Zettelkasten Forum


Zettelkasten for historical research?

Can I, as an historian, use a Zettelkasten for my research? For me, history is a way of connecting various pieces of evidence from the past, both diachronically (connecting similar items over time) and synchronically (connecting different items from the same time), to find patterns and to draw conclusions. A Zettelkasten would therefore seem an ideal tool for making these connections and helping to draw the relevant conclusions. However, the way I work doesn't seem to fit the Zettelkasten 'method' described in this forum, especially in relation to reading notes.

The first stage of my work is to collect the evidence, usually from various different primary sources. This usually involves noting the evidence verbatim. I may summarise it later, but I need to work from the original evidence complete and to quote it if necessary. As I collect the evidence, I am drawing tentative conclusions. These may well conflict with what has been written in certain secondary sources and, in order to be fair to these writers, I often need to note their argument in full. In addition to these complications, I regularly have to consult books and manuscripts in libraries some distance away, often involving overnight stays. I cannot afford the time (or money) to go back again if my notes are not clear and full. I may therefore make notes of the exact language used. Even on my computer I use the old-fashioned method I originally learned for hand-written index cards: place direct quotes in "quotation marks", leave any paraphrasing plain, end with a detailed page (or even line) reference, and then preface all my comments with my initials. I also do the electronic equivalent of pasting images onto cards, using similar rules. And then I need to keep these notes for future reference, since all my conclusions must ultimately be based on primary evidence. And when I disagree with another historian, their writing becomes, for that purpose, primary evidence. So whilst some of my reading notes may summarise points in my own words, many of them are very full, and certainly I expect to keep all of them long term.

I was hoping the Zettelkasten with its links would then let me collect the evidence together and sort it; that it would help determine the synchronic context; and that it would allow me to compare my comments and conclusions with those of other historians. Might this be possible? Or should I look for another method?

Comments

  • @pgrhowarth I have written history, too, though that is not what I am doing at the moment. I don't think it is necessary to be too "purist" about the Zettelkasten method. I think that probably almost any method will need some adaptation for individual needs. It might even be seen as one of the strengths of this method that it will stand some adaptation and still be very useful. I myself have adopted some elements of the method and have been less than religious with others. I don't see this as a problem. There are no guarantees, but it is worth trying the method for a while and seeing if it is useful to you, or if you can tweak it to be useful.

    Only a few days ago I wrote a post on this forum describing my working method for history in terms very similar to yours.

  • @MartinBB, I have read with gratitude some of your very reassuring descriptions, posted elsewhere on the forum, of how you keep your notes archive. That has really encouraged me to have a go and use those parts of the ZK method that suit me and not worry about the rest. Very many thanks!

  • @pgrhowarth Glad it was some sort of help. Best of luck with the journey!

  • @MartinBB I have read with great interest @pgrhowarths musings about the Zettelkasten method for historical research. Being a historian who is just getting started with Zettelkasten (using Obsidian by the way), I think your post about your working method for history could help me a lot. But I can't find it anywhere in the forum – could you in some way make it available for me? Thanks a lot!

  • @tevka said:
    @MartinBB I have read with great interest @pgrhowarths musings about the Zettelkasten method for historical research. Being a historian who is just getting started with Zettelkasten (using Obsidian by the way), I think your post about your working method for history could help me a lot. But I can't find it anywhere in the forum – could you in some way make it available for me? Thanks a lot!

    I find I have made around 260 posts on this forum, so I'm not sure which one I was referring to. And I'm not sure it would be all that helpful, as I don't usually discuss method in any detail. Perhaps it is this post, and the one above it on the same thread: https://forum.zettelkasten.de/discussion/comment/12160/#Comment_12160. But I always think it is best to learn by doing. What works for one person will not work for another, and we all have to adapt methods to our own needs.

  • edited February 18

    Luhmann is on record saying one should not get bogged down with excerpts; however in reality he took down many excerpts. Especially in his first Zettelkasten. The Zettelkasten is valuable for organizing your thoughts around ideas (instead of organized around book title) and then evolving them in the short-term (which for me is most effectively done by writing by hand), and then in the long term by adding new cards behind the forming idea(s).

    The other note types (besides excerpts) are “reformulations” (as Luhmann referred to them) which are summaries in your own words. And “reflections” which add your own interpretations and reasonings. Assuming you wish to add your own “reflections” to your work, then a Zettelkasten will be helpful for you.

    Scott P. Scheper
    Website | Twitter | Reddit | YouTube

  • @scottscheper said:
    Luhmann is on record saying one should not get bogged down with excerpts (...)
    The other note types (besides excerpts) are “reformulations” (as Luhmann referred to them) which are summaries in your own words. And “reflections” which add your own interpretations and reasonings. Assuming you wish to add your own “reflections” to your work, then a Zettelkasten will be helpful for you.

    To which source are you refering?

    I am a Zettler

  • To which source are you refering?

    His Short Cuts book, last chapter.

    Scott P. Scheper
    Website | Twitter | Reddit | YouTube

  • edited February 19

    I then think you are making is statement on excerpts stronger than it actually is. In "Lesen Lernen" ("Learning how to read"), there is just one mentioning of excerpts. This one mentioning is to pinpoint what he means by taking notes, not to put down excerpts.

    I am a Zettler

  • edited February 19

    There’s also a card created in his section on Zettelkasten of his own Zettelkasten that says “Not excerpts!”

    I’m on my phone right now so don’t have a link off the top of my head. Will try and find it in Zotero

    Scott P. Scheper
    Website | Twitter | Reddit | YouTube

  • Here it is: https://niklas-luhmann-archiv.de/bestand/zettelkasten/zettel/ZK_2_NB_9-8d_V

    “Not: excerpts!”

    Can you better translate this from German to English to clarify what you think Luhmann means?

    Also are you already familiar with this card?

    Scott P. Scheper
    Website | Twitter | Reddit | YouTube

  • edited February 19

    In my opinion, Luhmann follows the “do what I say not what I do” trap a bit because there are plenty of excerpts in his first and second Zettelkasten

    Scott P. Scheper
    Website | Twitter | Reddit | YouTube

  • @scottscheper said:
    Here it is: https://niklas-luhmann-archiv.de/bestand/zettelkasten/zettel/ZK_2_NB_9-8d_V

    “Not: excerpts!”

    Can you better translate this from German to English to clarify what you think Luhmann means?

    Also are you already familiar with this card?

    Yes. I know every card (there aren't too many) in this area of his ZKII.

    The translation would be: "Feedback to reading: one reads different if one is mindful to the possibility of zettelising -- not: excerpts."

    A more readable sentence would be: "You read differently if you read with your Zettelkasten in mind."

    @scottscheper said:
    In my opinion, Luhmann follows the “do what I say not what I do” trap a bit because there are plenty of excerpts in his first and second Zettelkasten

    In his article "Communication with Zettelkastens", he mentions that excerpts just are worth it if the wording of the quote is exceptionally good. It could be that he did it because he actually wanted the quote itself and not only the embedded idea.

    I am a Zettler

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