. 1994. Reprint, Anchor, 1995. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/97395/bird-by-bird-by-anne-lamott/.
Luhmann, Niklas. “Kommunikation mit Zettelkästen.” In Öffentliche Meinung und sozialer Wandel / Public Opinion and Social Change, edited by Horst Baier, Hans Mathias Kepplinger, and Kurt Reumann, 222–28. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 1981. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-322-87749-9_19. – Luhmann, Niklas. “Communicating with Slip Boxes: An Empirical Account.” Translated by Manfred Keuhn. kuehnm on scriptogr.am, December 6, 2014. https://web.archive.org/web/20150825031821/http://scriptogr.am/kuehnm.
Tharp, Twyla. The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life. Simon & Schuster, 2006. https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/The-Creative-Habit/Twyla-Tharp/9780743235273.
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 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.
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.
(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.
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?
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
Progress on my digital garden / evergreen notebook inspired by @andy_matuschak🌱
— Anne-Laure Le Cunff (@anthilemoon) April 22, 2020
Which occurred just after Maggie Appleton’s mention on 2020-04-15
Nerding hard on digital gardens, personal wikis, and experimental knowledge systems with @_jonesian today.
We have an epic collection going, check these out…
— Maggie Appleton 🧭 (@Mappletons) April 15, 2020
And several days after Justin Tadlock’s article on 2020-04-17
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.
Recall briefly that Bloom’s Taxonomy levels can be summarized as: remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, and create.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?