# Literature notes in Zotero or in main Zettelkasten?

Greetings, I have just discovered the Zettelkasten method and am in the process of setting up my Zettelkasten. I am an academic researcher in the humanities.

Sönke Ahrens recommends putting Literature Notes (summaries of texts read) in a reference manager like Zotero. What are the advantages of doing this as opposed to putting it in the main Zettelkasten software? Disadvantages seem to be that links, backlinks, and searching are not possible in Zotero notes. I cannot see any clear advantages, but maybe I am missing something?

• No, you are not missing anything.

Zotero is a great reference manager but a poor zettelkasten. Notes take while reading is best entered directly into your zettelkasten. This makes them available for factoring and editing in place. Keeping marked-up PDFs of papers in Zotero makes sense, but the ideas flushed from them are best kept in my zettelkasten.

Will Simpson
“Read Poetry, Listen to Good Music, and Get Exercise”
kestrelcreek.com

• The reason for putting the "literature notes" in a separate system is that they do not add value to the slipbox in the same way a "permanent note" does. As Sonke says

"As literature notes are also a tool for understanding and grasping the text, more elaborate notes make sense in more challenging cases, while in easier cases it might be sufficient to just jot down some keywords"

Having a bunch of small notes with a few keywords scattered throughout your zettelkasten makes the zettelkasten more cluttered / useless. What is of true value is the permanent notes that get created from them. So by having them separate you are keeping your zettelkasten from getting diluted with crap. Would be kind of like filling your zettelkasten with a bunch of empty slips of paper throughout.

The permanent notes you want to keep isolated and in its own system because it keeps the utility of the system.

With how the current note software are set up, I don't think this is as important anymore. I use Obsidian and just have one folder titled Bibliography that has all these notes.

@wherahiko let me know if the above doesn't make sense (typing this right before bed)

• @Nick, I at least think you make perfect sense, but I am not sure your point stands. If your "summaries of texts read" are well crafted, they are good zettels. Your summary of a given text is your idea of that text after all.

• as @Nick already mentioned A. Sonke mimics the 2 Zettelkästen (slip-box) Luhmann used. They are separate systems that communicate with each other by references. This also means that they have different behaviour: the bibliographic Zettelkasten only provides links to bibliographic details, while the main one uses references to notes (permanent notes).

Using Zotero is only one solution provided. Searches are typically in the form of author, year. Links, backlinks are not used for bibliographic Zettelkästen.

describing notes (Literature notes) as summaries of texts read is misleading. They do not summarise the text, they summarise the read, i.e. what you found and haven't found, by reading it, how you found it, where you found it, etc.

my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

• Frankly, I could never quite relate to the distinction and separation between literature notes and "my" "permanent" notes. Most of the problems I deal with are literature problems which can't be divorced from their source. I can't talk about the dialectical development of history outside the context of Hegel's specific work on the philosoohy of history. It's something that makes sense only as a note on his book, and yet it is precisely this note which I want remembered as part of my second brain. For a fairly exegetical field like philosophy that mostly deals with the analysis of works and their constituent ideas rather than just general problems, the distinction seems impractical. As such, I keep the two kinds of notes in one place, but I don't keep detailed bibliographical information there (that's my use for Zotero).

• If you acurately extracted the thought from the text you read, there is no reason to not just create a Zettel right away. If you didn't extract the tought from the text acurately, you cannot create a note.

So, if you created a good (so called) literature note it is actually appropriate to just put it into your Zettelkasten ("permanent note"). From bad "literature note" there is no possibility to create any acurate "permanent note".

So, if you have to work thoroughly and acurately from the beginning the distinction between "literature note" and "permanent note" does not make sense. So, either create a Zettel or don't.

I am a Zettler

• @Privid said:
I could never quite relate to the distinction and separation between literature notes and "my" "permanent" notes... I keep the two kinds of notes in one place...

There is only one type of note. It starts as a rough first draft. If you pump energy into the zettelkasting process, it will mature, either growing into a structure note, the hub of a thought map, or becoming more and more focused through editing, becoming smaller and smaller until it is atomic in nature. Notes become more interconnected with other thought maps as they mature. This process takes time, and there is no foretelling what the future holds for a particular zettel.

Will Simpson
“Read Poetry, Listen to Good Music, and Get Exercise”
kestrelcreek.com

• @zk_1000 said:
... they summarise the read, i.e., what you found and haven't found, by reading it, how you found it, where you found it, etc.

All notes start like this. It could be sourced from what we read, heard, seen, conjured, but all notes are about what you find. How could they be anything else?

From here, they mature or don't. My zettelkasten is full of notes that seem useless now, but at the time they were birthed I thought they had the potential for mastery. Who knows, who can tell, not me, they may spring back to life. Some have and I'm happy I didn't cull them or force them into some other form.

Will Simpson
“Read Poetry, Listen to Good Music, and Get Exercise”
kestrelcreek.com

• @Will said:

@Privid said:
I could never quite relate to the distinction and separation between literature notes and "my" "permanent" notes... I keep the two kinds of notes in one place...

There is only one type of note. It starts as a rough first draft. If you pump energy into the zettelkasting process, it will mature, either growing into a structure note, the hub of a thought map, or becoming more and more focused through editing, becoming smaller and smaller until it is atomic in nature. Notes become more interconnected with other thought maps as they mature. This process takes time, and there is no foretelling what the future holds for a particular zettel.

I'm not sure I follow (i.e., do) what you are saying, @Will. It's one way to do it, but not the only way. When I'm reading or listening to something, I take rought notes - usually using something like a Cornell notes template, if I'm writing by hand, or just typing in iA Writer, in point form. Then afterwards, I review those rought notes and distill them down into a few essential / atomic notes, i.e., zettles, which of course go into my ZK.

However, I don't really make any distinction between "literature notes" and other kinds of notes. Once a zettel is written, it's a zettel. It may evolve, as you describe.

So I guess my only point of departure is that I take rough notes that never make it into my ZK, but are used as the basis for writing zettels. I believe that is consistent with the process that Ahrens describes, although that's the way I've always taken notes. What is new for me is the distillation process and then working within a ZK.

• @GeoEng51 said:
When I'm reading or listening to something, I take rought notes - usually using something like a Cornell notes template, if I'm writing by hand, or just typing in iA Writer, in point form.

What you are describing are a few examples of the "rough first draft" of a zettel. Sometimes these are electronic, sometimes scribbles on paper. As they get transcribed into zettel, they get edited into v2. This process continues to v3, v4, v5 ... evolving both it and you.

Then afterwards, I review those rought notes and distill them down into a few essential / atomic notes, i.e., zettles, which of course go into my ZK.

What you describe is the process of "pumping energy into the zettelkasting process, either growing it into a structure note, the hub of a thought map, or becoming more and more focused through editing, becoming smaller and smaller until it is atomic in nature."

Will Simpson
“Read Poetry, Listen to Good Music, and Get Exercise”
kestrelcreek.com

• @Will

Yes, I agree with your comments. The only distinction I am making is that I don't consider the "rough first draft" notes to be part of my ZK and they aren't entered as such. They just exist in a separate file, to which I refer when I start creating the "real" zettels. There is so much paring down and distillation that goes on between the rough notes and the first zettels, that I don't feel it is useful to include the rough notes within my ZK.

• @GeoEng51 said:
They just exist in a separate file, to which I refer when I start creating the "real" zettels.

Get a zettel fetus "on boarded" takes varied steps based on how captured. Some ideas are captured as marginalia in physical books, some captured in physical notebooks, digital books, digital notebooks, videos, podcasts, audio recordings, and the back of napkins. Some require scanning, some transcription, some are easily cut and paste into the zettelkasten. I'm suggesting that they can be entered whole cloth without censoring or editing into the zettelkasten. Then these embryotic notes can be tossed as they have done what they are supposed to do, birthed the idea for entry into the "Machine of Imagination."

The question I'm responding to is, "Should I keep a collection of these raw "rough first draft" notes, calling the "literature notes"? Or does entering them roughly and morphing/editing them in place make more sense, maturing to v2 and beyond? Once the note has morphed to v2, the v1 is gone! Good riddance! As soon as v2 is edited to v3, the evidence of a v2 is impossible to find, ad infinitum, hopefully.

This little video show how a note grows and matures. This was a PDF but could have easily been an audio transcription from a Zoom call. Because a PDF is so easy to stick in the media directory, it was saved. But after initial editing of the notes from the PDF, it becomes digital detritus.

When you have 2238 zettel, you have to think a lot about Opportunity Costs 201901282030.

Will Simpson
“Read Poetry, Listen to Good Music, and Get Exercise”
kestrelcreek.com

• edited August 2021

I don't necessarily see them as rough first draft notes, I see them as two different types of notes.

Literature notes are written in the direct context of the book you are taking them from (e.g. X idea from Y page of Z book).

Permanent notes are taken out of that context and written in the context of developing ideas within your zettelkasten.

So you put the literature notes in a separate place because they don't add to your zettelkasten in the same way that a note written directly for the zettelkasten does. But you don't throw them out because sometimes it can be useful in go back and seeing the original context the note comes from.

In my own workflow, the literature notes are essentially the idea index for each book I read. I keep them in a separate folder within my vault titled Bibliography. They aren't part of my main vault because they don't add value in the same way.

P.S. this is all kind of arbitrary though in a digital system, as I can easily format the literature notes to be ignored for searching or random notes.

• The last two posts certainly describe two different ways of looking at the initial notes you take when reading or listening. I tend to think more along the lines of what @Nick describes and thus see those initial notes as separate from my ZK. But I can understand @Will 's perspective and approach as well.

@wherahiko You may have to think about your own question a bit, in light of all the responses it has generated, and decide what approach you want to try first. Note that I stress "try" and "first". There is nothing wrong with trying various approaches before you settle on one that makes the most sense to you or seems to work the best. I'm sure your ZK practice will evolve for quite some time - be patient with yourself .

• I'm an historian and I am concerned with (a) evidence, (b) how to connect different facts, and (c) the conclusions that can then be drawn. When I read 'literature', i.e. primary or secondary works on history, I rarely write summaries. I pick out certain passages that I either copy verbatim or I paraphrase. Many notes are a mixture of both. I copy verbatim evidence that I may want to use later on, or descriptions that I find particularly effective. I paraphrase a passage in order to provide context for my comments. These may be agreeing or disagreeing with what is written, applying the principle proposed to a different area, linking the passage to a previous note, or asking a question that may lead to further research. My comments often lead to 'higher-level' notes, which in turn may produce further notes. But in all cases, I keep my notes permanently, as evidence of historical facts, of writers' opinions, and of my own opinions, as they develop. They are all needed, because whatever I write or think, at a higher level or lower, must in the end refer back to the contemporary evidence, as recorded in my first-level notes.

That is one way of doing things. There are other ways that will suit other areas of knowledge or research better. We must each choose our own method -- or better said, gradually develop our own method.

• Thank you, everyone, for your detailed responses. There is much food for thought here and I have learnt a lot about the ZK method just from reading them. I will explore these ideas in the next few weeks and will post back here again later to let you know how I get on!