zettelkasten with a moleskin notebook

Photo by Hades2k

The zettelkasten method is a tried and true research method that approximates the note card method that many of us were taught in school. “Zettelkasten” means “slipbox” in German. The method was made famous by German sociologist Niklas Luhmann. I came across this term years ago on the Taking Note blog and have enjoyed the writings on the subject there, and also by Christian Tietze, ever since. A confluence of readings has led me to the conclusion that zettelkasten is akin to what Bruno Latour calls “action at a distance” in his classic work, Science in Action. As such, zettelkasten is not just any method for taking and managing notes, but one that reflects the power of modern science.

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Zettelkasten: Sometimes The Old Ways Are The Best

As I have written elsewhere, I followed a zettelkasten-like process for many years. This began with learning the note card method in high school history and English classes, followed by my time on the debate team. In debate, we didn’t use note cards, but instead paper. But the process we followed was very similar to the traditional note card method and to zettelkasten. I used these methods very effectively all throughout undergraduate studies.

But then, during graduate school, for some reason I came to think that “real scholars” must do something more sophisticated than what I had learned in high school. I flailed around for a while until it came time to really get serious with my dissertation research. Knowing no other way to do my work, I went back to the tried and true.

But I still wondered: Was this system really the right way to go all along, or am I just being nostalgic?

A moment of clarity on all of this came as I was reading Graham Harman‘s book on Bruno Latour, Prince of Networks. As a science and technology studies (STS) person, I am very familiar with Latour’s work. I was interested to read Harman’s take on Latour as a philosopher and metaphysician, which is a slightly different twist to the way us STSers typically think about Latour. (In fact, I’m not sure I buy Harman’s overall argument. But that’s for another post.)

In his review of Latour’s Science in Action, Harman quotes Latour on the concept of “action at a distance”:

“The question is rather simple: how to act at a distance on unfamiliar events, places, and people? Answer: by somehow bringing home these events, places, and people. How can this be achieved, since they are distant? By inventing [methods] that (a) render them mobile so that they can be brought back; (b) keep them stable so that they can be moved back and forth without additional distortion, corruption, or decay, and (c) are combinable so that whatever stuff they are made of, they can be cumulated, aggregated, or shuffled like a pack of cards. If those conditions are met, then a small provincial town, or an obscure laboratory, or a puny little company in a garage, that were at first as weak as any other place will become centers dominating at a distance many other places” (Latour, Science in Action, p. 223 quoted in Harman, Prince of Networks, p. 54; emphasis in original).

Though the analogy is not perfect, it struck me that the zettelkasten is, in a sense, a technology for action at a distance. Of course, we are not seeking to dominate far off places and peoples. But we are seeking to contribute to ongoing, dispersed, scholarly conversations, the entirety of which cannot be grasped in full or all at once. To grasp the conversation and then make a contribution (to act on/in it at a distance), we must gather relevant bits and pieces over a period of time. We must be able to come back to those bits and pieces later in such a way that they still make sense to us and we can use them to make our own contributions.

Zettelkasten Method Makes Our Notes Mobile, Stable & Combinable

It struck me, therefore, that the criteria that Latour identified for achieving “action at a distance” are the criteria for a good zettelkasten system.

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First, such a system should provide the ability to extract relevant bits of information to make them “mobile,” to take them out of their immediate context so that they can be used later without the need to go back again and again to the original source.

But, second, to be useful, those pieces must remain “stable.” This means that they should, when created, be sensitive to the original context as much as possible.

  • They should also be linked clearly to their original source–i.e. they should have citation information and page numbers.
  • It should be clear whether the note contains a direct quote or a paraphrase.
  • Finally, the pieces should not “decay” over time, meaning that they should be kept in a system that is as “future proof” as much as possible.

When we look at Luhmann’s system, for example, it was able to serve him for many years. A system that becomes obsolete easily and requires redesign and migration of data too often will not provide the stability necessary to serve its long term purpose.

Finally, third, the pieces that we collect in a zettelkasten must be combinable. We need the ability to cross-reference, categorize, group, and make links between our individual notes. Then, we need the ability to further shuffle and re-combine when we slot these notes into the outlines for our writing.

These three criteria build off of one another. The pieces must first be extracted if they are to be shuffled, combined, and re-combined. They must also remain stable if they are to be combinable. Again, full citation data for each piece is essential. The pieces cannot be shuffled and recombined if, once the operation is complete, we no longer know where each piece originated. Mobile pieces are of little value if they do not remain stable. Mobile and stable pieces are of little value if they are not used by shuffling and combining them in new and interesting ways. Finally, combinability is not possible without mobility and stability.

Lessons For Designing a Personal Zettelkasten System

In designing a system, mobility, stability, and combinability suggest a number of requirements to consider:

Mobility – Ease of data extraction and entry. If it is not easy to extract relevant information and enter it into our system, we are less likely to do it. What happens is that we then have lots of notes and marks in the margins of books and articles, but we never extract the relevant information and put it into our system. The pieces are extremely stable. They remain in their original context and it is easy to know from whence they came, their page number, etc. But they have not been rendered mobile and are, therefore, not combinable or useful.

Stability – On the other hand, we could easily just collect lots of quotes or paraphrases as we read. This is not a problem. But those notes and quotes are not stable unless they have complete citation information associated with them. But, including that information with each note is a hassle and adds to the time it takes to enter a note into our system. The more time it takes, the less likely we are to do it consistently, the fewer mobile and, ultimately, combinable pieces we will have. So, our system needs to make it relatively fast and easy to include full citation and page number data with each piece we enter into our system.

Additionally, we want to “future proof” our system against the kind of “decay” that comes from technological changes leading to obsolescence. A zettelkasten gains in value over time. So, if our system does not have longevity, we lose much of the value of this method. If we have a system that goes obsolete, have to start over with a new system, and then do not or cannot migrate our data easily, then we have a fragmented zettelkasten that is significantly less valuable for us. If this happens repeatedly, we really have a problem.

Combinability – To achieve combinability, we need some way to search, tag, and aggregate our pieces. This can include some use of one or more of the following methods:

  • initial tagging* upon entry
  • ability to aggregate all pieces with the same tags or a combination of tags, as well as all pieces from the same source or combination of sources
  • ability to create higher-level groupings of pieces outside the tag structure
  • ability to discover related pieces
  • ability to directly link pieces to one another (e.g. wiki linking)
  • I know that the issue of tagging notes (or not) has been a contentious one among the zettelkasten community, with some arguing against this practice. Having also been influenced by qualitative analysis methods like grounded theory and the related concepts of “coding” one’s data, the idea of “tagging” one’s notes does not bother me. As the kids say these days, “You do you.”

Personally, I think Latour is correct that one of the most powerful things about the emergence of modern science is the ability to “act a distance” as described above. This involves taking portions of our world and rendering them mobile, stable, and combinable in ways that allow us to know and do more than we were able to before. Viewed through this lens, I think we can make a good case that zettelkasten too is a method for action at a distance and, as such, not just any method of note taking or information management, but a quite scientific one too.