Replied to a tweet by Brian Mann (Twitter)
I’ve done something similar in paper form as early as the 1990’s and have seen examples in diaries and commonplace books that go back much earlier. TiddlyWiki had a digital capability to to something like this as early as the late 2000s and I’ve used it there as well. As you mention, content management systems like WordPress certainly do this with various archive views, but this is a secondary effect and not done up front as is seen in tools like Roam, Obsidian, et al. I suspect that one might find the ability to do such workflows with early versions of DEVONThink, Tinderbox, or even MediaWiki, though as these are used personally, it’s much harder to provide evidence for their direct use as such.

The real question is what additional value and affordances does this pattern allow? Some of the value is in emptying your head (forgetting) as seen in productivity systems like 43 folders or doing Morning Pages. I suspect that rarely are people revising these tidbits at later times to get additional value from them.

Outside of this, systems like Roam Research may make it easier to create a diary like this with the day’s work, but the real value there is not the date/timeline created, but the way that the system treats each block like its own unit of knowledge and allows cross linking them. In this case, the real precursor goes back at least as far as Konrad Gessner’s Pandectarum sive Partitionum Universalium (1548), which provides a classic definition of the zettelkasten format, though this obviously is heavily informed by the earlier traditions of excerpting and annotating found in commonplace books, florilegia, etc. stemming from the ideas of rhetoric from the Greeks and Romans.

In oral cultures, precursors of this sort of time ordering can be seen with respect to the ideas of ancestral time, genealogy, and techniques like the songline in Australia, but the implementations will vary and it’s unlikely that one might find a complete one-to-one mapping of these ideas into Western cultures.

Bookmarked I Like Index Cards by Aegir Aegir (Aegir.org)
I've been meaning to do some kind of index card style template for the site for ages and never got round to it. Now I have. I’m quite pleased with it. CSS repeating gradient lines and all that. 
An absolutely beautiful design for short notes. This is the sort of theme that will appeal to zettelkasten users who are building digital gardens. A bit of the old mixed in with the new.

Pete Moor in // pimoore.ca ()

Handwriting my Website with a Digital Amanuensis

A Capital User Interface Idea

A few weeks ago I saw Ben Stokes’ post about PaperWebsite.com and my immediate reaction was, “I have to be able to do that!” I’ve long enjoyed writing by hand over typing as the tactile feel of of pen or pencil and paper is such an enjoyable one. I particularly enjoy using a nice fountain pen on high quality paper.

Obviously there was a route to doing a workflow like this as Ben had shown. I just needed to figure out a method with a low enough barrier that I could personally implement for doing this with my own WordPress website.

A Quick Solution

Not being a serious coder, I immediately began looking for ways I could leverage some of the IndieWeb building blocks my site supports. Micropub seemed like a no-brainer for the posting portion since I’ve got an endpoint using the Micropub WordPress plugin. Certainly not wanting to manually re-type everything once I was finished writing, I needed a way of converting my handwriting to text and then automating a way to plug that into my micropub client.

A short burst of searching revealed that Google Docs could do Optical Character Recognition (OCR) on photos. I pulled out my IFTTT app and found a recipe for taking a photo and saving it to Google Drive. Then I set up another recipe to watch a particular folder in Google Drive and take whatever text appears in new documents and send it to my website using a webhook that uses my Micropub endpoint. The whole thing only took a half hour from idea to a working prototype. In the end it took a tap to open IFTTT on my phone and another tap to take the photo. Then I had to manually open the document to trigger the OCR. Finally, I had to manually open and edit the post before posting.

I had set the micropub client to post as a draft as a default just in case the OCR wasn’t perfect. This was fortunate as the Google photo OCR was so solid that the letters “Dia” of the microscopic text from the word “Diamond” partially visible on my pen cap that was in the photo got pulled into the post.

In the few times I’ve used this workflow so far, I’ve mostly done straight text and syndicated posts to Twitter, Mastodon, and Micro.blog. Perhaps in the future I might set things up to add HTML links, but they’re fairly easy to add at the editing stage.

Since I started my experimentation, a few others in the IndieWeb community have noticed the paperwebsite.com site. Greg McVerry popped up and linked to it as well. He mentioned that he had a digital notebook with OCR capability. This reminded me that I’ve got both a Livescribe Echo pen and a Rocketbook notebook with a Pilot Frixion pen that has an app for uploading digitized images of notebook pages. I hadn’t done OER with Livescribe in ages, so I pulled out the Rocketbook, which is cleverly erasable and thus reusable not to mention being fairly inexpensive. A bit of quick set up allowed me to take a photo of a page which automatically uploads to Google Drive and does its own OCR process. This already dovetails with my prior process, so the whole thing is much smoother. As a result, I’m composing this post in my Rocketbook notebook and will automatically upload and post it to my site as a draft. I’ll probably add some links, a photo or two, and then publish it in a bit.

Rocketbook Interface

The Rocketbook notebook has some solid pages with an odd shiny texture and feel, presumably part of the technology that makes it easy to wipe them clean for reuse. The bottom of each page has seven different faint icon images which are meant to allow the app to determine where to send the digital copy of the notes. One can send them via email or to a variety of storage or sharing services. I could imagine having different recipes set up to allow one to publish their notes to different websites based on the icon X-ed out. Given the micropub possibilities, one could also use the icons as a means of differentiating post kinds (for example, indicating that a particular post is a note, an article, or a bookmark). Another alternate idea would be to use the icons as a means of selecting which services to syndicate your content to (for example, the diamond could mean syndicate this post to Micro.blog, the bell could mean Mastodon, and the clover syndicates the post to Twitter).

The printed interface at the bottom of the Rocketbook notebook: a QR code eith icons for a rocket, a diamond, an apple, a bell, a clover, a star, and a horseshoe. The last one has an "X" over it to indicate choosing the horseshoe.

The overall process is quite elegant and pleasant. The OCR for Rocketbook is reasonably good aside from a few spelling errors which are easy enough to click and fix. I’ll admit that I far prefer using a fountain pen on some Tomoe River paper to using the Rocketbook paper and the Frixion pen, but really, who wouldn’t?

Handwritten notes for your digital zettelkasten or personal wiki

Since I’ve already got most of the infrastructure, I’ve gone the extra mile and set things up so that I can take notes on index cards zettelkasten-style and use a similar set up to post them to my Obsidian vault using similar IFTTT recipes.

Try it yourself

For those who want to set this up themselves, I’ve documented the IFTTT/micropub portion before. I’ll post the specific code I’m using below for these who may want it. The nice part is that as long as you have a micropub server for your website platform (there are many CMSs that have native or plugin support) the WordPress portion isn’t a deal breaker for others.

I’m sure, now that there are multiple proofs of concept, some enterprising developer will build a custom micropub client to do all of this work automatically or with a few options built into a clever interface.

I could see pen and paper manufacturers (Moleskin, Leuchtturm, Rocketbook, etc.) creating apps for doing this too. I’d love to see and hear about others trying this out for themselves. Hopefully it can be done with almost no code or some easy cut and paste from my example. Ask if you need help, and I’ll see what I can do to help.

IFTTT Webhook settings

This following will be roughly standard for WordPress endpoints using the plugin, but they can obviously be modified for your platform of choice.

  • URL: https://example.com/wp-json/micropub/1.0/endpoint
  • Method: POST
  • Content type: application/x-www-form-urlencoded
  • Body: access_token=PasswordHere&content=<<<{{Body}}>>>&h=entry&category[]=Social%20Stream&post-status=published&visibility=private

Historical examples

While doing some of this I did come across some older examples of handwriting to websites. Aside from handwriting typography which I think is usually ugly, I saw some interesting examples from Jeff Bridges[1] [2], gRegor Morrill, and scrolled through some great examples of handwritten and typed Tweets by Alton Brown. In his case, he was simply taking photos of his writing, but it worked! I’ll admit he had some fun and was definitely creative about it. Hopefully Twitter always exists to save the copies for him.

Conclusion

In short, I’ve now got another great way to post to my website. I love the great old school tactile user interface of pen and paper. Now I’m glad to have a reason to be able to do more of it in an ever-digitized culture.

Until I start working on cuneiform solutions…

Write On! 🖋


Editor’s note: This post was originally handwritten on Dec 16, 2021 at 20:15.

Does Spirit hide in the filing cabinet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some notes about the semantic change of “interlink” and “backlink”

I’m reasonably certain that he’s raised the question or issue about the definition of “interlink” or “backlink” before, but it’s come up again today with some discussion and notes which I wanted to capture permanently here with few modifications for myself:

doubleloop[m] APP 12:30 PM
I have some notes I’ve taken on interlinking wikis here – https://commonplace.doubleloop.net/interlinking-wikis

tantek 12:39 PM
doubleloop[m], what’s the difference between “just” a link and an “interlink” from a user perspective?
genuine question (feel free to also answer if you have an idea @chrisaldrich) because Wikipedia seems to consider “interlink” as a common noun to be a synonym for “hyperlink” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interlink

Chris Aldrich 20:45 PM
I think that the definition for interlinking is expanding based on actual use cases. Historically Tim Berners Lee tried to create hyperlinks as bi-directional and then scrapped the idea as not easily implementable. As a result we’ve all come to expect that links are uni-directional.

In the digital gardens, wiki spaces and now, even with Webmention, there’s an expectation (I would suggest) by a growing number of people that some links in practice will be bi-directional.

If Neil puts a link to something within his own wiki/digital garden, he’s expecting that to be picked up in a space like the Agora and it will interlink his content with that of others.

Many who are practicing POSSE/PESOS are programatically (or manually) placing backlinks between their content and the copies that live on silos creating a round trip set of links that typically hasn’t been seen on the web historically.

Because we’ve mostly grown up with a grammar of single directional links and no expectation of visible reverse links (except perhaps in the spammy framing of SEO linkfarms), the word “interlink” has taken on the connotation seen in Wikipedia. I think that definition is starting to change.

Among a class of users in the note taking/personal knowledge management space (Roam Research, Obsidian, Logseq, TiddlyWiki, et al) most users are expecting tools to automatically interlink (in my definition with the sense of an expected bi-directional link) pages. Further, they’re expecting that if you change the word(s) that appear within a [[wikilink]] that it will globally change all instances of that word/phrase that are so linked within one’s system.

In many of those systems you can also do a manual /redirect the way we do on the IndieWeb wiki, but they expect the system to actively rename their bi-directional links without any additional manual work.

tantek 1:08 PM
ok, the bidirectionality as expectation is interesting

Chris Aldrich 1:08 PM
By analogy, many in the general public have a general sense of what /syndication is within social media, but you (Tantek) and others in the IndieWeb space have created words/phrases/acronyms that specify a “target” and “source” to indicate in which direction the syndication is being done and between sites of differing ownership (POSSE, PESOS, PASTA, PESETAS, POOSNOW,… not to mention a linear philosophical value proposition of which are more valuable to the end user). There is a group of people who are re-claiming a definition of the words “interlink” and perhaps “backlink” to a more logical position based on new capabilities in technology. Perhaps it may be better if they created neologisms for these, but linguistically that isn’t the path being taken as there are words that would seem to have an expandable meaning for what they want. I’d classify it as a semantic change/shift/drift in the words meanings: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semantic_change

I suspect that if Roam Research, or any of the other apps that have this bi-directionality built in, were to remove it as a feature, they’d loose all of their userbase.

tantek 1:11 PM
yes, such a semantic shift in the meaning of “interlink” seems reasonable, and a useful distinction from the now ubiquitously expected unidirectionality of “hyperlink”

Chris Aldrich 1:12 PM
I’m expecting that sometime within the next year or so that major corporate apps like Evernote and OneNote will make this bi-directional linking a default as well.

tantek 1:12 PM
in sci-fi metaphor terms, one-way vs two-way wormholes (per other uses of “hyper”)

Chris Aldrich 1:14 PM
I can only imagine what a dramatically different version of the web we’d be living in if the idea of Webmention had existed in the early 90s. Particularly as there’s the ability to notify the other end in changes/updates/deletions of a page. Would the word “linkrot” exist in that world?

Joe Crawford 1:22 PM
Or in a world with Xanaduian transclusions, for that matter.
Alas

Chris Aldrich 1:25 PM
Related to this and going into the world of the history of information is the suggestion by Markus Krajewski in “Paper Machines: About Cards & Catalogs, 1548-1929” that early card catalog and index card systems are really an early paper/manual form of a Turing Machine: https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/paper-machines.

One might imagine the extended analogy libraries:books:index cards :: Internet:websites:links with different modes and speeds of transmission.

Ok zettelkasten fans. Unless someone can come up with an earlier source, the inventor of the zettelkasten method for excerpting and note taking is Konrad Gessner in 1548. (Again it’s not Niklas Luhmann!)

Text card that reads "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 tablesor in small boxes, it should be fixed or copied directly.  —Gessner, Konrad. Pandectarum sive Partitionum Universalium. 1548. Zurich: Christoph Froschauer. Fol. 19-20"

More details to come on this fun bit of history soon.

Watched Field Notes: Reporter's Notebook by Coudal PartnersCoudal Partners from Vimeo

Field Notes: Reporter's Notebook from Coudal Partners on Vimeo.

John Dickerson of “Face the Nation” talks about how he uses a Reporter’s Notebook and how he helped Field Notes make one.

Reporter John Dickerson talking about his notebook.

While he doesn’t mention it, he’s capturing the spirit of the commonplace book and the zettelkasten.

[…] I see my job as basically helping people see and to grab ahold of what’s going on.

You can decide to do that the minute you sit down to start writing or you can just do it all the time. And by the time you get to writing you have a notebook full of stuff that can be used.

And it’s not just about the thing you’re writing about at that moment or the question you’re going to ask that has to do with that week’s event on Face the Nation on Sunday.

If you’ve been collecting all week long and wondering why a thing happens or making an observation about something and using that as a piece of color to explain the political process to somebody, then you’ve been doing your work before you ever sat down to do your work.

I’d love to interview him about his process as well as keeping track of his notes after-the-fact. Does he index them? Collate them? How does he archive them? What role do they play in his book writing processes? Is his system something that he was taught, something which he created and refined over time, or a little bit of both?

Zettelkasten History Prior to Niklas Luhmann: Antonin Sertillanges

Antonin Sertillanges’ book The Intellectual Life is published in 1921 in which he outlines in chapter 7 the broad strokes a version of the zettelkasten method, though writing in French he doesn’t use the German name or give the method a specific name.[1]

The book was published in French, Italian, and English in more than 50 editions over the span of 40 years. In it, Sertillanges recommends taking notes on slips of “strong paper of a uniform size” either self made with a paper cutter or by “special firms that will spare you the trouble, providing slips of every size and color as well as the necessary boxes and accessories.” He also recommends a “certain number of tagged slips, guide-cards, so as to number each category visibly after having numbered each slip, in the corner or in the middle.” He goes on to suggest creating a catalog or index of subjects with division and subdivisions and recommends the “very ingenious system”, the decimal system, for organizing one’s research. For the details of this refers the reader to Organization of intellectual work: practical recipes for use by students of all faculties and workers by Paul Chavigny.[2]

Sertillanges recommends against the previous patterns seen with commonplace books where one does note taking in books or on slips of paper which might be pasted into books as they don’t “easily allow classification” or “readily lend themselves to use at the moment of writing.”


[1] Antonin, Sertillanges (1960). The Intellectual Life: Its Sprit, Conditions, Methods. Translated by Ryan, Mary (fifth printing ed.). Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press. pp. 186–198.

[2] Chavigny, Paul (1918). Organisation du travail intellectuel: recettes pratiques à l’usage des étudiants de toutes les facultés et de tous les travailleurs (in French). Delagrave.


Featured Image: zettelkasten flickr photo by x28x28de shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

Gardens and Streams II: An IndieWebCamp Pop-up Session on Wikis, Digital Gardens, Online Commonplace Books, Zettelkasten and Note Taking

Event Details

Date: Saturday, September 25, 2021
Time: 9:00 AM – 1:00 PM Pacific
Event page: https://events.indieweb.org/2021/09/gardens-and-streams-ii-pPUbyYME33V4

We’ll discuss and brainstorm ideas related to wikis, commonplace books, digital gardens, zettelkasten, and note taking on personal websites and how they might interoperate or communicate with each other. This can include IndieWeb building blocks, user interfaces, functionalities, and everyones’ ideas surrounding these. Bring your thoughts, ideas, and let’s discuss (and build).

This will be a continuation of the ideas from the Garden and Stream pop up session in 2020. Everyone is welcome and need not have attended prior sessions.

Format

We’ll try to do something between a traditional all day IndieWebCamp and a single session pop-up over the span of several hours so that we can accommodate a brief introduction and three BarCamp topic related sessions. Feel free to brainstorm session ideas in advance of the mini-camp, but we’ll choose session topics the morning of the event.

Tentative Schedule

All times Pacific.

  • 9:00 AM 30 minute introduction & IndieWeb building blocks
  • 9:30 AM 20 minute session pitches and scheduling
  • 9:50 AM 10 minute break
  • 10:00 AM 60 minute Session 1 (including 10 minute break)
  • 11:00 AM 60 minute Session 2 (including 10 minute break)
  • 12:00 PM 50 minute Session 3
  • 12:50 PM 10 minute closing remarks
  • 1:00 PM pop up finished

Hack day? Yes, we’ll all gather the following day for 3 hours at roughly the same time with a short demo session to follow for folks to show off what they’ve been working on. Details for this will be forthcoming.

Everyone is welcome to attend.

Resources

RSVP (optional)

And if none of the above methods means anything to you or you can’t log in to use them, don’t worry about it; just show up on the day!

Questions? Concerns? Volunteers?

Feel free to ask in the IndieWeb chat: https://chat.indieweb.org/indieweb/ or post a question below or on the call for volunteers post.

A quick note to the personal knowledge management fanatics: Niklas Luhmann positively did NOT invent the Zettelkasten. The idea predates him by quite a bit and had even earlier forms. He’s also not the only significant example.

https://boffosocko.com/2021/07/03/differentiating-online-variations-of-the-commonplace-book-digital-gardens-wikis-zettlekasten-waste-books-florilegia-and-second-brains/

Replied to Commonplace Book by Matthias MelcherMatthias Melcher (x28's new Blog)
Comment on Chris Aldrich’s very comprehensive description of the “new boil” of note-taking.

One thing expected from the note-taking tools, makes me particularly skeptical: their collaborative/ public use. I think the lifecycle of notes cannot be continuous from capturing to communication, unless I forgo the possibility of cryptic, sloppy, abbreviated shorthand meant just for the “me later” that Magdalena Böttger depicted so aptly in 2005. 

Some of the value of notes being done and readable in public means that one typically puts a bit more effort into them at the start. This can make them much more useful and valuable later on. It also means that they usually have more substance and context for use by others in collaboration or other reuses.

Short notes are often called fleeting notes which may or may not be processed into something more substantive. The ones that do become more substantive can more easily be reused in other future settings.

Sonke Ahrens’ book How to Take Smart Notes is one of the better arguments for the why and how of note taking.
Annotated on July 06, 2021 at 10:24AM

Note that such careful treatment applies only to a certain kind of my notes. While many project-related notes go straight to simple folders of the operating system, the notes that don’t fit in one of the folders, deserve special attention. I don’t know yet where I might deploy them — possibly in multiple places. 

I like that you’ve got such a fascinating system. It’s very similar in form and substance to one that I use, but which relies on a wholly different technology stack: https://boffosocko.com/2020/08/29/a-note-taking-problem-and-a-proposed-solution/
Annotated on July 06, 2021 at 10:25AM

Which makes them similar to “commonplace”: reusable in many places. But this connotation has led to a pejorative flavor of the German translation “Gemeinplatz” which means platitude. That’s why I prefer to call them ‘evergreen’ notes, although I am not sure if I am using this differentiation correctly. 

I’ve only run across the German “Gemeinplatz” a few times with this translation attached. Sad to think that this negative connotation has apparently taken hold. Even in English the word commonplace can have a somewhat negative connotation as well meaning “everyday, ordinary, unexceptional” when the point of commonplacing notes is specifically because they are surprising or extraordinary by definition.

Your phrasing of “evergreen notes” seems close enough. I’ve seen some who might call the shorter notes you’re making either “seedlings” or “budding” notes. Some may wait for bigger expansions of their ideas into 500-2000 word essays before they consider them “evergreen” notes. (Compare: https://maggieappleton.com/garden-history and https://notes.andymatuschak.org/Evergreen_notes). Of course this does vary quite a bit from person to person in my experience, so your phrasing certainly fits.

I’ve not seen it crop up in the digital gardens or zettelkasten circles specifically but the word “evergreen” is used in the journalism space to describe a fully formed article that can be re-used wholesale on a recurring basis. Usually they’re related to recurring festivals, holidays, or cyclical stories like “How to cook the perfect Turkey” which might get recycled a week before Thanksgiving every year.
Annotated on July 06, 2021 at 10:37AM

Differentiating online variations of the Commonplace Book: Digital Gardens, Wikis, Zettlekasten, Waste Books, Florilegia, and Second Brains

A fluorescence of note taking tools

Over the past three or so years there has been a fluorescence of digital note taking tools and platforms.

Some of these include:

Open source projects like Org Mode, Logseq, Foam, Jupyter, Trilium, Databyss, Athens, Dendron, Anagora, and Hypothes.is.

Closed sourced projects like: Roam Research, Notion, Knovigator, Amplenote, RemNote, Memex, Nototo, nvUltra, and Are.na.

Some are based on earlier incarnations of note taking and writing tools like OneNote, Evernote, Simple Note, TiddlyWiki, DEVONthink, Scrivener, etc.

This brief list doesn’t take into account a sea of other mobile apps and platforms in addition to a broad array of social media platforms that people use for similar note taking or annotations.

My particular interest in some of this note taking field comes in the growing number of people who are working in public and sharing their notes in online settings with others. This has been happening organically since the rise of the internet and has happened on blogs within the blogosphere and on personal and communal wikis.

As was highlighted (pun intended) at the recent I Annotate 2021 conference, the note taking space seems to have been coming to a new boil. With the expansion of the ideas of keeping a zettelkasten or a digital garden, these versions of notebooks seem to be a significant part of this new note taking craze.

One thing I have noticed, however, is a dramatic lack of continuity in the history of note taking within the longue durée of Western civilization. (Other cultures including oral cultures have similar traditions, but for our purposes here, I won’t go into them except to say that they’re highly valuable, spectacularly rich, and something of which we should all be aware.)

Many of these products are selling themselves based on ideas or philosophies which sound and even feel solid, but they’re completely ignoring their predecessors to the tune of feeling like they’re trying to reinvent the wheel. As a result, some of the pitches for these products sound like they’re selling snake oil rather than tried and true methods that go back over 2,000 years of intellectual history. I can only presume that modern education is failing us all dramatically. People are “taught” (maybe told is the better verb) to take notes in school, but they’re never told why, what to do with them, or how to leverage them for maximum efficiency. Perhaps the idea has been so heavily imbued into our culture we’ve honestly forgotten the basic parts and reasoning behind it?

Even Vannevar Bush’s dream of the Memex as stated in his article As We May Think (The Atlantic, 1945), which many of these note taking applications might point to as an inspiration, ignores this same tradition and background, so perhaps these app creators and users aren’t all to blame?

Delineating Online Forms

I’ve been doing some serious reading and research into these traditions to help uncover our missing shared history. I’ll write something longer and more specific about them at a later date.

In the meanwhile, I want to outline just a bit about the various flavors as they relate to some of the more public online versions that I see in the related internet spaces. I hope to help better delineate what they have in common, how they differ, and what they may still add to the mix to get us to a more robust version of Bush’s dream.

Other’s thoughts and comments about these various incarnations and their forms and functions are both encouraged and appreciated.

Commonplace books

Historically commonplace books are one of the oldest and most influential structures in the note taking, writing, and thinking space. They have generally been physical books written by hand that contain notes which are categorized by headings (or in a modern context categories or tags. Often they’re created with an index to help their creators find and organize their notes.

They originated in ancient Greece and Rome out of the thought of Aristotle and Cicero as a tool for thinking and writing and have generally enjoyed a solid place in history since. A huge variety of commonplaces have been either copied by hand or published in print book form over the centuries.

Most significant thinkers, writers, and creators throughout history have kept something resembling a commonplace book. While many may want to attribute the output of historical figures like Erasmus, Newton, Darwin, Leibnitz, Locke, or Emerson to sheer genius (and many often do), I might suggest that their works were the result of sustained work of creating personal commonplace books—somewhat like a portable Google search engine for their day, but honed to their particular interests. (One naturally can’t ignore their other many privileges like wealth, education, and time to do this work, which were also certainly a significant factor in their success.)

Many people over the past quarter of a century have used a variety of digital forms to keep digital commonplace books including public versions on blogs, wikis, and other software for either public or private consumption.

Florilegium

Florilegia are a subcategory of commonplace book starting around 900 CE but flourishing in the 12th and 13th centuries and primarily kept by theologians and preachers. The first were a series of short excerpted passages often arranged in order of their appearance in a single text, but eventually were arranged systematically under discrete headings. Medieval florilegia where overwhelmingly, and often exclusively, concerned with religious topics from the works of scriptures, the moral dicta of the Doctors of the Church, and—less frequently—the teachings of approved, classical moral philosophers. The idea and form of florilegium generally merged back into the idea of the commonplace book which had renewed interest and wide popularity during the Renaissance.

These didn’t add any new or innovative features over what had come before. Perhaps, if anything, they were a regression because they so heavily focused only on religion as a topic.

Few (if any) examples of florilegia can be found in modern digital contexts. Though I have seen some people talk about using digital note taking tools for religious study, I have yet to see public versions online.

Zettelkästen

Born out of the commonplace tradition with modifications by Conrad Gessner (1516-1565) and descriptions by Johann Jacob Moser (1701–1785), the Zettelkasten, a German word translated as “slip box”, is generally a collection of highly curated atomic notes collected on slips of paper or index cards. Zettelkasten were made simpler to create and maintain with the introduction of the mass manufacture of index cards (and card boxes and furniture) in the early 20th century. Slips of paper which were moveable within books or files and later on index cards were a significant innovation in terms of storing and organizing a commonplace book.

Generally zettels (or cards) are organized by topics and often contain dates and other taxonomies or serialized numbers as a means of linking them to other cards within the system. The cross linking of these cards (and thus ideas) were certainly a historical physical precursor of the internet we have today, simply in digital form.

Almost all the current references I’ve seen online to Zettelkasten mention Niklas Luhmann as their inspiration, but none of them reference any other well-known historical examples despite the fact the idea has been around and evolving for several centuries now.

This productivity system and sets of digital tools around it came to greater attention in Germany in 2013 with the exhibition “Zettelkästen: Machines of Fantasy” at the Museum of Modern Literature, Marbach am Neckar and in 2014 with the launch of the zettelkasten.de website. A subsequent boost in the English speaking world occurred following the publication of Sönke Ahrens’s book How to Take Smart Notes – One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers in February 2017. The recent ability to use platforms like Roam Research, Obsidian, Notion, et al. has helped to fan the flames of their popularization.

More often than not, most of these digital tools (like their card-based predecessors) are geared toward private personal use rather than an open public model. Roam Research and Obsidian Publish have features which allow public publishing. TiddlyWiki is also an excellent tool for this as its so-called Tiddlers have a card-based appearance and can be placed in custom orders as well as transcluded, but again not many are available to the online public.

Waste books/Sudelbücher

This sub-genre of notebooks comes out of the tradition of double-entry book keeping where accountants often kept a daily diary of all transactions in chronological order. These temporary notes were then later moved into a more permanent accounting ledger and the remaining book was considered “waste”.

In the commonplace book tradition, these books for temporary notes or (fleeting notes in a Zettelkasten framing), might eventually be copied over, expanded, and indexed into one’s permanent commonplace collection.

In modern digital settings, one might consider some of the ephemeral social media stream platforms like Twitter to be a digital version of a waste book, though to my knowledge I may be the first person to suggest this connection. (To be clear, others have certainly mentioned Twitter as being a waste and even a wasteland.)

Wikis

Inspired, in part, by Apple’s HyperCard, Ward Cunningham created the first public wiki on his website on March 25, 1995. Apple had designed a system allowing users to create virtual “card stacks” supporting links among the various cards (sound familiar?). HyperCard was designed as a single user system.

Wikis allowed multiple users to author and edit pages on the web with a basic web browser. They were also able to create meaningful links and associations between pages, whether they existed or not using [[WikiLinks]]. They were meant to allow the average visitor to participate in an ongoing process of creation and collaboration.

Here there is some innovative user interface as well as the ability to collaborate with others in keeping a commonplace book. Transclusion of one page into another is a useful feature here.

Personal wikis have been used (as have many blogs) for information aggregation and dissemination over the years in a manner similar to their historical predecessors.

Second brain

Second brain is a marketing term which stands in for the idea of the original commonplace book. It popped up in the note taking context in early 2017 for promoting the use of commonplace books techniques using Tiago Forte’s expensive online course Building a Second Brain which focused on capturing, organizing, and sharing your knowledge using (digital) notes. It is a platform agnostic method for improving productivity wholly using the commonplace underpinning.

Google searches for this term will be heavily mixed in with results about the gastrointestinal system being the body’s “second brain”, the enteric nervous system, second brain tumors, a debunked theory that dinosaurs had two brains, and other general health-related topics.

Some websites, personal wikis and other online versions will use the phrase second brain, but they generally have no innovative features that are missing from prior efforts. Again, I view the phrase simply as marketing with no additional substance.

Digital Gardens

Informed heavily by their cultural predecessors in commonplace books, zettelkasten, and wikis, digital gardens are digital first note collections which are primarily public by default and encourage the idea of working in public.

Digital Gardens arose more formally in 2019 and 2020 out of the work and influence of Mark Bernstein’s 1998 essay Hypertext Gardens: Delightful Vistas, Ward Cunningham’s Smallest Federated Wiki (which just celebrated it’s 10th anniversary), Mike Caulfield’s essays including The Garden and the Stream: A Technopastoral as well as some influence from the broader IndieWeb Community and their focus on design and user interface.

Digital garden design can often use the gardening metaphor to focus attention on an active tending and care of one’s personal knowledge base and building toward new knowledge or creations. The idea of planting a knowledge “seed” (a note), tending it gradually over time with regular watering and feeding in a progression of 🌱 Seedlings → 🌿 Budding → 🌳 Evergreen is a common feature.

There are a growing number of people with personal digital gardens in public. Many are built on pre-existing wiki software like WikiMedia, the Smallest Federated Wiki, or TiddlyWiki, static site generators like Jekyll, note taking platforms like Obsidian Publish and Roam Research, or even out of common blogging software like WordPress. A growing common feature of these platforms is that they not only link out to resources on the open web, but contain bidirectional links within themselves using either custom code (in a wiki-like manner) or using the W3C Webmention specification.

The Future?

With luck, application and platform designers and users will come to know more about the traditions, uses, and workflows of our rich cultural note taking history. Beyond this there are a few innovations, particularly in the public-facing arena which could be useful, but which aren’t broadly seen or available yet.

Still missing from the overall personal knowledge and note taking space is a more tightly integrated version of both a garden and a stream (in Mike Caulfield’s excellent framing) that easily allows interaction between the two arenas. Some of the more blog-based sites with notes, bookmarks, articles and IndieWeb friendly building blocks like Webmention, feeds (RSS, JSON Feed, h-feed), Micropub, and Microsub integrations may come the closest to this ideal.

One of the most fascinating recent entrants on the scene is Flancian’s Anagora which he uses as a personal commonplace book in a wiki-esque style. Over other incarnations it also has the ability to pull in and aggregate the notes of other digital commonplace books to create a larger marketplace of ideas. It also includes collaborative note taking space using Etherpad, which I’ve seen as a standalone tool, but never integrated into a digital commonplace book.

Ultimately, my dream—similar to that of Bush’s—is for individual commonplace books to be able to communicate not only with their users in the Luhmann-esqe sense, but also communicate with each other.

Niklas Luhmann apparently said:

Ohne zu schreiben, kann man nicht denken; jedenfalls nicht in anspruchsvoller, anschlussfähiger Weise.

(Translation) You cannot think without writing; at least not in a sophisticated, connectable way.

I think his conceptualization of “connectable” was much more limited and limiting than he might have guessed. Vannevar Bush, as the academic advisor of Claude Shannon, the godfather of the modern digital age, was more prepared to envision it.

(Luhmann’s “you” in his quote is obviously only a Western cultural referent which erases the existence of oral based cultures which have other ways to do their sophisticated thinking. His ignorant framing on the topic shouldn’t be a shared one.)


This post has grown out of my own personal commonplace book, portions of which are on housed on my blog, in a wiki, and in a private repository of which I hope to make more public soon. Further thoughts, ideas and expansions of it are more than welcome.

I’ve slowly been updating pieces of the history along with examples on shared commonplaces in both the IndieWeb Wiki and Wikipedia under the appropriate headings. Feel free to browse those or contribute to them as you would, at least until our digital commonplace books can communicate with each other.

I’d also invite those who are interested in this topic and who have or want online spaces to do this sort of thing to join us at the proposed upcoming Gardens and Streams II IndieWebCamp Pop up session which is being planned for later this Summer or early Fall. Comment below, stop by the page or chat to indicate your interest in attending.