Zettelkasten Forum


Do you throw away literature notes?!

Hi there people. I’m fairly new to the zettlekasten system. I have some things to ask you guys.

Do you throw away your literature notes and fleeting notes after turning them into permanent notes?

I have been taking literature notes for a couple of days now and it’s getting difficult and difficult lately to organize them.

Should I just throw them away?

Or should I keep and organize them despite it taking a lot of time?

Or should I keep them without organizing?

Should I keep fleeting and literature notes?
  1. Should I keep fleeting and literature notes?10 votes
    1. No throw them away
      30.00%
    2. Keep them and organize them
      60.00%
    3. Keep them but don’t organize
      10.00%

Comments

  • I have a bit of a different system than most in this forum. I have three Google Drive folders - "permanent notes", "fleeting notes" and "literature notes". No organization other than using keywords and links. I don't throw any of them away (yet).

  • But there’s a huge friction in your system. Taking fleeting notes have to be as frictionless as taking a pencil and start writing.

  • edited August 22

    It depends what kind of knowledge you take away from the source.

    If it suggested a theory, I'd link to the literature note as evidence/data for the theory.

    I keep all literature notes because sometimes I want to remember what I took away from a specific book or article.

    Sometimes I take nothing away because nothing said resonates with me or my research.

    Zettelkasten is love. Zettelkasten is life.

  • Keeping them all. I use my ZK also as my literature repository. The organization is that every source (book, article) gets its own literature note, named as Author(s)_Year_Title). This literature note contains the reference, a link to the digital source and any reading notes. Links to this literature note go on the relevant hubs or literature lists.

    My reading notes range from very brief, e.g., just a tag or a comment such as "not relevant for project x", to pages and pages of text. I process reading notes into more permanent notes, but not necessarily in their entirety; only the parts that are relevant for the development of my ZK at this moment. Therefore, part of the reading notes may be left unprocessed (for now). Also I often revisit sources, some of them many times, and then the notes from previous readings come in handy.

  • Imagine having one literature note with two pieces of knowledge. You divide those two pieces up and create out of each a permanent (atomic) note. You wrote the literature note in a concise way. So, you just needed to copy and paste the content.

    You started with one ("literature") note and ended up with two ("permanent") notes.

    Did you keep the literature note or not?

    My answer to that question is that the question doesn't make any sense. The whole purpose of taking notes is to handle knowledge.

    I am a Zettler

  • I craft my literature notes in my zettelkasten, divide any ideas into the atomic notes that I want to keep, and then I cut and paste all the literature notes into Zotero, my bibliography repository. I do this so my notes are saved, but not duplicated in my slip box.

  • I don't like the categorisation of "fleeting/literature/permanent notes" and I don't use it. Notes are notes. About the only notes I conceptualise differently are what you might call "hub notes", in other places called "Maps of Content" (MOC), or structure notes.

  • No, I don't throw away "literature notes." What Ahrens terms a "literature note" is for me a citation in Zotero. I might copy citations on paper, possibly with annotations. Arhens calls such notes, "fleeting literature notes," but I agree with Martin BB--there's no need to make a fetish out of "literature notes" etc. Maybe it's useful to have a common language, provided the terms are clear enough. Most of these terms were introduced into English inadvertently on account of the English translation of Ahrens's book.

    Erdős #2. ZK software components. “If you’re thinking without writing, you only think you’re thinking.” -- Leslie Lamport. Replies delayed, sometimes indefinitely since Life is short.

  • Hm, I thought that @joni80's question was a good one and I don't see the problem with carefully thinking about different types of notes in a ZK. I think on this forum there are long discussions on structure notes etc., so why not on literature notes?

    Of course, there may be different use-cases and everyone should absolutely do whatever fits their case. My specific use case is academic, hence the importance (to me) of the literature note, and keeping track of which concept came from which source. Hard experience has taught me not to throw away these things too easily.

    @sfast: why does the question not make sense? Of course we will all agree that the purpose of a note is to handle knowledge, but there may be different ways of handling knowledge, for example a) "handle once": making two permanent notes from the literature note and then throwing the literature note away, or b) "keep" to keep open the option of in-depth processing later or re-visiting the source. Are those not relevant, but different ways of handling knowledge?

    @MartinBB: so you do categorize notes, just this specific categorization does not fit your use case. But notes are not notes, because you do use hubs and structure notes.

    @ZettelDistraction: why is it a "fetish" to carefully think about how to handle your notes? By the way, your post indicates that you do take literature notes and you put them in Zotero. Is that so different from putting them into TheArchive and labeling them "literature note"?

    Personally, I do not use fleeting vs permanent notes, as everything tends to be temporary, even when it may take years to be properly processed or fit together. I do however, have a number of different notes categories, mostly following Umberto Eco's How to write a thesis, and identified by the relevant tags:

    • hubs (Eco's thematic notes)
    • structurenotes
    • bibliographic notes
    • reading notes (= literature notes)
    • literature lists
    • quote notes
    • question notes
    • linking notes
    • comments notes (from others on my work)
    • how-to notes
    • etc. etc.

    Nerdy? Definitely :)

  • edited August 26

    @erikh said:
    @ZettelDistraction: why is it a "fetish" to carefully think about how to handle your notes?

    That's not what I wrote or implied. I was referring to Ahrens's nomenclature. This is not the same as thinking carefully about handling [literature] notes (or in my case, citations). Anyway, some people find the terminology a stumbling block. I wrote about this here.

    By the way, your post indicates that you do take literature notes

    I wrote that, "What Ahrens terms a "literature note" is for me a citation in Zotero."

    and you put them in Zotero. Is that so different from putting them into TheArchive and labeling them "literature note"?

    Entering a citation in a citation manager Zotero is indeed different from entering citations in Zettelkasten software such as the The Archive, or in my case, Zettlr. In Zotero, I can create citations by ISBN or DOI and refer to them in Zettlr using Pandoc syntax. I cannot copy an ISBN into a note in Zettlr and expect a citation to appear from out of nowhere in Zettlr. Nothing would change if I were to label the note containing the ISBN a "literature note."

    Post edited by ZettelDistraction on

    Erdős #2. ZK software components. “If you’re thinking without writing, you only think you’re thinking.” -- Leslie Lamport. Replies delayed, sometimes indefinitely since Life is short.

  • @ZettelDistraction sorry, I meant no offense, I merely tried to keep the discussion going

    From what you write about Zotero, it seems that we do agree that literature notes are very important, though :)

    It may indeed be a good idea to come to better understanding of definitions, your "common language". Eco in How to write a thesis uses "bibliographic note" for the literature reference. That would be the same as an entry in Zotero or Bibdesk, etc. Those would normally not be "fleeting" I guess.

    I would propose to use "reading note" for notes on a source that's be read in-depth. Those notes could be, in the light of this discussion, be a) processed and then thrown away (fleeting), b) processes or partially processes and kept.

  • @erikh said:

    ..

    From what you write about Zotero, it seems that we do agree that literature notes are very important, though :)

    Yes, actually we do agree. Ahrens has two types of "permanent" notes: literature notes, and what we might call Zettels, though a term never appears in Ahrens for those notes that end up in the slip box.

    It may indeed be a good idea to come to better understanding of definitions, your "common language". Eco in How to write a thesis uses "bibliographic note" for the literature reference. That would be the same as an entry in Zotero or Bibdesk, etc.

    Right.

    Those would normally not be "fleeting" I guess.

    In Ahrens's nomenclature, true. He does refer to "fleeting literature notes" at one point.

    I would propose to use "reading note" for notes on a source that's [to] be read in-depth. Those notes could be, in the light of this discussion, be a) processed and then thrown away (fleeting), b) processe[d] or partially processe[d] and kept.

    That's ok. I generally don't have a need to make such distinctions, though I would not like to be incapable of making them should the need arise.

    What seems to matter, for me at any rate, is to settle on a standard note format; some way of identifying notes, some system for organizing references; some straightforward way of using references in notes; a system, method or rationale for linking and associating notes with each other, and a convenient means of searching them.

    Ahrens adds an element of discipline to this. He suggests that if you aren't taking (fleeting) notes while you read, you aren't following the method.

    (I have some more requirements since I want to produce Latex documents.)

    To be continued...

    Erdős #2. ZK software components. “If you’re thinking without writing, you only think you’re thinking.” -- Leslie Lamport. Replies delayed, sometimes indefinitely since Life is short.

  • edited August 26

    @erikh So perhaps we are faced with the question of what "a note" is. Is a Map of Content a note? I suppose I tend to think of it as a portal or a link to notes, rather than being a note itself. However, I tend to dislike categorisation, and I avoid it. I think it leads to creating artificial mental barriers. I am more interested in blurring boundaries and connecting things, not separating them. This may be because I have a background in psychology, and I work as a counsellor/psychotherapist. I am constantly seeing people boxing themselves in, and creating barriers, by using labels and categories, where it would be better to get rid of them. At the same time, I acknowledge that categories are no doubt more useful, even essential, in other subject areas. Personally, I'm more for flexibility than rigidity. But I have a long history of trying to break out of boundaries ... it is a personal quirk.

    Edit: there is an interesting discussion about "notes" in this presentation by Ryan Murphy -- https://axle.design/your-notes-are-an-information-system-lessons-from-information-systems-for-personal-knowledge

    Post edited by MartinBB on
  • @erikh said:
    Personally, I do not use fleeting vs permanent notes, as everything tends to be temporary, even when it may take years to be properly processed or fit together. I do however, have a number of different notes categories, mostly following Umberto Eco's How to write a thesis, and identified by the relevant tags:

    • hubs (Eco's thematic notes)
    • structurenotes
    • bibliographic notes
    • reading notes (= literature notes)
    • literature lists
    • quote notes
    • question notes
    • linking notes
    • comments notes (from others on my work)
    • how-to notes
    • etc. etc.

    I'd say - do whatever works for you. This topic has received a lot of coverage over the years, with different people having preferences for different ways of talking about types of "notes". I tend to follow a similar philosophy to @MartinBB , but that is just my personal quirk. I don't think we need to worry about note types too much, except to make sure we don't communicate at cross-purposes with one another :smile:

  • @GeoEng51 said:
    I don't think we need to worry about note types too much

    I agree. In short, I suppose I'm more interested in the content of the note than what category it might belong to. Categorising notes has never really helped me in the past. No doubt others will find it more useful.

  • @martinbb and @GeoEng51: thank you for your interesting reactions!

    And @MartinBB : thank you for the video link, good talk and lovely baby cries in the background. I think this forum may be a good data source for the author’s research.

    One of the lessons from his talk (around 5:50): metadata, links and classifications are central to the note taking system. We can make different choices in how and in what level of detail to classify notes, but it is still relevant to discuss. That is also true for the types and classification of links (see discussion https://forum.zettelkasten.de/discussion/2351/establishing-firm-connections-between-ideas#latest)

    As to note boundaries and classifications: for me they are a pre-requisite for creative work. Whether a poem is a sonnet or blank verse or a haiku, whether a note is just bibliographic, or the result of in-depth reading, or contains a definition, is important to me. Thanks to the boundaries and categories I use, my ZK now starts to be an instrument in producing academic work, rather than just a collection of thoughts (I began it in 2018).

    When I disregarded the boundaries (the way I started my ZK) it did not deliver anything but confusion and chaos: pleasurable and perhaps creative chaos, but not productive chaos. As an example, I still have 60 to 70 notes (#inbox) taken long ago on my PhD topic, some of only a few paragraphs, some of many pages. The notes are mostly good and interesting, but because they are not clearly categorized the “knowledge” embedded in them is very difficult to access and difficult to connect to my current ZK. Processing them anew takes prohibitive effort, which may not be worth it. Contrast that with 20 to 30 other notes from the same period that were clearly “reading notes”, focused on processing a specific book: those I could easily integrate in the current ZK. Should I re-read the source, then my old notes are informative and helpful.

    But I clearly see both your arguments. I have acquaintances who are way less obsessed about such things than I am and nevertheless (much) more productive. I also know people who are even much more rigidly disciplined in making and sticking to boundaries and categories.

    Perhaps everyone has their own unique “edge of chaos”, the border of order and chaos where productive creativity occurs. The purpose of the note-taking system (as in the video link) may also be a factor influencing where the sweet point is.

  • @erikh I think you are right to draw attention to the kind of work that is being done by whoever is making the notes. I've written this many times before, but I think it bears repeating, that my training in psychology has taught me to think about systems, and I tend to believe that worker+tools+work-to-be-done constitute a system, and that it is perhaps the system that needs to be thought about as the "base unit", rather than the note that needs to be made, or the book that needs to be read, etc. In other words, what I am talking about is the interplay between the various elements that make up the system, and how they interact with each other. I sometimes feel our models or conceptualisations of "knowledge work" are far too simplistic, and fail to take account of the way the various elements act on each other. However, this is not a psychology lab, so perhaps this consideration is out of place here.

    I will just add that I have written a 560-page book of history, and an 80,000-word PhD thesis on psychology and history, and I've hardly ever made use of metadata in my work, beyond tags, and I'm not sure they were at all useful to me. I have frequently dabbled with Tinderbox, but it never made it into my regular workflow, and it took me a long time (I mean years) to realise that it was probably because metadata was not much use to me, whereas enthusiastic users of the program seemed to be heavy users of metadata.

    Each to their own, I guess.

    Cheers!

  • @MartinBB: I agree, the concepts of knowledge and knowledge work will probably keep confusing us. One of the great things of this forum is the "meta-thinking" on those concepts. Still, 99.9%+ of the world population seems to do quite fine without a ZK :)

  • @sfast: why does the question not make sense? Of course we will all agree that the purpose of a note is to handle knowledge, but there may be different ways of handling knowledge, for example a) "handle once": making two permanent notes from the literature note and then throwing the literature note away, or b) "keep" to keep open the option of in-depth processing later or re-visiting the source. Are those not relevant, but different ways of handling knowledge?

    I didn't write clear enough. The question in isolation makes perfect sense. But if you think about the problem like I did in my post the question becomes obsolete.

    If you create your literature notes diligently you won't need to change the content of the note to create permanent notes. That leads to the question if the form of the literature note solves any problems. My answer is: It doesn't. The need to keep literature notes is a sign that ones actual note taking skill needs more practice. (Which is reflected in my experience that the more you practice the less processing steps are needed)

    @jeannelking wrote that she directly processes into her Zettelkasten. This practice comes naturally because additional steps inbetween become obsolete since they don't produce any value. It is testimony of @jeannelking dominance and mastery over her source material.

    I currently coach a physicist who needs to create a lot of notes outside of his Zettelkasten to even create a single note within his Zettelkasten. The reason lies in the nature of his domain. Physics is way more difficult then lets say philosophy or literature (which is reflected by the much higher IQ needed to do physics as opposed to literature).

    So, the difference in notes should be more functional: There are notes that are need to actually understand what you process and then there are notes that are the products of your understanding. I think this difference is more acurate regarding the actual problem to solve.

    So, the destruction of the sense of the question is the actual processing of the question. :)

    I am a Zettler

  • @sfast : I agree with you, but I think that also notes taken to actually understand what you process can be in the ZK.

    If you can make all notes immediately from the source, regardless of the source, of course do so. More power to you.

    For me, it seems to depend on the profundity of the source, relative to my existing knowledge on the subject. I will give a few examples of my spectrum.

    At one extreme, I just look something up in a source and I may even put the finding directly into my output document. Not even necessary to make a note. Even one processing step less :)

    In the middle, there is a huge (>80-90% of the total) category of sources that contain one or a few ideas that are, for me, useful building blocks. I can create notes about those ideas directly from the source. Dependent on whether I’m at my computer or not, I may need a fleeting note on paper or on my phone in between, but that is immaterial. Whether I keep that fleeting note or not is also immaterial. So, that is your category where the question whether to throw away the literature note is not relevant.

    Then there are sources that contain bigger ideas. Ideas you have to chew on, that are no immediately clear. Read, take note, read again, scratch out, etc. It may be necessary to extensively follow the author’s line of thinking, rather than just cherry-picking the parts seem immediately relevant. Such a reading note may be long or short, but it surely has a life of its own. Sometimes it may even contain meta-notes, describing the process of coming to an understanding of the source. Here, it is clearly relevant to keep the note, even when in parallel processing some of the source’s ideas into atomic notes.

    Finally, at the extreme, there are the most profound sources, that need longer development to get to grips with and/or that may reveal different meanings in different times, just by the fact that you yourself have grown. I have this for example with the first few chapters of Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations”, that I have read three times now, and that has every time revealed new things to me. From the first reading, during my undergraduate, I do not have notes, but I do have notes from the second reading, during my PhD, and from the third reading, a few years ago to prepare a PhD course. The notes from the second reading were very useful with the third reading. I found it useful to see what my impressions were on previous reading, independent on any atomic notes that I have made on the sources.

    There is even another category for me, which is when I come to a source to look something up, and find it contains more and more profound material than what I was looking for, and more than I can process in a short time. This happened to me recently when reading A.G. Sertillanges “The Intellectual Life”. Man, what a book, and I only wanted to know something about chapter 7C on note taking. I read the whole book in my holiday, took fleeting paper notes and then processed those into a long reading note. I processed only a part of that long reading note into atomic notes, the rest waits until I’m ready for it. You may say that I created an “inbox” and you would be right. But I simply cannot process all that I read immediately into my ZK. Therefore, I keep the reading note.

    The categories above are, of course, based on my experience. Others may have their own systems and preferences.

    tl; dr; - I know :)

  • edited September 9

    In no particular order:

    1. If you read something that is so complicated that feel very uncertain if you understand enough to have confidence in note-taking you either need to do more note-taking or the source is to hard for you and you therefore need to read something easier inbefore.
    2. The incomplete understanding can be part of a note that is in your Zettelkasten. As you progress your understanding you just edit your notes.
    3. Creating an inbox of notes that are not fully processed is a choice which as upsides (get it out of your head, create a tool for warming-up etc.) and its downsides (another inbox)

    In a way: The removal of your inbox and/or downsides of your inbox that fills with notes is a marker for the quality of your overall system.

    I am a Zettler

  • edited September 10

    @sfast said:
    I currently coach a physicist who needs to create a lot of notes outside of his Zettelkasten to even create a single note within his Zettelkasten.

    @sfast said:
    The incomplete understanding can be part of a note that is in your Zettelkasten. As you progress your understanding you just edit your notes.

    What is the purpose of your student creating notes outside of the Zettelkasten if notes can contain partial knowledge? We can just edit the text when our understanding is better.

    Zettelkasten is love. Zettelkasten is life.

  • @JoshA said:

    @sfast said:
    I currently coach a physicist who needs to create a lot of notes outside of his Zettelkasten to even create a single note within his Zettelkasten.

    @sfast said:
    The incomplete understanding can be part of a note that is in your Zettelkasten. As you progress your understanding you just edit your notes.

    What is the purpose of your student creating notes outside of the Zettelkasten if notes can contain partial knowledge? We can just edit the text when our understanding is better.

    Technically, the notes of physicists and mathematicians are not notes in a strict sense but necessary external manifestations of internal processes. They are not something that are geared towards containing knowledge but to make knowledge accessable in the first place.

    While technically wrong it is more correct to say that those writings contain no knowledge and therefore are not destined to go into the Zettelkasten.

    I am a Zettler

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