The Zettelkasten

Here, Alan Jacobs gives a rundown of his use of Niklas Luhmann’s zettelkasten method for note-taking:

One of the best things about making Zettel is the ability to go back to an old card and add related cards. So if I make a note about Barbara Tuchman’s idea of history as a distant mirror, I can make a note on that, and label it BBD26. (BBD because this project is called Breaking Bread with the Dead.) And then when I come upon a fascinating essay by Daniel Mendelsohn that treats the Aeneid as a kind of “distant mirror” of our own time, I can add a card to that effect and label it BBD26a. And if later still I have a further thought about Mendelsohn’s essay I can add another card and label it BBD26a1; or, if I want to return to the “distant mirror” theme but with reference to a different text, I can label that card BBD26b. And then if I realize that some other card already in my stack treats a similar theme, I can add cross-references at the bottom or on the back of the relevant cards. (This is not quite how Luhmann numbered his cards but it’s what I like to do.)

Throughout my thesis, I struggled to find a note-taking system that worked for me, and the fact that I never settled on one thing meant that my notes were scattered through Google Docs, Evernote, and paper notes. This wasn’t ideal, and in fact, was pretty frustrating. I also think this lent itself towards my inability to make genuine (or, really, serendipitous) connections between ideas.

Another thing I’ve realized is that I don’t particularly like having my notes digitally. It certainly helps to have them stored digitally for immediate, quick access. However, I’ve grown increasingly concerned about the sort of ephemeral nature of digital note-taking. What happens when Evernote goes down, or I’m unable to access a copy of my digital note archive? Also, I’m not really convinced that I remember what I have typed as well as what I have written by hand. I also tend to get stuck on creating systems, and when my thoughts or notes do not quite cohere with the system I’m using, I’m loath to to write down my thoughts. Luhmann’s zettelkasten system, however, seems promising. It’s essentially decentralized, it doesn’t matter where you start, and it’s basically infinitely flexible.

I think I’ll give it a go.

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