Zettelkasten Forum

Ed from RI...

Just joined the forum and I am gaining a lot of useful information from it.

It has occurred to me that Excel, or any other widely-used spreadsheet app, might be readily adapted to form a Zettlekasten, utilizing the sort & search functions available in the app.

Has anyone on the forum used spreadsheets to set up a Zettlekasten?


  • @EFBJr Welcome to the ZK forum? I've been haunting these halls for about 18 months. I haven't seen any discussion of using spreadsheets to develop a ZK. I do have a good familiarity with Excel and other spreadsheets; I don't think I'd use it for a ZK. One of the most important elements of a ZK is the links between zettels - these form a network that grows organically over time and doesn't lend itself to the spreadsheet format.

    If you have some ideas on how it might be done, I'm sure people here would be happy to read about that and comment on it.

  • I agree this hasn't been discussed before, it seems. Excel can sort the notes by ID or by title, which is nice. It's not clear how well it performs. I was working in a document once that had hundreds of thousands of entries, with formula. It took several minutes to open the document. This was years ago in OpenOffice, probably, and on a cheap laptop.

    my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

  • If you pull this off, please share your experience. :)

    I am a Zettler

  • Here are some miscellaneous ideas on Excel-based ZKs, or EZKs.

    • The size limits in Excel with roughly 1 million rows, 16000 columns, and 32000 characters per cell should be of no consequence. A list of Excel limits can be found here. I know nothing about the current impact of file size on performance.
    • Using a CVS format or, more advanced, an XML format could make the EZK fairly independent of specific software. Again, I know nothing about using long units of text with (perhaps) formatting information within CSV files.
    • With more advanced solutions (e.g. in VBA? - I'm not an expert), it might be possible to use Excel as an access layer for data that exist in another format, like using Excel to operate on a collection of .txt files.
      In general, being able to adapt your software via an accessible programming language like VBA to your needs could unlock completely new possibilities.

    • Excel is notoriously rich in features, and for many of them we could ask how they can be exploited in a ZK framework - from colouring zettels to roll-ups and drop-down menus to work on multiple sheets...
      Personally, I would have to be careful not to get lost in a rabbit hole, spending hours and hours with tweaking Excel into a more or less compelling ZK software - I experienced something similar with TiddlyWiki.
      And since text is arguably the main content of the ZK and Excel wasn't designed as a text editor, I'm a bit skeptical when it comes to user friendliness.

    • Millions and millions of people use Excel daily, and EZKs could appeal to vast numbers of people that are currently not interested in starting a zettelkasten with specific ZK software. This potentially huge community of users could introduce a massive body of Excel practices to ZK work.

  • edited December 2021

    remark on my previous comment: OpenOffice and LibreOffice are the twins of Microsoft Office.

    there is also a macro recorder, which means VBA with no programming skills. And you can upgrade from Excel to a full featured database in the future, so the system grows with your needs.

    it also has conditional operators that can be used for searches. Hyperlink can be used for navigation for external document, web, email...

    Post edited by zk_1000 on

    my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

  • Thank you for all the responses!

    This is what I have come up with, so far. The bracketed titles indicate the spreadsheet column headers:

    [Master Index #:] [Master Subject Index:] [Master Index # Range:] [Start Number Range:] [Index #:] [Date & Time Code:] [Category:] [Topic:] [Sub-topic:] [Application:] [Note:] [Source of Data:]

    I am taking research notes for several projects that are ongoing. I like to move around from project to project in my research reading, but do not want to maintain several separate sets of notes. I just add a note in a new line, with the appropriate identifying project data entered into the columns.

    My thought is that if I were searching for notes on a specific project, topic, sub-topic, application, etc., I could highlight the pertinent columns and do a search & sort and have the program collect & group the applicable rows that contain the needed information.

    I must confess that the more I read about Luhman's indexing system, the less I understand it, particularly the cross-linking of notes.

    I set up my numbering index as follows: [1] [Master Subject Title] [1000] [104.2a1] [06/09/21]. The [1] indicates the index # for the notes relating to the first research subject. I assign a Master Index # Range starting at intervals of 1,000. The next research subject would star at 2,000, and so on. I then started the Index # at 100 for the first note recorded. This is where I adopted the number letter convention for notes & sub-notes. I then record the note, and fill in the appropriate data concerning the information contained in the note in the Category, Topic, Sub-topic & application columns. I then record the Source of data, with a www hyper-link, if needed. I can also use the program to add color to notes, when needed.

    I do like to cut & paste many of my notes, as well as typing in my own thoughts. I generally avoid using handwritten notes, as, to quote my mother: " You have your father's name and his lousy handwriting!"

    I have not been able to get my version of Excel to generate an automatic date/time code, but I attribute that to the older (Excel 98) version that I am using. I have a newer version of Excel available, but the advantage of using the older version is the forward compatibility with newer spreadsheet apps. A spreadsheet generated in a newer app might not be compatible with an older app, while the older version is readily opened in the proprietary apps and Open Office, Libre Office, etc.

    As far as the size limitations of the Excel program that a respondent pointed out...I am 72...I doubt that I will get close to filling in all the room available! :)

  • edited February 12

    Hi @EFBJr. I think using a spreadsheet is perhaps not a great idea because it's not scalable. A previous poster mentioned that opening a large document strained his computer. That will always be the case if the document becomes big enough.

    Granted, however, what goes into a Zettelkasten is text data, which tends to be quite small in storage space required. But I think what would strain the computer is just trying to display such a document if you had thousands or tens of thousands of Zettels. Whether your chosen spreadsheet editor can handle a document with 5 thousand rows depends on how the program was written. It's quite possible to handle that gracefully, but it's outside the norm of what people use spreadsheets for, so it's probably not something that developers of such software try to optimize.

    (By the way, I'm a software developer myself.)

    For my part, I've tried various formats. At first I tried Evernote. For a long while after that, I did it using old fashioned paper slips and pencil. Recently I moved everything to Zettlr.

    What really made the most sense to me was something I read someplace, but it's a common enough aphorism: the medium informs the expression. In other words, the particular tools you choose influence what you produce. This can be obvious or profound depending on how far you look into it. For example, writing on small slips of paper obviously influenced me to be brief---sometimes too brief. Writing in pen proved impossible, so I switched to pencil. That better allowed my notes to evolve with me. Using a computer editor would be a completely different experience if I had to switch notes into some kind of "edit mode" before I could change them. In Zettlr, the reading mode and editing mode are one and the same. (I'm a fan of that particular software, but I'm sure there are other great alternatives.)

    Mainly I'm writing back to you because I'd like to interact more with Zettelkasten enthusiasts. Feel free to DM me.

    Also, please don't take what I said about spreadsheets as some kind of dismissal or "thou shalt not". If it works for you, so be it.

  • After reading the replies to my first post, I took a hard look at what I was trying to accomplish with a spreadsheet and came to the conclusion that the sheet was getting difficult to utilize as it grew larger. The lack of linking notes was also a negative.

    I am currently exploring other apps to collect my notes.

  • @EFBJr I'd love to hear what you decide.

  • @EFBJr

    I'd recommend reading the following posts if you haven't already:

    They cover finding software. That should make your search easier and faster.

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