The Idea File of Harold Adams Innis
I am wholly unsurprised that Harold Innis (1894-1952) maintained a card index (zettelkasten) through his research life, but I am pleased to have found that his literary estate has done some work on it and published it as The Idea File of Harold Adams Innis (University of Toronto Press, 1980). The introduction seems to have some fascinating material on the form and structure as well as decisions on how they decided to present and publish it.
For those unaware of his work, primarily as a political economist, he wrote extensively on media and communication theory including the influential works Empire and Communications (1950) and The Bias of Communication (1951).
While I appreciate the published book nature of the work, it would be quite something to have it excerpted back down to index card form as a piece of material culture to purchase and play around with. Perhaps something in honor of the coming 75th anniversary of his passing?
(Originally published with aggregated replies at https://boffosocko.com/2023/05/25/harold-innis-the-idea-file/)
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No piece of information is superior to any other. Power lies in having them all on file and then finding the connections. There are always connections; you have only to want to find them. —Umberto Eco
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Is it actually a Zettelkasten or just boxes of index cards?
The answer is yes. Zettelkästen are just boxes of index cards with notes on them. Eventually people tried to do the same thing with personal computers and called their software NoteCards, etc.
From The Idea File of Harold Adams Innis, page xv:
Maybe it is a language thing. I wouldn’t consider any box of cards a zettelkasten. When I think ZK, I imagine links to notes in notes and between notes. Most note boxes I’ve kept or seen others keep were more topical based archives by subjects. Literally just bunches of cards. Maybe wrapped in a rubber band or color coded or with keywords on them.
@dandennison84: There are certain kinds of cards—for example, I think of playing cards or flashcards for memorizing material—that we wouldn't call a ZK. But certainly any card file that a scholar like Innis uses to keep notes for writing projects is a ZK and is not just "any box of cards". Zettelkästen can be more or less well organized; a poorly cross-referenced card file is still a card file. Innis's card file had an extensive index, which indicates that it was at least moderately well organized. A historian who kept a purely chronological card file might completely omit cross-references but it would still have a useful structure.
I have to agree with @dandennison84
"Zettelkasten" is turning into a specific term that excludes certain types of personal card boxes.
A Zettelkasten is used more and more for something that includes interlinked notes, a storage for life (as opposed to for a project) with the goal of creating something organic/alive. Not just any type of card box. In German, the story is different.
I think @dandennison84 is already using the new and specific concept "Zettelkasten" and not the more inclusive meaning of the German word. Therefore, some bewildering if XY is really a Zettelkasten.
A question that highlights this issue is "Is a Zettelkasten just a personal wiki?"
Well, the collective mind is in the process of figuring out what the difference is between a personal wiki and a Zettelkasten. One result is probably, that not any Zettelkasten will be accepted as a Zettelkasten.
I am a Zettler
The definition of Zettelkästen that I use is broader than what @Sascha said, but this discussion helpfully shows that people use different definitions of the term. In fact, that's why I avoid calling my note file a Zettelkasten® and instead call it "my note system", since I'm not sure what people would assume about my practice if I used the German term.
It is unfortunate that the German word for a box of notes is the same as the methodology surrounding Luhmann. I have an intro post on here, but for some reason, it is stuck in the aether. I studied note taking, note taking systems, learning in an educational setting, and wrote a lot of papers/presentations back in my college days about note taking. I used 3x5 index cards routinely. Boxes and boxes of them. Many people I knew had boxes and boxes or notebooks of writings. I used them for writing. But I wouldn't call them a ZK® (stealing Andy's shorthand!) but they were a box of notes (Zettelkasten?).
There are many ways to skin a cat, and ZK® is only one of them. I think when there are multiple systems out there, it is important to distinguish the key features. The purpose isn't to delegitimize something, it is to help us compare/contrast so we can find the system that meets our needs the best.
I've never used a ZK® but am studying them intensely right now to see if it will meet my needs. I am, however, very experienced in taking notes in general. From my beginner's perspective after watching some documentaries on Luhmann and reading some papers about his system, below is how I would characterize a ZK®: (this series, this video, this video, his description, and this analysis)
1. Regular notes are atomic with an ID. I believe this is fundamental. It distinguishes between a wiki that is generally not atomic, "bookish" notes, and atomic notes that don't have unique, never changing identifiers.
2. Notes reference each other. This is also fundamental. It distinguishes note boxes that are really only about retrieving information from those that help generate something. The way many of us used physical notecards were like bookmarks. Hence ordering by subject, color coding, tagging, etc. These systems treat a collection of notes on a topic as a group, rather than individually. You make connections at the time of writing. You take out a bundle of notes on a subject and spread them out. You connect them visually and mentally right then. All notes were what you might today call "fleeting" or "literature." I, and many others, chucked them after we used them to write what we wanted. We might save literature notes for other papers though.
3. ZK® seems best when tied to the user. It didn't seem to be about sharing your ideas in the raw form. Your thoughts and idea and their connections are what is important, not what someone else is thinking or sharing. They will have their own take on forming connections. In this way, a ZK® is a tool to produce something, not something in and of itself.
4. ZK® seem most powerful when they are about a particular subject area. Witness Zuhmann having two ZK®. One in his earlier life with 108 subject areas when he was learning and absorbing (and rarely updated afterwards), and one in his later life, much larger and more productive, when he had a specific plan in mind. That ZK® had less than a dozen categories all topically related.
5. ZK® derives its power from scale. It needs a critical mass. The contents of any particular note are relatively unimportant. Luhmann himself thought the notes were only important in relation to the other notes. So don't stress about making them perfect. From a computer gaming analogy: ZK® notes are Zerglings (Starcraft reference)! Strength in numbers.
Notetaking has been around for most of recorded history. Limited to only those who could actually read and write. Oral traditions were used much more then. It is really only when we get to the printing press that it becomes widespread. Those books on general topics, as opposed to journals, were how everyone remembered things they thought important. Locke has a great little pamphlet on making them and especially indexing them. Something I think Luhmann might have benefited from given how many times he had to redo his index. Locke's system was also able to fill him with "surprise" because the indexing caused different things to be stored in proximity and lead to new thoughts.
Index cards are much more recent, but the thought of separating out bits of knowledge onto separate pages and arranging them in various ways is also widespread. In fact, it lives on today in the activity called scrapbooking. It grew out of the same tradition as commonplacing.
ZK® is really a profound shift where the knowledge in the notes become the focus. Not the notes themselves or the activity surrounding them during writing. The points mentioned above, I believe, are what make this possible.
The biggest difference for me is that general note taking systems and methods (especially the old ones) are about collecting and archiving information in a topical format. It doesn't generate anything in and of itself. ZK® is a tool that turns that information into a randomized, relational storage that is used, in and of itself, to generate new information.
@dandennison84: Thanks, that's a great analysis. People might disagree on a point or two, but in general I like the way you're thinking. And of course I approve the term ZK®.
I'm not sure that this is the profound shift of ZK®. Skilled scholars have always been focused on the knowledge in their notes. Innis must have been focused in this way.
I suspect that the terms you're looking for to describe that profound shift is this: the systematization and systematicity of the knowledge in the notes becomes the focus. That is how I see it. In fact, I think an important part of such systematization and systematicity is having a minimally adequate semantic schema (like IBIS etc.), as I've mentioned many times in this forum, but most people here don't seem to consider such a schema to be central to ZK®. I would recommend considering such a schema, as it really contributes to systematicity.
Thanks Andy! That is be a better way to put it. What I am meaning with “knowledge in the notes” is really the connections and context. Notes become more than just their contents. And I’ll have read up on ibis.
If you haven't read the following technical report, I recommend it: Stephen Davies, Javier Velez-Morales, & Roger King (2005), "Building the memex sixty years later: trends and directions in personal knowledge bases", Department of Computer Science, University of Colorado at Boulder. The Wikipedia article on personal knowledge bases (PKBs) is basically a summary of the technical report. The report defined personal knowledge base systems, described their benefits, reviewed relevant fields of research, and compared systems in terms of several aspects of their data models: structural framework, knowledge elements, schema, and the role of transclusion. This report is the most comprehensive publication I've read that compares PKB systems according to their key features.
The report also may give you a more descriptive term for what you're calling a ZK®: "personal knowledge base system" or "PKB system" is a transparent generic term for what we're talking about, and other aspects of the data model in use can be added to the term for further specification, such as "a strongly-typed, free-text, graph-based PKB system". It's a mouthful but is much less ambiguous than ZK®. "A graph-based PKB system" also fits perfectly in place of ZK® in @dandennison84's last sentence quoted above:
Using the term "PKB system" or something like it may also dispel some of the hype around ZK®, since it clarifies that there is not a radical separation between ZK® and everything else, but rather there is a diverse menu of features to select when building a PKB system.
As I recall, the report does not describe analog PKB systems, only digital ones (circa 2005), but someone who is using an analog system may be inspired by the features that the report describes.
@chrisaldrich I think the is an underated idea more broadly. I would love to see this done with other authors books that use an index card system, like Robert Greene. I think it would be a useful illustration to help people better understand the research and writing process.
I've been wanting to and created a few experimental vaults where I do a similar thing except for a podcast (all of Sean Carroll's Mindscape transcripts are free) or a textbook (Introduction to Psychology). But I never followed through on the projects just because of how much work it takes to due it right.
This also makes me wish for a social media type zettelkasten, where a community can keep a shared vault, creating a social cognition of sorts. I know this was kind of happening with the shared vaults Dan Alloso was experimenting with but his seemed more focused than random/chaotic. I'm also not sure if he continued it for later books.
Some pieces of social media come close to the sort of sense making and cognition you're talking about, but none does it in a pointed or necessarily collaborative way. The Hypothes.is social annotation tool comes about as close to it as I've seen or experienced beyond Wikipedia and variations which are usually a much slower boil process. As an example of Hypothes.is, here's a link to some public notes I've been taking on the "zettekasten output problem" which I made a call for examples for a while back. The comments on the call for examples post have some rich fodder some may appreciate. Some of the best examples there include videos by Victor Margolin, Ryan Holiday (Robert Greene's protoge), and Dustin Lance Black along with a few other useful examples that are primarily text-based and require some work to "see".
For those interested, I've collected a handful of fascinating examples of published note collections, published zettelkasten, and some digitized examples (that go beyond just Luhmann) which one can view and read to look into others' practices, but it takes some serious and painstaking work. Note taking archaeology could be an intriguing field.
Dan Allosso's Obsidian book club has kept up with additional books (they're just finishing Rayworth's Doughnut Economics and about to start Simon Winchester's new book Knowing What We Know, which just came out this month.) Their group Obsidian vault isn't as dense as it was when they started out, but it's still an intriguing shared space. For those interested in ZK and knowledge development, this upcoming Winchester book looks pretty promising. I'd invite everyone to join if they'd like to.
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People have been wanting this for a long time:
— quoted from: Charles Victor Langlois & Charles Seignobos (1897/1912), Introduction to the Study of History, translated by George Godfrey Berry, New York: H. Holt (footnote 96 in the Project Gutenberg edition). Also quoted in: Craig Brittain (1994), "Note-taking and research methods", Flinders Library publications series, Adelaide: Flinders University Library.
These days, some people share their in-process research on the web, such as Scaling Synthesis, the hypertext notebook of Rob Haisfield, Joel Chan, and Brendan Langen. These are often called open notebooks. W. Caleb McDaniel, for example, wrote a blog post in 2013 on "Open notebook history".
@chrisaldrich participates in something like a social-media Zettelkasten with Hypothes.is. People can also create group libraries on Zotero.org, such as this one on Zettelkasten for learning. Of course, wikis are also used for "social cognition of sorts".
Edit: I didn't see @chrisaldrich's comment above before posting this comment, hence the duplication in content.
I've written a bit before on The Two Definitions of Zettelkasten, the latter of which has been emerging since roughly 2013 in English language contexts. Some of it is similar to or extends @dandennison84's framing along with some additional history.
Because of the richness of prior annotation and note taking traditions, for those who might mean what we're jokingly calling ZK®, I typically refer to that practice specifically as a "Luhmann-esque zettelkasten", though it might be far more appropriate to name them a (Melvil) "Dewey Zettelkasten" because the underlying idea which makes Luhmann's specific zettelkasten unique is that he was numbering his ideas and filing them next to similar ideas. Luhmann was treating ideas on cards the way Dewey had treated and classified books about 76 years earlier. Luhmann fortunately didn't need to have a standardized set of numbers the way the Mundaneum had with the Universal Decimal Classification system, because his was personal/private and not shared.
To be clear, I'm presently unaware that Dewey had or kept any specific sort of note taking system, card-based or otherwise. I would suspect, given his context, that if we were to dig into that history, we would find something closer to a Locke-inspired indexed commonplace book, though he may have switched later in life as his Library Bureau came to greater prominence and dominance.
Some of the value of the Dewey-Luhmann note taking system stems from the same sorts of serendipity one discovers while flipping through ideas that one finds in searching for books on library shelves. You may find the specific book you were looking for, but you're also liable to find some interesting things to read on the shelves around that book or even on a shelf you pass on the way to find your book.
Perhaps naming it and referring to it as the Dewey-Luhmann note taking system or the Dewey-Luhmann Zettelkasten may help to better ground and/or demystify the specific practices? Co-crediting them for the root idea and an early actual practice, respectively, provides a better framing and understanding, especially for native English speakers who don't have the linguistic context for understanding Zettelkästen on its own. Such a moniker would help to better delineate the expected practices and shape of a note taking practice which could be differentiated from other very similar ones which provide somewhat different affordances.
Of course, as the history of naming scientific principles and mathematical theorems after people shows us, as soon as such a surname label might catch on, we'll assuredly discover someone earlier in the timeline who had mastered these principles long before. (eg: the "Gessner Zettelkasten" anyone?) Caveat emptor.
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What a great read, thanks! You’ve really got some great insights.