Zettelkasten Forum

Zettelkasten for historical research?

Can I, as an historian, use a Zettelkasten for my research? For me, history is a way of connecting various pieces of evidence from the past, both diachronically (connecting similar items over time) and synchronically (connecting different items from the same time), to find patterns and to draw conclusions. A Zettelkasten would therefore seem an ideal tool for making these connections and helping to draw the relevant conclusions. However, the way I work doesn't seem to fit the Zettelkasten 'method' described in this forum, especially in relation to reading notes.

The first stage of my work is to collect the evidence, usually from various different primary sources. This usually involves noting the evidence verbatim. I may summarise it later, but I need to work from the original evidence complete and to quote it if necessary. As I collect the evidence, I am drawing tentative conclusions. These may well conflict with what has been written in certain secondary sources and, in order to be fair to these writers, I often need to note their argument in full. In addition to these complications, I regularly have to consult books and manuscripts in libraries some distance away, often involving overnight stays. I cannot afford the time (or money) to go back again if my notes are not clear and full. I may therefore make notes of the exact language used. Even on my computer I use the old-fashioned method I originally learned for hand-written index cards: place direct quotes in "quotation marks", leave any paraphrasing plain, end with a detailed page (or even line) reference, and then preface all my comments with my initials. I also do the electronic equivalent of pasting images onto cards, using similar rules. And then I need to keep these notes for future reference, since all my conclusions must ultimately be based on primary evidence. And when I disagree with another historian, their writing becomes, for that purpose, primary evidence. So whilst some of my reading notes may summarise points in my own words, many of them are very full, and certainly I expect to keep all of them long term.

I was hoping the Zettelkasten with its links would then let me collect the evidence together and sort it; that it would help determine the synchronic context; and that it would allow me to compare my comments and conclusions with those of other historians. Might this be possible? Or should I look for another method?


  • @pgrhowarth I have written history, too, though that is not what I am doing at the moment. I don't think it is necessary to be too "purist" about the Zettelkasten method. I think that probably almost any method will need some adaptation for individual needs. It might even be seen as one of the strengths of this method that it will stand some adaptation and still be very useful. I myself have adopted some elements of the method and have been less than religious with others. I don't see this as a problem. There are no guarantees, but it is worth trying the method for a while and seeing if it is useful to you, or if you can tweak it to be useful.

    Only a few days ago I wrote a post on this forum describing my working method for history in terms very similar to yours.

  • @MartinBB, I have read with gratitude some of your very reassuring descriptions, posted elsewhere on the forum, of how you keep your notes archive. That has really encouraged me to have a go and use those parts of the ZK method that suit me and not worry about the rest. Very many thanks!

  • @pgrhowarth Glad it was some sort of help. Best of luck with the journey!

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