Book Club on Cataloging the World and Index, A History of the

Dan Allosso has been hosting a regular book club for a few years centered around sense making, note taking, and topics like economics, history, and anthropology. Our next iteration over the coming month or so will focus on two relatively recent books in the area of intellectual history and knowledge management:

This iteration of the book club might be fruitful for those interested in note taking, commonplacing, or zettelkasting. If you’re building or designing a note taking application or attempting to create one for yourself using either paper (notebooks, index cards) or digital tools like Obsidian, Logseq, Notion, Bear, TinderBox etc. having some background on the history and use of these sorts of tools for thought may give you some insight about how to best organize a simple, but sustainable digital practice for yourself.

The first session will be on Saturday, February 17 24, 2024 and recur weekly from 8:00 AM – 10:00 Pacific. Our meetings are usually very welcoming and casual conversations over Zoom with the optional beverage of your choice. Most attendees are inveterate note takers, so there’s sure to be discussion of application of the ideas to current practices.

To join and get access to the Zoom links and the shared Obsidian vault we use for notes and community communication, ping Dan Allosso with your email address. 

Happy reading!

Scaffolding “Secret” Knowledge: An analogy for teachers of thinkers, creators, readers, and writers

There’s something incredibly important to learn in studying two very similar photographs of Mortimer J. Adler from the middle of the last century. I’ll present them here for reference:Mortimer J. Adler holding a pipe in his left hand and mouth posing in front of dozens of boxes of index cards with topic headwords including "law", "love", "life", "sin", "art", "democracy", "citizen", "fate", etc.

Black and white advertisement photo for the Great Books of the Western World featuring a photo of Mortimer J. Adler holding a pipe to his mouth superimposed over an arched display of the 54 books in the series behind him

Adler was a proponent of educational reforms in the form of building on John Erskine’s Great Books programs and went so far as to teach us to read properly before editing and presenting a fantastic collection of books in the form of the Great Books of the Western World by way of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Adler most often suggested consuming a book in increasing levels by marking it up with highlights, annotations and even scaffolding a book’s important material on its end covers. However, when it came to the Great Books project, he and 25 of his colleagues used notes on index cards to index 102 great ideas across a large swath of classical Western literature.

You can see the majority of this indexed collection of knowledge splayed around him in the first photo. These index cards became the raw materials by which he and his team compiled and wrote the impressive Syntopicon which comprised volumes 2 and 3 of the 54 books in the Great Books of the Western World series (1952). Upon its release, the second photo was used extensively in marketing materials to sell the set to the general public over the ensuing decades and several editions of the books.  

Even if one doesn’t look very closely at the photos, once juxtaposed they will probably have already noticed that the photos of Adler himself are the same.  The second photo has obviously had the set of books superimposed around a cropped photo of him from the first photo. While it is a great advertising gimmick, it belies a lot of the serious work involved in building the Syntopicon which hides a tremendous amount of value.

Even Adler’s co-editor extolls the immense value of the Syntopicon:

But I would do less than justice to Mr. Adler’s achievement if I left the matter there. The Syntopicon is, in addition to all this, and in addition to being a monument to the industry, devotion, and intelligence of Mr. Adler and his staff, a step forward in the thought of the West. It indicates where we are: where the agreements and disagreements lie; where the problems are; where the work has to be done. It thus helps to keep us from wasting our time through misunderstanding and points to the issues that must be attacked. When the history of the intellectual life of this century is written, the Syntopicon will be regarded as one of the landmarks in it.
—Robert M. Hutchins, p xxvi The Great Conversation: The Substance of a Liberal Education. 1952.

However, while the Syntopicon as an end product holds great value, knowing how it was created is potentially even more important. The second photo does a huge disservice to the entire enterprise by way of erasure of the true nature of the Syntopicon. While the first photo may seem dull and esoteric, it holds a huge amount of hidden value for both students and teachers. It is photographic evidence of how the knowledge of the incredibly valuable Syntopicon was actually built. If properly scaffolded for students, following their lead of indexing their ideas, students could have their own personal Syntopicons for learning and exploring.

Scaffolding “Secret” Knowledge

View of the sun setting behind the pyramids at Giza in the background dominating over the edge of the city in the foreground

Photo by Ruben Hanssen on Unsplash

Imagine, if you will, the majesty and awe inspired by the Pyramids of Giza to the people viewing them  from the ground. The Great Pyramid itself is significantly taller than both Big Ben and the Statue of Liberty, and at approximately 45 stories tall is almost half the height of the Eiffel Tower, though obviously with a much more massive base. The entire structure of the Pyramid of Giza is estimated to weigh 5.9 million metric tons comprising 2.3 million blocks of stone averaging weights of about 3 tons each. These rocks were cut and moved only by humans across vast distances of sand. Anyone who has done the intense labor of dragging a cooler and pop up tent across even a few hundred feet of sand to spend a day at the beach will marvel at moving such massive blocks, even with thousands of people to help drag it. Yet they managed to lay 1,764,000 pounds of stone every day for nearly 20 years. How did the ancient Egyptians manage this feat? Curious people have tried for centuries to imagine how they managed to build such spectacular monuments from scratch. But because there is little in the historical record and no remains of scaffolding, anyone who might want to build their own monumental pyramid is left to start their process from scratch. But what if you had a picture of the method or the scaffolding? Perhaps even set of plans, diagrams, or description? That might make all the difference, wouldn’t it? 

I’ll give you a head start and suggest you begin with this image from c. 1880 BCE which was painted on the wall of the tomb of Djehutihotep:

A decaying wall painting of rows of men pulling a sled upon which sits a huge Egyptian statue. At the front of the sled is a man pouring liquid out of a vase.
Photo by Raymond Betz via Osirisnet.

The idea that the statue is being pulled by a large host of people on a sled is relatively obvious. But even if you can’t read the writing, you’ll probably know that that number of people isn’t nearly enough for what must be a tremendous weight. How about the image of the guy almost in the center of the painting? The one standing at the front of the sled who appears to be pouring liquid out? What is he doing? Could we try some experiments to learn what his purpose was? (In some literature he is often called a tribologist.)

Fall, Weber, Pakpour, et. al tried just that and found some surprising results. Pouring water onto sand decreases friction for objects pulled over it, meaning that its much easier for fewer men to pull large weights over sand. Their paper also contains a transcribed picture of the original painting prior to damage which has occurred since the early 1900s.

Just as the painting of our new tribologist friend scaffolds the “secret” behind how one moves large weights over sand in ancient Egypt, the photograph of Adler with his card index provides the answer to the secret behind how one writes a paper, article, thesis, or even a book. It certainly provides a lot more information to the viewer and potential reader of the Syntopicon than the second picture which excerpts Adler’s photo and simply surrounds him with books.

Teachers, including Adler, should prefer to show their work or scaffold their knowledge more often so that students can see how they they did their trick. Too often, like a magician, they perform their prestidigitation and leave out the secret of how it was performed. This certainly impresses the audience temporarily, but it doesn’t provide them with any actual knowledge they can apply for themselves. Teaching patently isn’t meant to be held to the secrecy of the “Magician’s Code”. It should be much more like the techniques of magicians Penn & Teller who frequently not only perform their magic, but then go on to reveal the actual method by which they produced it. It’s nice to enthrall students, but then show them how they might enthrall others. But let’s also not do it to the level of amateur magicians  who will only practice a trick until they get it right once, let’s help them move to the level of professional magicians who continue to practice every day until they never make any mistakes.

Too often in our writing courses we don’t reveal any useful methods by which one might produce interesting research and writing. Simply reading an encyclopedia article, a few beginner magazine articles, and a book or two might be a small enough project for a sixth grader to miraculously produce a three page essay and remember most of what they need to do so. But what is a high schooler or a college student to do when they need to produce theses of 20 pages or longer that go beyond the idea of simply regurgitating the data they’ve read over several months’ time? It’s much harder to remember and maintain the information of dozens of books and journal articles over such a time span. How might they better generate new insights into what their doing? Create new knowledge? And things compound dramatically if a student decides to become a professional researcher, writer, or even academician. 

The better course would be to have a teacher scaffolding how to practice these methods in class with the students as they try their own hand at it. I’ve seen well educated adults struggle with these methods, so I know it’s going to take some practice. 

Of course, not every teacher knows how to do these things themselves(to pass along the secrets, the magician must actually know how to perform the magic first), much less to do them in the most efficient ways. In fact, much like this story of teachers in  the “Reading Wars” who weren’t taught concrete methods of teaching reading, many teachers were never taught how to teach writing at higher technical and creative levels and were never forced to practice it themselves. Some who were forced just muddled their way through as best they could. As a result they teach their students to take the same long and arduous road involving the most work and often some of the worst results. At least in regard to writing, there is a royal road that one might take. 

The photo of Adler’s index cards is the tip of the iceberg that suggests a potential method. I suspect that for some, simply knowing about the index cards and seeing the final form of the two volumes of the Syntopicon could allow one to puzzle out the intervening steps with some minor experimentation. For those who’d like to jump ahead without experimentation or the need to read the hieroglyphs might make the next step with learning about methods shown in an excellent video of Victor Margolin explaining his method of research and writing. Or by reading a short article by Keith Thomas in the London Review of Books. They can then move onto Adler’s introductory How to Mark a Book

For those who appreciated the analogy of quarrying and dragging stone to make the pyramids, Gerald Weinberg’s 2005 book on The Fieldstone Method is sure to be a crowd pleaser. Overwise, similar more advanced methods are spelled out in Umberto Eco’s How to Write a Thesis and Sönke Ahrens’ How to Take Smart Notes. One might place the finishing touches with Adler and van Doren’s How to Read a Book (1972, 2011) and C. Wright Mills’ short paper On Intellectual Craftsmanship.

Conclusion

If you must for the exercise, allow students to drag their building blocks over the sand so they can see how difficult it is. But then reveal the secrets of the tribologists and the prestidigitators so that they can go on to build their own pyramids and make their own magic in life. Be sure not to have them use the method for just one project, but allow it to span several projects or to be used across their lives much the way many greats of history have leveraged the value of commonplace books which falls into a very similar tradition of knowledge management.

Show students how to take small ideas written on index cards and use them as proverbial building blocks to slowly and creatively build up larger arguments, create paragraphs, papers, and books with with them. While it may not seem obvious, variations on these methods were the secrets behind almost every great thinker or writer in history including Boethius, Thomas Aquinas, Desiderius Erasmus, Konrad Gessner, John Locke, Carl Linnaeus, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Niklas Luhmann, Beatrice Webb, Marcel Mauss, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Mortimer J. Adler, Niklas Luhmann, Roland Barthes, Vladimir Nabokov, George Carlin, Phyllis Diller, Twyla Tharp, and yes, even Eminem and Taylor Swift.

References

Adler, Mortimer J. “How to Mark a Book.” Saturday Review of Literature, July 6, 1941.

Adler, Mortimer J., and Charles Van Doren. How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. Revised and Updated edition. 1940. Reprint, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972.

Benderitter, Thierry. “The Tomb of Djehutyhotep ‘Great Chief of the Hare Nome’ Page 2 of 2.” Osirisnet: Tombs of Ancient Egypt, 2006. https://osirisnet.net/tombes/el_bersheh/djehoutyhotep/e_djehoutyhotep_02.htm.

Fall, A., B. Weber, M. Pakpour, N. Lenoir, N. Shahidzadeh, J. Fiscina, C. Wagner, and D. Bonn. “Sliding Friction on Wet and Dry Sand.” Physical Review Letters 112, no. 17 (April 29, 2014): 175502. https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevLett.112.175502.

Heubeck, Elizabeth. “‘I Literally Cried’: Teachers Describe Their Transition to Science-Based Reading Instruction.” Education Week, September 15, 2023, sec. Teaching & Learning, Reading & Literacy. https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/i-literally-cried-teachers-describe-their-transition-to-science-based-reading-instruction/2023/09.

Mills, C. Wright. “On Intellectual Craftsmanship (1952).” Society 17, no. 2 (January 1, 1980): 63–70. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02700062.

Thomas, Keith. “Diary: Working Methods.” London Review of Books, June 10, 2010. https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v32/n11/keith-thomas/diary.

Weinberg, Gerald M. Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method. New York, N.Y: Dorset House, 2005.

LIFE. “The 102 Great Ideas: Scholars Complete a Monumental Catalog.” January 26, 1948. https://books.google.com/books?id=p0gEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA92&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=2#v=onepage&q&f=false. Google Books.

The Process of Writing World History of Design, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kxyy0THLfuI.

A or commonplace provides a catalytic surface to which ideas in the “solution of life” can more easily adhere to speed their reaction with ideas you’ve already seen and collected.
Once combined via linking, further thinking and writing, they can be released as novel ideas for everyone to use.

On The Interdisciplinarity of Zettelkasten: Card Numbering, Topical Headings, and Indices

As humans we’re terrifically spectacular at separating things based on perceived categories. The Dewey Decimal System systematically separates mathematics and history into disparate and distinct locations, but your zettelkasten shouldn’t force this by overthinking categories. Perhaps the overlap of math and history is exactly the interdisciplinary topic you’re working toward? If this is the case, just put cards into the slip box closest to their nearest related intellectual neighbor—and by this I mean nearest related to your way of thinking, not to Melvil Dewey’s or anyone else. Over time, through growth and branching, ideas will fill in the interstitial spaces and neighboring ideas will slowly percolate and intermix. Your interests will slowly emerge into various bunches of cards in your box. Things you may have intially thought were important can separate away and end up on sparse branches while other areas flourish. If you make the (false) choice to separate math and history into different “sections” it will be much harder for them to grow and intertwine in an organic and truly interdisciplinary way. Universities have done this sort of separation for hundreds of years and as a result, their engineering faculty can be buildings or even entire campuses away from their medical faculty who now want to work together in new and exciting interdisciplinary ways. This creates a physical barrier to more efficient and productive innovation and creativity. It’s your zettelkasten, so put those ideas right next to each other from the start so they can do the work of serendipity and surprise for you. Do not artificially separate your favorite ideas. Let them mix and mingle and see what comes out of them.

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.

Featured image by Michael Treu from Pixabay

Over the past year and change, I’ve read and written a fair amount about note taking practices and their history including the topics of #CommonplaceBooks and . I’ve spent a few minutes aggregating it into a collection for those who are curious: https://boffosocko.com/research/zettelkasten-commonplace-books-and-note-taking-collection/. 🗃️📓🖋️
Replied to Commonplace Book, a Verb or a Noun? by Aaron DavisAaron Davis (Read Write Respond)
Whenever I read about the various ideas, I feel like I do not necessarily belong. Thinking about my practice, I never quite feel that it is deliberate enough.
Sometimes the root question is “what to I want to do this for?” Having an underlying reason can be hugely motivating.

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?

Bookmarked Indxd (indxd.ink)
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.

Introducing Indxd
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.
INDXD is a digital, web-based index tool for your analog notebooks.

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.


sgtstretch in @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. ()

The Two Definitions of Zettelkasten

What do we mean when we say Zettelkasten? There’s a specific set of objects (cards and boxes or their digital equivalents), but there’s also a spectrum of methods or practices which can be split into two broad categories.

TL;DR

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.

The “old” definition of Zettelkasten

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:

  1. When reading, everything of importance and whatever appears useful should be copied onto a good sheet of paper.
  2. A new line should be used for every idea.
  3. “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.”
  4. 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.

Manuals on note taking and early Zettelkasten

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:

  • Bernheim, Ernst. Lehrbuch der historischen Methode und der Geschichtsphilosophie : mit Nachweis der wichtigsten Quellen und Hilfsmittelzum Studium der Geschichte … völlig neu bearbeitete und vermehrte Auflage. 1889. Reprint, Leipzig : Duncker, 1903. http://archive.org/details/lehrbuchderhisto00bernuoft.
    • This book, in German, is an influential handbook on historical method which influenced the early science of history and historical method and helped to reinvigorate card-based note taking methods in a short section discussing such methods. I’m unaware of any translations in English.
  • Langlois, Charles Victor, and Charles Seignobos. Introduction to the Study of History. Translated by George Godfrey Berry. First. New York: Henry Holt and company, 1898. http://archive.org/details/cu31924027810286.
    • Influenced by Bernheim, but going further, this text, originally in French, has a section outlining a commonplace-esque zettlekasten method.
  • Seward, Samuel Swayze. Note-Taking. Boston, Allyn and Bacon, 1910. http://archive.org/details/cu31924012997627.
    • Popular text in the early 1900’s written by the brother of William Henry Seward.
  • Sertillanges, Antonin Gilbert, and Mary Ryan. The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods. First English Edition, Fifth printing. 1921. Reprint, Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1960. http://archive.org/details/a.d.sertillangestheintellectuallife.
    • Has a fascinating chapter on note taking with some rich philosophy not often seen in such treatises including encouraging making active links between ideas and numbering one’s notes using a decimal system.
  • Dow, Earle Wilbur. Principles of a Note-System for Historical Studies. New York: Century Company, 1924.
  • Webb, Beatrice Potter. My Apprenticeship. First Edition. New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1926.
    • While the book is a fascinating autobiography of one of the founders of the London School of Economics, The Fabians, and The New Statesman with broad experience in sociology and economics, of most interest here is Appendix C which she writes on note taking. She describes a zettelkasten based system which she describes as “scientific note taking” and which many are sure to recognize as a an early structured database or spreadsheet functionality which would find its way into edge notched cards, early computer programming, and computer science.
  • Heyde, Johannes Erich. Technik des wissenschaftlichen Arbeitens: zeitgemässe Mittel und Verfahrungsweisen. Junker und Dünnhaupt, 1931.
    • In German, though there is an English translation of a portion making it’s way around. This is the handbook which Niklas Luhmann apparently read and heavily influenced his own method. If true, I’m a developing theory on how he may have devised his method, presuming that he didn’t learn it or parts of it from colleagues or friends while in school.
  • Mills, C. Wright. “On Intellectual Craftsmanship (1952).” Society 17, no. 2 (January 1, 1980): 63–70. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02700062.
    • A spectacular essay which later made it into Wright’s influential book The Sociological Imagination (1959), it goes far beyond basic note taking to some more serious substance and is closer in line to Luhmann’s Communicating with Slip Boxes (1981).
  • Eco, Umberto. How to Write a Thesis. Translated by Caterina Mongiat Farina and Geoff Farina. 1977. Reprint, Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press, 2015. https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/how-write-thesis.
    • While written for an academic audience of students focusing on writing for a particular purpose (the thesis), he does suggest that one could use the method as a lifelong practice.
  • Goutor, Jacques. The Card-File System of Note-Taking. Approaching Ontario’s Past 3. Toronto: Ontario Historical Society, 1980. http://archive.org/details/cardfilesystemof0000gout.
    • Just as commonplace books and zettelkasten are taking their last gasps in the 21st century, Goutor revives some of the ideas for helping out a local historical society by framing things as if the traditions had never existed in force within intellectual history.
  • Weinberg, Gerald M. Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method. New York, N.Y: Dorset House, 2005.
    • Written for the writers who want to be productive, Weinberg analogizes research and note taking to collecting the most useful and fascinating fieldstones that one might find to use to build a wall, a building, or other useful structure.

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.

Resurgence of the old Zettelkasten in the new Millennium

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:

  • technologist Ward Cunningham, inventor of the wiki, which he based in part on Hypercard functionality. He also created the Smallest Federated Wiki (aka FedWiki) at an early IndieWebCamp in 2011 which features a card-like user interface which encourages small, atomic-sized notes.
  • writer, scientist, and engineer Mark Bernstein who created Tinderbox in 2002 as a note taking tool, outliner, and publishing software that along with DevonThink is an early precursor of tools like Evernote, Obsidian, and Roam Research. He’s also the author of the influential hypertext essay Hypertext Gardens: Delightful Vistas (1998).
  • TiddlyWiki, first released on September 20, 2004, is a card-based user interface software built by Jeremy Ruston who was inspired by Ward Cunningham’s wiki and focused on small chunks of interlinked information. 4
  • author Steven B. Johnson who wrote frequently about his experiences with note taking, commonplaces, and DevonThink in the early 2000s in The New York Times as well as his blog. 5
  • authors Robert Green and his former assistant Ryan Holiday who have talked at reasonable length about their commonplace methods using index cards in videos and blog posts over the last decade.

Practitioners of the older Zettelkasten method

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.

  • Vladimir Nabokov (author) famously wrote many of his books on including Lolita on index cards which he filed in boxes 6
  • Phyllis Diller (comedienne) with 52,000 3×5-inch index cards
  • Joan Rivers (comedienne) over a million 3×5-inch index cards
  • Bob Hope (comedian) 85,000 pages in files
  • George Carlin (comedian) paper notes in folders
  • Ronald Reagan (actor, President), unlike the majority, Reagan kept his note cards in a photo album-like binder which allowed him to flip through it like a book while still retaining the ability to move cards or add pages as necessary.
  • Robert Greene (author)
  • Ryan Holiday (author)
  • Eminem Yes! Even Slim Shady himself has the most basic version of the OG practice I’ve ever seen: he literally had “just” slips and a box in a practice he aptly called “Stacking Ammo”, but which Anderson Cooper analogized as the scrawlings of a crazy person. The scare quotes on the word just here underline the fact that his practice contained no organization at all other than his potential internal mental recognition of his handwriting and variations in the papers sizes, types, and letterheads when available. It worked, because it worked for him and his needs.
  • Roland Barthes (French philosopher and writer) called his collection of about 12,250 cards by the traditional French name fichier boîte; he also kept a form of diary using a card index which his biographer called a fichierjournal
  • Hans Blumenberg (German philosopher and intellectual historian)
  • Mortimer J. Adler’s team which created The Syntopicon as part of the Great Books of the Western World (1952), used a shared card index to create it. 7
  • Michael Ende (German writer, possibly best known for his book The Never Ending Story which became a movie with the same title) kept a Zettelkasten, and in 1994, a year prior to his death, he published Michael Endes Zettelkasten: Skizzen und Notizen (translation: Michael Ende’s File-card Box: Drafts and Notes), an anthology of some of his writing as well as observations and aphorisms
  • Frederic L. Paxson (historian)
  • Walter Benjamin (German philosopher and cultural critic)
  • Gotthard Deutsch (history professor) had a card index of 70,000 cards, mostly focused on Jewish history. 8

The “new” definition of Zettelkasten

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.

Why the new definition

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:

Lack of a broader history of the older methods

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.

Lack of an “official” name or branded method

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?

Screen grab from The Crown showing an actor playing a bald and bespectacled Atlee at his desk in his office. Behind him on a credenza are a variety of files including two card index boxes each with four drawers.

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.

Relegation of the practice to academia

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.

Hidden transmission and unclear value proposition

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 new Zettelkasten

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.

Other definitions of zettelkasten

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.

Differences in the traditions

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.

Commonplace Books and Early Zettelkasten

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.

Niklas Luhmann’s Zettelkasten

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.

A Progressive Zettelkasten Practice

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.

References

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.


Footnotes

  1. Krajewski, Markus. Paper Machines: About Cards & Catalogs, 1548-1929. Translated by Peter Krapp. History and Foundations of Information Science. MIT Press, 2011. https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/paper-machines.↩︎
  2. Locke, John, 1632-1704. A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books. 1685. Reprint, London, 1706. https://archive.org/details/gu_newmethodmaki00lock/mode/2up.↩︎
  3. Charmantier, Isabelle, and Staffan Müller-Wille. “Carl Linnaeus’s botanical paper slips (1767–1773).” Intellectual History Review 24, no. 2 (April 3, 2014): 215–38. https://doi.org/10.1080/17496977.2014.914643.↩︎
  4. TiddlyWiki [@TiddlyWiki]. “@WardCunningham The First Demo of TidlyWiki from 2004 Took the Ideas of Wiki and Applied Them to Fragments Rather than Entire Pages. The Hypothesis Was That It Would Be Easier to Write in Small Interlinked Chunks That Could Be Gradually Massaged into a Linear Narrative Https://Classic.Tiddlywiki.Com/Firstversion.Html Https://T.Co/MJO7tyopr2.” Tweet. Twitter, September 20, 2022. https://twitter.com/TiddlyWiki/status/1572288988383248384.↩︎
  5. Johnson, Steven. “Tool for Thought.” The New York Times, January 30, 2005, sec. Books. https://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/30/books/review/tool-for-thought.html.↩︎
  6. Gold, Herbert. “Vladimir Nabokov, The Art of Fiction No. 40.” The Paris Review, 1967. https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4310/the-art-of-fiction-no-40-vladimir-nabokov.↩︎
  7. “The 102 Great Ideas: Scholars Complete a Monumental Catalog.” LIFE, January 26, 1948, 92–93.↩︎
  8. Lustig, Jason. “‘Mere Chips from His Workshop’: Gotthard Deutsch’s Monumental Card Index of Jewish History.” History of the Human Sciences 32, no. 3 (July 1, 2019): 49–75. https://doi.org/10.1177/0952695119830900.↩︎
  9. Luhmann, Niklas. “Geist im Kasten?” ZKII 9/8,3. Niklas Luhmann-Archiv. Accessed December 10, 2021. https://niklas-luhmann-archiv.de/bestand/zettelkasten/zettel/ZK_2_NB_9-8-3_V.↩︎

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