Zettelkasten Forum

Bibliographic Notes

This post could just as easily have gone in the Workflows category, but I ultimately thought it would live better here.

I have been debating about the use of so-called "literature notes" for a while now (actually, since I first learned of them). The definition seemed a bit nebulous. Reading Ahrens's book, I got the impression that literature notes were more or less bibliographic entries. They had references to some pages along with keywords and key ideas, but were mostly used for reference. And, being so, they were stored. They were permanent.

Then, reading here, I got the impression from Christian and many others that literature notes were literally notes taken on the literature (or in a notebook): marginalia, brief comments, reminders, etc. Their goal under this view is to be processed and either discarded or converted into permanent notes. Being so, they are thrown away after processing. They are temporary.

I was confused at such different uses of the same term. My confusion was compounded by how I instinctively thought of literature notes: as notes concerning the literature. This would include the bibliographic information, summaries of the book, main ideas, and outlines where appropriate. This, I suppose, is a combination of both the above views, and is probably the reason I got so confused: I thought everyone was talking about the same thing, and I tried to reconcile it, when really they were two different views. To make things even worse, the view of literature notes I found in Christian and others was basically how I thought of fleeting notes. So, now there was confusion between fleeting notes and literature notes, too.

Seeing all the confusion around this term, I have decided to ditch it entirely. I am now using the (I think) more descriptive term "bibliographic notes." These notes have a clear purpose in my system. They contain bibliographic information as well as a description of the source. This description includes, at minimum:

  • A one-sentence summary (to jolt the memory when reviewing. This also tests my understanding of the book as a whole)
  • Key topics and ideas
  • Related sources and zettels
  • An evaluation (Did it meet its stated goals? Is it useful or insightful? Would I recommend it to someone? Would I read it again?)

This minimum can be expanded as necessary. Denser books will have more than just a sentence -- maybe even a few paragraphs. Some might even warrant an outline.

Now, I have pretty clear-cut categories for my different kinds of notes. Fleeting notes (or just notes) are temporary, and are processed into permanent notes (or zettels). Bibliographic notes serve as references, yet another way to link ideas together, and as containers for my own understanding of different sources (useful for creating annotated bibliographies later on, which I am fond of -- and have need of, as a student!).

Of course, there are many more types of notes you could classify, but these are the essentials for me. If you really wanted to, you could classify bibliographic notes as a kind of permanent note, and just have two types: those within the ZK, and those without; processed and unprocessed; zettels and notes. However, I like having some other conventions for my own structuring.

I thought this insight was worth sharing -- hopefully you gained something out of it! I am also open for any suggestions for improvement or questions.


  • I think "bibliographic notes" is an okay term, too, and better than "literature note", but as you know I'm not a fan of (almost) any categorization :) If I take notes about a book before processing, it's not part of my Zettelkasten, and this binary distinction is all that matters in practice. Sorry if I caused more confusion in passing, though ;)

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

  • My experience of note-taking on computers since about 1990 leads me to conclude that, for my use-case at least, categorising notes is no help at all. I've tried it, and it was a lot of work for no discernible benefit (for the kind of work I was doing). Nowadays I just use tags, which is a lot more flexible. For me, notes are notes are notes -- plain and simple. The content is what counts, not what category it might belong to. And if I can't tell what the note is about from looking at the content, then something has gone wrong in the writing of it.

  • Replying to both @MartinBB and @ctietze , I agree that a focus on categorization is not helpful. However, I think convention is helpful -- and language to name conventions can be too. The difference is nuanced, but I think it comes down to this: categories are imposed, conventions are exposed. By the latter I mean that they are discovered as natural trends and then named (or not). Of course, there are exceptions and overlap, but this is a generalization.

    I touched on this at the end of my post: you could call what I am calling "bibliographic notes" just one form of permanent note, because 1) it is in the Zettelkasten, and 2) it has all the hallmark features of a zettel (translation of ideas into your own words, links to other notes, etc.). In other words, I am not viewing this as something entirely different from permanent notes, just a variation upon them. There are as many variations on zettels as there are ideas, but some variations are common enough that they merit a name. In other words, what I am naming bibliographic notes came out of a natural tendency for me to write (and want to write) these kinds of notes on my sources. The naming part (what this post was about) was the process of me realizing this trend and giving it a name. I think a name helps because 1) it aids in communication with other people, and 2) with the use of tags, it becomes searchable.

    Here are a few use cases:

    • A friend wants recommendations for books on a certain topic. I search for bibliographic notes related to that topic, check my notes on them, and find a few suitable ones.
    • I am writing an annotated bibliography on, say, the music of Claude Debussy. I search my bibliographic notes for any related to that topic, and I practically already have the whole thing written. Any gaps I can fill by looking through links and following footnotes.
    • I rediscover a book I had forgotten about after following a rabbit trail of links. This leads me to the ideas discussed in that book, and so on.
    • I want to contrast the viewpoints of two different authors, say, Darwin and William Paley. I look at the bibliographic notes for their respective books and find some of the key points of each (along with my analysis thereof) and where they disagree.
    • Etc., etc., etc.

    Well, I hope that all made sense. Let me know what your thoughts are.

  • @Sev_L said:
    categories are imposed, conventions are exposed

    How one understands these terms no doubt depends on one's field of study. I have a background in psychology, so I am used to the idea that categorisation is a basic building block of cognition, and it goes on all the time below the level of consciousness. See the Wikipedia article on the subject. Conventions are socially constructed (by definition a convention is something that is agreed upon by many people and is not limited to a single individual). Some conventions may indeed be imposed by social pressure, if not by actual rules.

    Having said that, I think some of the confusion that has arisen comes from people reading Ahrens's book and taking some of its ideas as a statement of what is involved in the Zettelkasten method, and then being surprised to find that others disagree with his formulation. (I should say that I have not read the book, I am surmising based on the posts I have read here.) As far as I can tell, some of the ideas he puts forward were not part of Luhmann's method or conceptualisation. Whether or not these additions or "tweaks" are useful must depend on individuals and their preferences.

    As to establishing a common terminology, I think that is unlikely to happen. People will read different things in different places and will very probably cling to the first terminology they found -- a bit like learning a mother tongue. When you go abroad, you have to learn the language of the new country. It is all part of the adaptation. But adaptation is made easier by not having "unnecessary" :) conventions to follow.

    As to your use cases, I can see why you might find them useful. I suppose it is a bit different for me in that I use a bibliographic manager (Bookends) and I suppose the logical place for me to write an evaluation of a whole book or article would be in that database (it allows you to give "star" ratings to items, among other things, as well as tags, and is where I keep all my pdfs, so there is a direct link with originals). I don't have a habit of writing comments that apply to a whole book or article, however. I'm more interested in extracting small "bits" from the text and concentrating on those.

  • @MartinBB said:
    My experience of note-taking on computers since about 1990 leads me to conclude that, for my use-case at least, categorising notes is no help at all. ... Nowadays I just use tags, which is a lot more flexible. For me, notes are notes are notes -- plain and simple.

    I'm in complete agreement with this.

    GitHub. Erdős #2. CC BY-SA 4.0. Problems worthy of attack / prove their worth by hitting back. -- Piet Hein.

Sign In or Register to comment.