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.

Replied to Tags vs labels by Amit (amitp.blogspot.com)

But are “labels” and “tags” the same thing?

A long time ago, I read that they're different. The distinction as described was:

  • “labels” are when you mark your own content (first party)
  • “tags” are when you mark other people's content (third party)
I like the framing you’ve made in the definition of “label” and “tag”. I wish the distinction was respected by a broader range of people and programs as it could be more useful that way.

I’ve mentioned a subtle way of doing this on my site before: 

I also find that I have a subtle differentiation using singular versus plural tags which I think I’m generally using to differentiate between the idea of “mine” versus “others”. Thus the (singular) tag for “commonplace book” should be a reference to my particular commonplace book versus the (plural) tag “commonplace books” which I use to reference either the generic idea or the specific commonplace books of others. Sadly I don’t think I apply this “rule” consistently either, but hope to do so in the future.

Now I’m wishing that I had a separate “labels” taxonomy on my site to distinguish between “mine” and “theirs”. In using the Post Kinds Plugin for WordPress, I’m passively collecting labels (though it’s called tags) others put on their content (which is currently hidden in my internal metadata) and that is separate from the metadata tags I place on it. Being able to separately search the two could be a powerful feature.

Ryan Barrett in bookmark of Amit’s Thoughts: Tags vs labels ()

Read The Difference Between Good and Bad Tags (Zettelkasten Method)
When I search in my archive for the tag I get really annoying results. I don’t only get notes on diet. I get notes on carbohydrates, insulin sensitivity and many other. “Why is that a problem?”, you might ask. “All the above topics are relevant for diet, aren’t they?” No, and here is why.

There are two different types of tags:
Tags for topics. You use tags to group notes under a topic.
Tags for objects. You use tags to group notes around an object, real or conceptual. 

Annotated on March 23, 2020 at 05:06PM

The tags for objects are much more precise and reveal real connections. They narrow down the search way more which is hugely important if your archive grows. They only give you what you want, and not the topic which also contains what you want. 

Annotated on March 23, 2020 at 05:07PM

Replied to a tweet by curried apotheosiscurried apotheosis (Twitter)
I do something like this on my own website. Post issues there so I can own the data (and tags) and control the details and notes and syndicate a copy to GitHub. I’ve documented some of it here: Enabling two way communication with WordPress and GitHub for Issues. Others have done it as well: https://indieweb.org/issue. I’m sure there are other ways of doing this, but it works well for me and just for the reasons you describe.

If others want to see my details, the’re available on my site (when I make them public), but they’re primarily for my benefit and not others. The public copy conforms to the silo’s requirements and can be modified by the repo owners, if necessary. 

Bookmarked at 2020/01/10 9:51:41 pm

Read What Happened to Tagging? by Alexandra SamuelAlexandra Samuel (JSTOR Daily)
Fourteen years ago, a dozen geeks gathered around our dining table for Tagsgiving dinner. No, that’s not a typo. In 2005, my husband and I celebrated Thanksgiving as “Tagsgiving,” in honor of the web technology that had given birth to our online community development shop. I invited our guests...
It almost sounds like Dr. Samuel could be looking for the IndieWeb community, but just hasn’t run across it yet. Since she’s writing about tags, I can’t help but mischievously snitch tagging it to her, though I’ll do so only in hopes that it might make the internet all the better for it.

Tagging systems were “folksonomies:” chaotic, self-organizing categorization schemes that grew from the bottom up.

There’s something that just feels so wrong in this article about old school tagging and the blogosphere that has a pullquote meant to encourage one to Tweet the quote.
–December 04, 2019 at 11:03AM

I literally couldn’t remember when I’d last looked at my RSS subscriptions.
On the surface, that might seem like a win: Instead of painstakingly curating my own incoming news, I can effortlessly find an endless supply of interesting, worthwhile content that the algorithm finds for me. The problem, of course, is that the algorithm isn’t neutral: It’s the embodiment of Facebook and Twitter’s technology, data analysis, and most crucial, business model. By relying on the algorithm, instead of on tags and RSS, I’m letting an army of web developers, business strategists, data scientists, and advertisers determine what gets my attention. I’m leaving myself vulnerable to misinformation, and manipulation, and giving up my power of self-determination.

–December 04, 2019 at 11:34AM

You might connect with someone who regularly used the same tags that you did, but that was because they shared your interests, not because they had X thousand followers.

An important and sadly underutilized means of discovery. –December 04, 2019 at 11:35AM

I find it interesting that Alexandra’s Twitter display name is AlexandraSamuel.com while the top of her own website has the apparent title @AlexandraSamuel. I don’t think I’ve seen a crossing up of those two sorts of identities before though it has become more common for people to use their own website name as their Twitter name. Greg McVerry is another example of this.

Thanks to Jeremy Cherfas[1] and Aaron Davis[2] for the links to this piece. I suspect that Dr. Samuel will appreciate that we’re talking about this piece using our own websites and tagging them with our own crazy taxonomies. I’m feeling nostalgic now for the old Technorati…

Read What Happened to Tagging? by Aaron DavisAaron Davis (Read Write Collect)
Alexandra Samuel reflects on tagging and its origins as a backbone to the social web. Along with RSS, tags allowed users to connect and collate content using such tools as feed readers. This all changed with the advent of social media and the algorithmically curated news feed. Samuel wonders if we h...

Alexander Samuel reflects on tagging and its origins as a backbone to the social web. Along with RSS, tags allowed users to connect and collate content using such tools as feed readers. This all changed with the advent of social media and the algorithmically curated news feed.

Tags were used for discovery of specific types of content. Who needs that now that our new overlords of artificial intelligence and algorithmic feeds can tell us what we want to see?!

Of course we still need tags!!! How are you going to know serendipitously that you need more poetry in your life until you run into the tag on a service like IndieWeb.xyz? An algorithmic feed is unlikely to notice–or at least in my decade of living with them I’ve yet to run into poetry in one.
–December 04, 2019 at 10:56AM

Liked What happened to tagging? We did. by Jeremy Cherfas (jeremycherfas.net)
I very much enjoyed reading What Happened to Tagging, by Alexandra Samuel, so thanks to Aaron Davis for the link . I do think, however, that she is being entirely too negative about the state of play today. Aaron singled out one wistful quote, about the web we could have. I noted that the author cou...
I’m so grateful for those who provide tags and categories on their sites.

Modifying some of the taxonomies on my digital commonplace book

Spent a few minutes today cleaning up the various categories and tags within my digital commonplace book (aka website). Some of the automated methods I use as well as my general carelessness and fat fingers on mobile introduce spelling errors in some of these taxonomies. I also find that sometimes when choosing them from the pre-populated lists my website’s back end makes it more difficult to choose the canonical one when there are several there by error.

These issues tend to flatten these taxonomies out and make them much more difficult to search (or for others to be able to subscribe to reliably).

As an example, having tags “Domain of One’s Own” and “Domain of Ones Own” (with and without the apostrophe) as well as the acronym “DoOO” can be difficult or frustrating to use. Things get even more complicated when I hold the mental model that these concepts are just a sub-set of the broader idea of the “IndieWeb” or what I sometimes tag things as “IndieWeb for Education”. This is all much easier for me, but may be more difficult for newcomers to the site who know what one shorthand means, but are unaware of the others and thus miss details, references, or content that may have a lot of value for them.

I’ve cleaned up and concatenated many of these troublesome tags (roughly A-D alphabetically and other sections at random), but there’s still a lot of distance to go. There are 66 categories–some are hidden or used for programmatic purposes–and nearly 7,000 tags! The top 100 tags are used 30 or more times on the site and the second century of tags are used between 20 and 30 times each. At the long end of the tail there are about 4,000 tags with either 1 or no uses.

I’m promoting the economics tag to that of a category since it’s a topic in which I have a lot of interest and content. I also have a number of other tags related to sub-areas of economics. (If you were subscribed to this individual tag, you may want to fix your feed.) Other potential considerations for promotion included the topics of history, physics, and web development. I also noticed that there’s a tag for mathematics with 70 instances despite the fact that there’s already a category for it with 315 posts already–I’ll have to figure out how that happened and clean it up another day. And look, there’s somehow a tag for “math” too. Ugh!

I also put both the Quotes and Events categories under the parent category of Social Stream, though I plan on leaving them showing in the hierarchy–unlike some post kinds–as there are many legacy posts and likely future posts that aren’t just events I’m hosting, but events that are of interest to me in general. Naturally the more important events (to me) will appear in my RSVP posts. With any good luck courtesy of WordPress, links to the old versions should still work or redirect to the new hierarchy.

The manual or even automated effort of fixing or tweaking some of these things feels problematic, and I’m just looking at just my own website. I’m curious to delve into some research on taxonomies and folksonomies to see how something like this may be better systematized and/or automated. Of course categorizing things is somethings humans really love doing, but I’m not sure how deep down the rabbit hole it’s worth going for my own work. Besides, someone far smarter than I will likely crack the discovery nut from an IndieWeb perspective. Fortunately I can use the site search queries for several search engines to more quickly find the things I’m looking for without needing these taxonomies. So perhaps I’ll put some of the exercise off to another day by filing this in my tag.

Dividing and Conquering the IndieWeb Related Content on My Website

Both for my own benefit as well as for that of others who may be following along, I realize that I’ve been tagging a lot of material on my site with the broad category of “IndieWeb”. Some of it is definitely more significant and content rich than others, but in aggregate it may often seem like a firehose. If you’re following the community relatively closely already, you’ll probably be seeing a lot of redundant material.

As a result, and since it’s easy to do, I’m only going to categorize a much smaller segment of the richer material that I write or which is I deem to be extremely broadly appealing with the IndieWeb category. The remainder of smaller pieces by others, bookmarks, short replies, or other tangential related things (UX, UI, silos, silo quits, etc.) I’m going to use the alternate and separate IndieWeb tag.

Thus if you’re active in the IndieWeb community and only want my IndieWeb related materials then follow the category  and not the tag. If you’re not closely following the community and want everything then I recommend following the content from both the category and the tag. 

With the subtle change this may also help IndieWeb related planets like Aaron Parecki’s https://stream.indieweb.org/ or Malcolm Blaney’s https://unicyclic.com/indieweb/ pick up relevant data without needing to do heavy de-duplication for fear of spamming various channels.

In the coming days/weeks I’ll try to go back into my backlog of posts and re-categorize and re-tag things based on this general scheme.

My direct content:
Category Only | feed: https://boffosocko.com/category/indieweb/feed/

Miscellaneous bookmarks, replies, other content I collect for my commonplace book, etc: 
Tag Only | feed: https://boffosocko.com/tag/indieweb/feed/

The firehose of everything IndieWeb related from my site:
Category AND/OR Tag | feed: https://boffosocko.com/?s=indieweb&feed=rss2

And of course I still try to  aggregate and orient most of the important pieces in my IndieWeb Collection.

📑 Collaborative resource curation | Hypothes.is

Replied to Collaborative resource curation by Jon Udell (Hypothesis)
Recently we decided to keep better track of tweets, blog posts, and other web resources that mention and discuss our product. There are two common ways to do that: send links to a list maintainer, or co-edit a shared list of links. Here’s a third way, less common but arguably more powerful and flexible: tag the web resources in situ.
It isn’t rocket science, but as Jon indicates, it’s *incredibly *powerful.

I use my personal website with several levels of taxonomy for tagging and categorizing a variety of things for later search and research.

Much like the example of the Public Radio International producer, I’ve created what I call a “faux-cast” because I tag everything I listen to online and save it to my website including the appropriate <audio> link to the.mp3 file so that anyone who wants to follow the feed of my listens can have a playlist of all the podcast and internet-related audio I’m listening to.

A visual version of my “listened to” tags can be found at https://boffosocko.com/kind/listen/ with the RSS feed at https://boffosocko.com/kind/listen/feed/

👓 Collaborative resource curation | Hypothesis

Read Collaborative resource curation by Jon Udell (Hypothesis)
Recently we decided to keep better track of tweets, blog posts, and other web resources that mention and discuss our product. There are two common ways to do that: send links to a list maintainer, or co-edit a shared list of links. Here’s a third way, less common but arguably more powerful and flexible: tag the web resources in situ.

🔖 Rename Hypothesis tags

Bookmarked Rename Hypothesis tags (jonudell.info)
This tool lists your Hypothesis tags, and enables you to rename one or more of them.

Please do make a safe copy your annotations first. And proceed with care. There's a kind of information loss that's possible unrelated to any technical malfunction. Suppose you are using three tags, A, B, and C, to classify annotations into three buckets. Then you rename B to C. Now bucket B is gone. There is only A, unchanged. and C, which includes what was in B. You can't reverse the arrow of entropy and reconstitute the set of annotations that were in B!

👓 Renaming Hypothesis tags | Jon Udell

Read Renaming Hypothesis tags by Jon UdellJon Udell (Jon Udell)
Wherever social tagging is supported as an optional feature, its use obeys a power law. Some people use tags consistently, some sporadically, most never. This chart of Hypothesis usage illustrates the familiar long-tail distribution: https://i0.wp.com/jonudell.info/images/hypothesis-tag-density.jpg ...

👓 Just a Thought: How Tags Happened at Technorati | Powazek

Read Just a Thought: How Tags Happened at Technorati by Derek Powazek (powazek.com)
It's been six months since we added Tags to Technorati (where I'm Senior Designer), and as it turns out, it was a pretty big deal. So before we get too far away from it, here's the story of how it came about. From my perspective, anyway.

The page was set up to show any post that contained a link to it – in other words, if you linked to that page, then your post appeared on that page.  

Just a rehash of Refbacks? or an early implementation of Webmention?!
October 04, 2018 at 09:19AM

👓 Technorati Tags: What Are They Really? | Bokardo

Read Technorati Tags: What Are They Really? (bokardo.com)
Round and round we go, where we’ll stop, nobody knows! The crazy game of tags gets crazier. What are Technorati tags really? And should we use them now that categories are being indexed in the same way? Jeff Jarvis has started another good conversation about tagging over at Buzzmachine. (He started another good conversation about tagging recently). He recently implementated his interpretation of “tags”, and that got him thinking about their value and purpose.