Zettelkasten Forum

Zettelkasten mostly for knowledge collection

Hi guys,

For the past two weeks I have immersed myself completely in ways of organizing knowledge (funnily only now that I have recently finished university - but then again, this is not so ironic given what "learning" at universities today typically looks like). I also read a lot about the Zettelkasten method and now set up a system for myself, using vim.

I see all the advantages of the Zettelkasten system - the atomicity principle, the inherent surprise generator (the word Luhmann used in German is much more funny) that even I felt after putting in just my remarks on a few pages in the book, and also the antifragility of it. However, I am not a "knowledge worker" in the typical meaning of this (buzz)word. I don't produce texts, I just read a lot. My main subject of study is history and most of the content in my zettelkasten is going to be about historical or cultural stuff (books on those topics, that is).

Now, if I were an academic writer or an author, I would be absolutely convinced that the zettelkasten is worth pursuing for me. However, I am not. I just want a way to organize my knowledge in a meaningful way, meaning:

  • easier to remember content of books/sources even many years after I read them (I ensure this by using my own words most of the time)
  • easy to handle technically (modified vimwiki + plaintext)
  • fun to use both when putting in new data but also when looking at the result
  • potential learning effect. Easier understanding of content as an inherent feature of the system

Particularly when it comes to history, I am somewhat unsure whether the zettelkasten is the most appropriate outlet for my notes. Sometimes I will have pages of chronological data or just factual statements without any ability of mine to add personal thoughts and also with no need to atomize the content. Sure, occasionally I will probably create some links/verweise to other notes whenever e.g. historians disagree on a subject, but oftentimes there is simply no need for me to do that and my sole purpose of writing down things into my vimwiki system would be to store my summaries of historical topics.

On a positive note though, as mentioned before, my desire to draw connections with (to me) surprising results has already transpired just after a two sessions of using the zettelkasten for one book, so I am also optimistic that I have some purpose for it.

To put it blunt and short, I am torn between two needs of mine: organizing factual knowledge in a survey-like way, basically like a traditional wikipedia page with floating, longer-than-zettel text on the one hand. On the other hand though, I see the power of the zettelkasten for other purposes of mine quite well.

Another way to put the "problem" of history-related content would be this: In one of the articles, one of the authors of this site described how he went through the cycle of reading a book and taking notes while reading, and then creating zettel out of these notes. This is what I have done for the book I am currently reading where it makes a lot of sense to me. However, if I read about the early human history or the development of the Peloponnesian War, I see no point in e.g. splitting the phases of the war into several zettel just to stick to the principle of atomicity (one zettel = one thought) and also a hierarchical structure sometimes might make more sense (e.g. creating categories for pre-human history, ancient history, medieval history etc.). But then again, in some cases, e.g. when it comes to comparing theories on the fall of the Roman Empire, I could see the use of the zettelkasten again.

So this leads me to the following question:
Should I put everything into the zettelkasten and atomize everything as intended, even things I do not feel I should atomize for the time being? Or should I simultaneously, i.e. next to using my zettelkasten, use a wiki for most of the history-related stuff?

I currently tend to the latter. But keeping a separate wiki next to the zettelkasten would of course come with the danger that I begin also putting more and more notes into the wiki that would actually be of good use in the zettelkasten. Also, I would often need to change my "mode of thinking" (which could however be solved by simply doing history note-transcribing in a dedicated session).

In any case, I would be very curious on your opinions on this.


  • @lunario said:
    Hi guys,

    For the past two weeks I have immersed myself completely in ways of organizing knowledge (funnily only now that I have recently finished university - but then again, this is not so ironic given what "learning" at universities today typically looks like).

    Never too late. Look at me, I'm 64 and just know coming up to speed with a zettelkasten.

    So this leads me to the following question:
    Should I put everything into the zettelkasten and atomize everything as intended, even things I do not feel I should atomize for the time being? Or should I simultaneously, i.e. next to using my zettelkasten, use a wiki for most of the history-related stuff?

    How big to make a note is a flexible subjective measure. There is value in atomizing a continuous historical timeline. In the future, you may create a note that links into the middle of the timeframe because of relevance. If linked to a very long note it would be cumbersome to get to and link forward what was relevant. I have some notes of near 1000 words and a couple of only 17 syllables (studying Japanese haiku). It is a mixed bag for me. I tended to make longer notes at the beginning now I break ideas up and do more linking. Neither is wrong or bad, just optimal or not. I'd use structure note for tying a continuous historical timeline, the same as I use for readings.

    In any case, I would be very curious on your opinions on this.

    I hope this helps.

    Will Simpson

  • From an organizational standpoint, one of the main advantages I have found using a tool like the Archive is its flat organizational structure. Over the years, I've used hierarchical systems such as personal wikis (Connected Text and Dokuwiki) and over time they grew in scale to a point where information got "buried" in the hierarchy, even with the use of tags and indexing. I also used a more elaborate graphical solution like Tinderbox to conduct historical research. It was difficult for me to rid myself of hierarchy because that is how I learned to organize information in the academy. The archive allows me to see everything at once knowing that information is not buried in the bowels of some esoteric topic. Should I find related information to consider for any particular zettel, I create a "See Also" section.

    My recommendation would be try and keep all notes together in one system (the archive) as much as possible. Discussed elsewhere, consider creating "page summaries" to bring personal observations into the conversation on any number of zettels. I just create a zettel and stitch the related zettels together in a way that makes sense to me. Finally, I use OmniOutliner to review books and then output the content to an OPML file. The reason for this is that I can easily maintain the hierarchy of a book that I am reading which for me is an important part of learning the author's intent.

  • Thanks to both of you for your opinion. I basically agree with you about the advantages of putting basically everything knowledge-related into the Zettelkasten for the benefit of creating more meaningful links after a while, even if it might make sense to join several things into one larger text. The only problem I see with this (and maybe this is something I failed to express appropriately in my original post) is that sometimes I will just want to read again about e.g. the history of the Roman Empire, just to remember what I once read about it and not for the benefit of developing new thoughts or creating links between varying accounts of its history. And whenever I do just want to read for the benefit of "bringing something back to mind", it seems more useful to have a wikipedia-style survey text that contains all the relevant text with no need to click on any links or follow any note sequences.

    I guess I will just pursue a dual approach for now:
    1. Use my zettelkasten as before, i.e. put everything in there that seems worthwhile in my knowledge work.
    2. Also create a parellel section in my vimwiki with longer, survey-esque pages on specific topics (mostly history)
    2.1 Whenever I have written a survey-esque page in the parallel section, I am going to basically copy it into the zettelkasten in chunks.

    So e.g. my survey site on the Roman Empire is going to be a 80,000 word wiki page with its history, description of the political system, theories on the burning of Rome etc., but at the same time I will also create individual Zettel that each contain a copy of the section in my wiki page that is about theories on the burning of Rome. Does that make sense to you? Does anyone else follow this kind of dual-focused approach?

  • Now that you've decided that you have the mental and temporal bandwidth for an 80k word wiki on the Roman Empire and a zettelkasten, I'd keep them separate and use linking and bibliography cite keys as references back and forth. Add your wiki to your bib file and use it like any other document reference.

    Within the zettelkasten referencing to the vimwiki
    lunario (2020): _The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire_, vimwiki, p.461 - [@lunario:2020a]

    Within the vimwiki referencing to the zettelkasten
    Elemental properties of tin - thearchive://match/202001120724

    If you want the zettelkasten method to help with the writing of the Roman Empire project, I'd recommend a different tack. The way you describe your proposed workflow you'd write the long dissertation on the Roman Empire first the atomize it into the zettelkasten. Writing by this method is how to write in a "Reverso Universe."

    It makes more sense to start with the parts, the research, the notes (atomizations in the zettelkasten) then proceed to the long-form text.

    A zettelkasten is a tool for personal knowledge growth. We need a verb for the practice of 'zettelkasting', the method of gathering and nurturing personal knowledge as it grows and develops in itself to infect many areas of one's life. This practice is not limited to a single subject or single facet of life. To be of value, it has to encompass as much as possible. Opportunities strick at the weirdest times and with surprising results.

    My advice is to start and not be stuck on your method having to be some particular way. Try different things and steal the ideas that work for you. It is common to want to have THE RIGHT PLAN before starting. There is a feeling that to do otherwise would be a waste. But this is backward. I found I was wasting time trying to find THE RIGHT PLAN (procrastination in disguise.) So what if my first notes were pure crap. Should I have expected otherwise? Many still are, but I see and feel improvement. A couple of times a day I'm struck by the connections I make in my zettelkasten. Yesterday I connected a passage in a current reading about how Abrahamic religions temper environmentalism and a note within my writing project (Commentary on the Tibetan practice of Lojong) — expanding my understanding of both environmentalism and Lojong.

    I wouldn't feel this way if I hadn't followed Ira Glass's advice.

    Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, and I wish somebody had said this to me.

    All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But it's like there is this gap. For the first couple years that you're making stuff, what you're making isn't so good. It's not that great. It's trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it's not that good.

    But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you're making is kind of a disappointment to you. A lot of people never get past that phase. They quit.

    Everybody I know who does interesting, creative work they went through years where they had really good taste and they could tell that what they were making wasn't as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. Everybody goes through that.

    And if you are just starting out or if you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you're going to finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you're going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you're making will be as good as your ambitions.

    I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I've ever met. It takes awhile. It's gonna take you a while. It's normal to take a while. You just have to fight your way through that.

    —Ira Glass

    I hope this helps, that is my intention.

    Will Simpson

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