Zettelkasten Forum

Thinking about metadata

I have been thinking about metadata and the role(s) it plays and can play using the Zettelkasten Method. As I search the blog and forum, metadata gets mentioned a lot, but I haven't found in-depth conversations about it. It seems many feel it is needed; others don't. Some take the multi-markdown approach placing it at or near the top. Others at the bottom of the Zettel to focus and emphasize the content instead.

My sense is most of us have metadata, I do, but wonder if there are other uses besides information we wish to retain with the Zettel to help give our future selves context. Are there other uses and values I haven't considered. Please share your views about metadata, pros, and cons and how you use it.

Also, a humble thank you to everyone that contributes to the site and forum. I have gleaned so much for all of you since March 2018 when I discover the Zettelkasten Method via —Gabe Weatherhead post at Macdrifter. From Christian (@ctietze) and Sacha (@sfast) to the most recent addition to the forum, @jburkhard and everyone in between I appreciate your contributions and help. I enjoy being a part of the forum and Zettelkasten.de. 🙂👍👏


  • First of: I do enjoy YAML metadata when writing for the web because it's so easy to strip off of the content. But for what I do in the Zettelkasten, it doesn't pay off. For any form of writing I do, I cannot just shove the Zettel into a processor of some sort and then be done; I always have to manually edit the text to add explanations, resolve links, and stuff like that. If I has a metadata block that was easy to extract, parse, and act upon, that wouldn't help me in the slightest in practice. I never did. I discovered this the hard way, and only through much cajoling by Sascha.

    So my metadata block consists of a title and a line for hashtags, that's it. Other metadata I have access to is backlinks (that aren't written in notes, but implicitly available through the Zettelkasten), citekey-based relations (can group notes much like tags in a full-text search), and image references.

    Back in the day I experimented with other annotations, like separating creation date from date updated; or "previous" and "next" relations for versioning notes. I also tried to annotate commentary in a way that the relationship between the original note and the comment would be expressed through metadata keys like "refutes: <<ID>>" or whatever, which ties into this question: https://forum.zettelkasten.de/discussion/890/how-do-you-deal-with-personal-questions

    But yeah, all that has gone away :)

    Author at Zettelkasten.de • https://christiantietze.de/

  • A bit of a bummer: I never used any metadata other than tags even as I asigned my Zettel with them.

    I am a Zettler

  • @MikeBraddock I do have some thoughts about metadata.

    As said before I am in the process of converting my notes archive (set up in 2013 using Douglas Barone's FSIM methodology) to a Zettelkasten-based setup. I do not take all notes with me, since the FSIM (Filesystem Infobase Manager) also considers lists, logs, and all kinds of material you have collected fair game. You don't have to think long and hard to see such a setup easily leads to falling victim to the collector's fallacy. Been there, done that, several times, and dredged myself up from those mucky turgid swamps (often by putting on yet another layer of rules or structuring, further complicating said setup for daily work).

    Having started using TextExpander somewhere early 2014, I started making snippets that expanded to different versions of YAML MMD metadata headers. Those made sense in the pluralistic universe that was my FSIM where you could meet a holiday postcard from a friend, a letter from the municipality about due taxes, notes on a meeting with my thesis advisor, a Plato quote, a file with javascript, and my half written draft for the introduction to my thesis. All fair game. To help me make sense of a lot of the different files I could encounter while navigating the Finder in MacOS (or Explorer in Windows for that matter) I thought it was a good idea to put some metadata in at least all text-based files.

    Some examples (of only the metadata headers) follow that I just now salvaged from old TextExpander settings.

    Call Notes my meeting notes only featured different top two elements

    Called: %|
    In Conference: |
    Project: <>
    Author: John
    Affiliation: <OCM/Fontys/TiU/etc>
    Web: [title](https://www.example.com)
    Date: %snippet:(ttm)%
    Last Edit: %snippet:(ttm)%
    Keywords: {#call } %snippet:xnvid%

    Regular Notes

    Title: %clipboard
    Subtitle: |
    Project: |
    Goal: |
    Author: John
    Affiliation: |<PRIVATE/ZZP/OCM/Fontys/TiU>
    Web: [title](https://www.example.com)
    Date: %snippet:(ttm)%
    Last Edit: %snippet:(ttm)%
    Keywords: {%|} %snippet:xnvid%

    Review Notes

    Title: %clipboard
    Subtitle: |
    Reviewed Work: |
    Reviewed Author: |
    Author: John
    Affiliation: |<PRIVATE/ZZP/OCM/Fontys/TiU>
    Web: [title](https://www.example.com)
    Date: %snippet:(ttm)%
    Last Edit: %snippet:(ttm)%
    Keywords: {%|} %snippet:xnvid%

    Explanation snippet shortcodes
    %snippet% is TypeExpander code where you can call other snippets. So the snippet 'xnvid' would expand to id%Y%m%d%H%M - i.e. id202002262055. The snippet '(ttm)' would expand to 2020-02-26 (20:55:55). %| would put the cursor there, %clipboard would paste your clipboard contents.

    Explanation metadata elements
    * Title: no explanation needed
    * Subtitle: sometimes notes needed this, or so I thought. Has since just moved to the first few lines of a note's body.
    * Project: back then I thought in projects. Sometimes I still do or need to, but then this is reflected in a tag or chain of linked notes with either a Structure note or Outline note (often as a work in progress, like a paper or other manuscript)
    * Goal: in retrospect this would have definitely helped Calls and Meetings notes, but somehow my younger self thought it hugely important to state goals in every damn text file he was writing (often was left empty or just deleted this line)
    * Author: may seem obvious but as the FSIM also allowed you to have incoming communications stored, this was thought to be relevant. Might still be if you work with someone else on a Zettelkasten project of shared research!
    * Affiliation: Yeah so my notes could either reflect my private life, my own business (zzp, Dutch for self-employed without any hired personnel), my record label, my work at Fontys as a lecturer, and my studies at Tilburg University. What a mess. As if the filename itself or a keyword couldn't give this away. I guess some of these tags do reflect my previous career as a datawarehouse specialist, being educated in knowledge/information management, always thinking about word systems and classification schemes. I've since mostly grown over this (I hope).
    * Web: because maybe you needed to link to something. This obviously is now in the note it self, and relevant sources are listed in a footer bibliographic entry.

    Current usage in a Zettelkasten setup
    In retrospect of now using the Zettelkasten setup to work on my notes there is obviously way too much in those headers. I nowadays only put Title and Keywords (=tags) in top of my files. The metadata I also keep on using are Date (now: File Creating Date) and Last Edit, this latter sometimes (depending on the sort of file) even becoming a shortish list of [[ ]] bracket enclosed timestamps and log entry as to the reason this file was worked on.

    For example (this comes from a buffer-like note that just has a list of Calls for Paper/Abstracts for academic conferences):

    [[id201611232008]] - Historical position
    [[201706292220]] - File creation date, 1st edit
    [[201709110925]] - Edit 2017 summer (after this, not much until 2018 Q3 due to focus on thesis)
    [[201808061541]] - Edit 2018 Q3 to reflect new CFP acceptance
    [[201809232325]] - Edit yearly returning conferences added
    [[201810251603]] - Edit 2018 Q4: RaAM conferences, Evolution Evolving Cambridge
    [[201901212238]] - Edit 2019 jan: cleanup, focus on Reception American Pragmatism in Europe,
    [[201903152313]] - Edit 2019 mrt: cleanup, focus on article Dynamics w/o a Framework?, Metaphor Fest 2019 submission
    [[201904032049]] - Edit 2019 april: cleanup, Understanding Value VIII

    New metadata in Zettelkasten for specific notes
    Both due to the research I focus on (metaphors) and the extended literature that is slightly outside of my comfort zone (studies on language and meaning from neuroscience and the lot), I have had to resort to structuring specific Zettels. I have a Brain Anatomy Note , Cognitive Bias Note and a Metaphor Note template, as well as more standard philosophical templates like Argument Zettel and Debate (1+ Argument) Zettel in my TextExpander setup. Those are not so much metadata based, but offer a standard recurrent structural setup of the Zettel itself for easy comparison or readability.

    Hopefully this is not too specific and does give people something to think about regarding metadata.

    @MikeBraddock what is the sort of metadata you yourself have and use in ways that aren't standard?

    I am a Zettler, ie 'one who zettles'
    research: pragmatism, 4e cognitive science, metaphor | you can't be neutral on a moving train

  • I am in the early days of building zettels in The Archive and don't have anything consistent or standard. For this discussion post, I did this at the bottom of the note.

    Yeah, I too use Textexpander extensively. Metadata was much more prevalent in my notes during my career.

    I am questioning its value now. I was hoping to find or think of so another way they add value other than providing context about the Zettel and its contents.

    My thought with the above metadata is I might have a desire in the future to see anything I published in 2020. Since the "Publish Date:" key is easily remembered and likely to be consistent in my use of it. I could search for:

      "Publish Date: 2020"


      #ZkForum AND "Publish Date: 2020"

    Then I could build a structured index note with SEARCH links

    Basically thinking about how metadata could be used to help filter searches and be more useful then blocks of text about context. Could metadata help me have more interesting and varied conversations with my Zettelkasten?

  • @MikeBraddock I'm being inspired by this tread to simplify. Remove redundancy. I've streamlined my metadata block to just two lines. I include the note's link so I can get the backlinks in the note list (all the notes in the note list in the image below are backlinks to "Solutions have problems".) This where I'd put tags if I put tags on a note. Simple. Low overhead. With full search and search of only text in titles, I feel I'm covered.

    Will Simpson
    I'm a Zettelnant.
    Research: Attention Horizon, Dzogchen, Non-fiction Creative Writing

  • @John, I appreciate your comments and insights, thank you.
    @Will you make a good point about, "Simple. Low overhead." 👍 Plus it looks much cleaner and less cluttered.

    I have found these takeaways from this discussion:

    1. Keep it simple.
    2. Used what you need, need what you use.

    Thanks to everyone for your input.

    Does anyone use their Zettelkasten and metadata as part of a markdown file-based static website generation process?

  • @MikeBraddock said:
    Does anyone use their Zettelkasten and metadata as part of a markdown file-based static website generation process?

    I do. Notes destined for my "file-based static website generation process" as such a small subset that I don't clutter them at creation time with pandoc/latex/html metadata in advance but only as needed and I use a combo of text expander and Keyboard Maestro and MassReplaceIt for that work flow depending of the target output is.

    Will Simpson
    I'm a Zettelnant.
    Research: Attention Horizon, Dzogchen, Non-fiction Creative Writing

  • @Will, thank you, you are always super helpful!

    Years ago I downloaded a static site generator written in PHP and experimented with it on my local webserver. It didn't stick with me because I spent a bunch of time customizing it and finally decided it was more of a distraction than a benefit.

    In the audiophile world, some listen to their music and some listen to their gear. I found listening to my gear an easy distraction to fall into. While It is fun to fiddle, when I refocus on the music I am much happier.

    What you described sounds like a lightweight workflow(?), which appeals to me and would fit my use case nicely. I am pretty sure I can make that work. I've just installed pandoc and will play around and experiment with that.

    I visited your website linked in your signature (very nice, well done!). Does it include output from the workflow you described above?

  • Coming from a history of static generators using markdown (Jekyll, Grav, Hugo, Eleventy) when I first read about timestamps and linking in ZK my first thought was YAML front matter! I have set up a user snippets in VS Code to create a new file and prompt for the filename, then populate a basic YAML section, auto-generate a timestamp and prompt me for the file title and tags. I am planning on eventually including my Zettelkasten files in an Eleventy site where I commit changes to a private GitHub repo (for backup purposes) and run the site locally to make browsing through my notes and links easier. I hope I can limit the YAML to these three items...

  • @ctietze I am interested in this concept.

    For any form of writing I do, I cannot just shove the Zettel into a processor of some sort and then be done; I always have to manually edit the text to add explanations, resolve links, and stuff like that.

    Can you provide some insight about limitations you where facing with this approach?

    I also tried to annotate commentary in a way that the relationship between the original note and the comment would be expressed through metadata keys like refutes: <<ID>> or whatever.

    Why is this a bad idea? When two Zettel are in discordance to each other then establishing a connection is the right thing to do.

    my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

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