# Note hierarchies: Why do so few tools support them?

On my quest to start a Zettelkasten, I found that most Zettelkasten tools (listed here and on reddit) have no support for hierarchies. With that I mean, methods for promoting/demoting notes in a hierarchy or folding a lower level to reduce distraction.

In Luhmann's paper, this aspect seemed really important to him. And I can see how adding lower-level notes helps to keep notes simple and atomic. (Example: notes on cities are listed under notes for countries.)

As I am just starting with the Zettelkasten, I am worried that a non-hiearchical note list will become very confusing quickly. So, how are more experienced people handling this? Did you find software that does handle hierarchies well? Or, do you use summary notes and then link the individual parts?

Would be great to have your insight!

• If you have a Zettelkasten, everything looks like a Zettel.
• Or even potentially many Zettel!
• The blog post is about categories. I am talking about note hierarchies.

Category: You want to file all notes regarding biology in one folder. This doesn't work, because there are intersections with other categories.

Hierarchy: You have an idea for a product. Then, you add some ideas for its parts. Or, you have an argument and you have some points supporting that argument. These hierarchies evolve as you get a better understanding of a subject.

• edited August 11

@metaswirl

I believe you are talking about the use of "structure notes" - on them, you can set up all the structure / hierarchies that you want. Some people use them a lot; others (like me) use them infrequently. It all depends on how you are using your ZK.

One addition to using structure notes is to also have "hub notes" - you can consider these to be the highest level of your hierarchy and have them refer almost exclusively to structure notes. But you can also have several layers of hierarchy on a structure note, just by the way that you organize the information on it. But the structure notes are still, almost exclusively, just a list of links to various zettels.

To illustrate by an example from my own field of practise, you could have a hub note on "Engineering", which refers to structure notes on "Civil / Structural", "Geological" and "Mining" (amongst others; these are ones of interest to me). Then one structure note, say on "Civil / Structural" could refer to further sub-areas (dams, canals, buildings, etc.), under each of which is a list of links to related zettels, or it could refer to specific projects on which you are working. Totally flexible and totally up to you.

Viewed in this manner, structure notes are almost an "add-on", for those who want to impose a formal, external structure on their ZK. But the holy grail for the ZK, it seems, is the rather organic network of connections between zettels, which eschews hierarchy in favour of inter-connectedness.

• edited August 11

@metaswirl
As to 'why so few tools' support promoting/demoting, hierarchical folding, etc, I could speculate but I don't really know. Honestly, in my opinion, it doesn't really matter.

Fortunately, achieving such functionality is straightforward with capable editor. For example, if you use The Archive, an excellent piece of software, you could add an external text editor under Preferences -> Advanced -> External Editors.

When I was primarily using the The Archive, I used SublimeText with the MarkdownEditing and SmartMarkdown packages. Then just add note links per your desired hierarchy and fold them when you don't want to see them. For example:

# Continents
## Asia
### [[202011181103]] Note about Awesome Country in Asia
## Africa
### [[201814181503]] Note about Awesome Country in Africa


You can do something similar with any number of external editors, such as VSCode or even FoldingText - both of which are free.

If you're willing to take the deep dive into the mighty org-roam, as well as emacs and org-mode, this functionality is baked into the cake. Org-roam rides on top of org-mode. Org-mode is essentially just an outliner (with hidden super powers ).

Getting up to speed with emacs was a non-trivial task for me. A well-maintained framework such as doom emacs made the process easier... but not easy !

I wish you well with your zettelkasten journey. My own has proven informative and valuable in ways I could not have foreseen.

• I don't really understand the original problem. Let's say that the ZK tools in the wild all lack this capability -- what would it look like if you had to do it the cumbersome, manual way?>

@metaswirl said:

Hierarchy: You have an idea for a product. Then, you add some ideas for its parts. Or, you have an argument and you have some points supporting that argument. These hierarchies evolve as you get a better understanding of a subject.

This sounds like self-made overviews to me, too, in the form of structure notes, i.e. notes that are about the structure (here: the argument itself, linking to its premises etc.). Assembling these means making either a new note and adding links to the foundational parts, or editing/refashioning an existing note that's the de-facto entry point into the topic already to have the structural properties.

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

• Thank you both for your valuable feedback!

@GeoEng51
So, the way I get you is that the single hierarchy that for example Luhmann was using (1, 1.a, 1.b, 1.b.1, 2, etc.), is replaced by "structure notes" and "hub notes". To me the downside, is that you have (1) to find, open and read the respective structure notes and (2) manually maintain them (i.e., notes are not by default embedded in a structure). But, if this is the current best practice, then I will just try it out.

@kohled
Funny that you mention org mode. I was also considering using org mode, as a colleague had excellent experiences with it. But, I am a bit worried of the emacs learning curve . In any case, you are right, if I use structure notes, then I could simply fold the markdown itself. Good point!

I think there would be an advantage in having a hierarchical organization of the notes separate from the notes itself (like a note menu on the left or right of your editor). (Btw, from all the editors I tried, OneNote has the best support of this, but lacks other features.) But, this seems to be more of a nice-to-have. So I will try my luck with structure notes.

• As I am just starting with the Zettelkasten, I am worried that a non-hiearchical note list will become very confusing quickly. So, how are more experienced people handling this?

I started with the same worry. Breaking changes are scary.

In Luhmann's paper, this aspect seemed really important to him. And I can see how adding lower-level notes helps to keep notes simple and atomic. (Example: notes on cities are listed under notes for countries.)

AFAICS, the best Software tool that mimics Luhmann's hierarchy is Zkn3. It provides a tree view for the entire structure of the Zettelkasten. Note that Luhmann's Folgezettel is not a hierarchy of classification, so cities are not necessarily listed under notes for countries. He was working with a paper based Zettelkasten, meaning that editing the structure is very hard. The approach is to basically not edit the structure.

If you're looking into a purely software based solution I would also recommend using structure notes instead of Folgezettel (i.e., Luhmann's structure) based on personal preference. I don't think that a tree view is any bit less confusing, they are cumbersome to navigate (i.e. find, open and read). For comparison, have a look at Structure Notes

my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

• @ctietze
Sorry, I must have spent so much time on editing my answer, that I missed your answer completely.

From what I understand, Luhmann had a linear sequence of notes and, after each note he placed notes that add relevant points to it. So if you have an idea for a product X, you list notes on the product parts as X.1, X.2 and if necessary ideas on the part one as X.1.1 and so on.

This appeals to me, as you can immediately see the individual hierarchies for product X, Y, Z while you scroll through your notes. Functionality like folding/unfolding can limit the number of notes you see, while promoting (X.1 -> Y) or demoting (Y -> X.1) keeps your hierarchy flexible.

In contrast, the current solution seems to be, to define a "structure note" for product X and then link the note X.1, X.1.1, X.2 as subsections in the "structure note". The difference is that now instead of scrolling through your notes and seeing the hierarchy in passing, you explicitly have to open each structure note in turn.

The only software that I found that properly supports such hierarchies is OneNote. See below, for a small example. You can follow and adjust the hierarchy on the right and edit the file on the left. Alas, the other features of OneNote are not that promising.

• Was Luhmann really trying to create hierarchies? My impression was that he was really doing something else, but others will know better than I do.

For myself, over the years I have come to see hierarchical organisation of notes as a bad way to go. Any note in my archive might easily belong in several different places in any hierarchy I might devise. I much prefer to use smart searches, which constantly update as new material is added, and allow any note to appear in multiple contexts according to need. This is much more flexible and complete than manually assigning notes to positions in a hierarchy, which imposes a single predetermined structure on the material.

• Fair point. I do think Luhmann was at least in part using hierarchies to compensate for the manual labor involved with an analogue system.

Maybe there is a better system for browsing notes. Obsidian (and others) have introduced a graph view. Then again, to me this looks as if it may become overly complex with more than a hundred notes.

• @metaswirl As far as Luhmann is concerned, he devalued the "emerging structures" in his note sequences because this approach doesn't scale.

Take your own screenshot: if you start with notes on deadlocks, and then later think that a "concurrency" overview is warranted, with Luhmann's Folgezettel you'd be screwed because the "concurrency" note comes later than "deadlock" and so their position cannot reflect the hierarchy within the topic. Luhmann-Folgezettel-imitators have to live with this. You cannot impose hierarchy into the spontaneously growing mess of 90k notes that e.g. Luhmann had. (A lot of Folgezettel-aficionados on the web bring up examples consisting of a couple of notes to demonstrate how nice everything fits together, but totally ignore problems of scale.)

On a computer you can reorder things no problem. But note that this already has nothing to do with what Luhmann did. You want to impose order and hierarchy as you figure out which hierarchies you need.

Structure notes act like OneNote's sidebar, but they allow recombination.

You can write about "Concurrency in Go" and group the atomic notes under that heading, but also create another strucutre note about "Mutex implementations" that groups Go's mutex and others.

In programmer parlay, you can have multiple views into the same web of notes by re-ifying these views as structures. And these structures could be tables of contents

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

• @ctietze Okay, okay, I yield the point. No, seriously though, I see were you are going and I will give it a try.