Atomic Notes

    TiddlyWiki is a really useful writing tool

    I use Tiddlywiki as a writing tool, and as a heavily customised Zettelkasten (an ‘index box’ of notes). I love how readily this toolkit can be tailored to suit my workflow and requirements. That means there isn’t really a best version, since it can become what you make of it. I was slightly confused when I started, since it’s different from other writing tools. But you can just start simple and slowly add the functionality that you like to use. Reminding myself to document all my changes and experiments, inside my TW, really helps. Superficially, it’s just a wiki app, but there’s so much more to it than that.

    I find Soren Bjornstad’s online version,Tzk, very inspiring. It really shows some amazing possibilities for a personal Zettelkasten-style notebook. His GrokTiddlyWiki tutorial is fabulous too, but it’s a bit of a rabbit hole. Maybe better to just get started and then do the tutorials.

    I love the look of Projectify and have used the notebook palettes that it comes with.

    To enable backlinks I have found a couple of basic plug-ins really useful and would strongly recommend:


    This adds a footer to your notes to show backlinks and freelinks.


    This enables automatic renaming of titles and other items across links.

    For a to-do list, I greatly admire Projectify, but what I actually use is the simple but effective Chandler, written by the late Joe Armstrong. He talks you through how he wrote it, which in itself is a masterclass in how to customise TiddlyWiki.

    Finally I’ll mention the active and very helpful user forum.

    If you’d like to discuss any aspect of TiddlyWiki or note-making generally, I’m all ears.

    Ted Nelson's Evolutionary List File

    Rick Wysocki has a great post introducing Ted Nelson’s innovative idea for a new kind of file system. New, at least, in 1965.

    Ted Nelson’s Evolutionary List File and Information Management

    In many ways though, we’re still waiting for this kind of approach to become available.

    The 1965 paper begins with a programmatic statement that has still not been fulfilled:

    “The kinds of file structures required if we are to use the computer for personal files and as an adjunct to creativity are wholly different in character from those customary in business and scientific data processing. They need to provide the capacity for intricate and idiosyncratic arrangements, total modifiability, undecided alternatives, and thorough internal documentation.”

    Ted Nelson, in case you don’t know, was the first person to coin the term ‘hypertext’, and this is the first published reference to hypertext. In his post, Wysocki reflects on the connections across decades between Nelson’s ideas and the contemporary interest in ‘personal knowledge management’ and Niklas Luhmann’s non-hierarchical Zettelkasten system of notes. He sees the Zettelkasten as potentially more creative than many contemporary systems because it doesn’t impose a fixed system of categories from the top down.

    “Creating hierarchies and outlines of information can be useful, but many don’t realize that outlines have to work on existing material; they are not creative practices themselves (Nelson 135b). This is why the common myth we tell ourselves and our students that an outline should be worked on before writing at best makes little sense and at worst is cruel; how can we outline ideas we haven’t created yet?”

    He praises Nelson’s list file approach, where everything is provisional, and can be changed. Fixed categories are out; lists are in. Nelson saw his hypothetical system as a kind of ‘glorified index file’, which is where the connection with Niklas Luhmann’s (quite different) approach comes in. Sadly, most attempts at providing computerised tools for writers have thrown out the affordances that previous analogue systems offered, almost without noticing their loss. Nelson’s ‘Project Xanadu’, notoriously, was never completed. But there are some gains. I’m reminded of TiddlyWiki, in which nearly everything is a list, even the application itself.

    The original paper , ‘Complex Information Processing: A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing, and the Indeterminate’, can be found online as a PDF.

    A Network of notes is a rhizome not a tree

    Richard Giblett's 2008 drawing, graphite on paper, of a mycelium rhizome

    The Zettelkasten is not just an outline

    The Zettelkasten approach to making notes and writing is not the same as creating a standard outline. An outline is basically linear and hierarchical. It’s a tree-like structure. It’s ‘arborescent’. The Zettelkasten on the other hand is a non-linear, non-hierarchical network, that includes hierarchical and linear structures, but is not bound by them. The Zettelkasten is more like a ‘rhizomatic’ structure. It has many connections, but no obvious central trunk. It’s like ginger.

    The Zettelkasten can include outlines

    The process of writing an article or book might well involve preparing an outline (e.g. a table of contents), but this is done from the contents of the Zettelkasten, not directly by the Zettelkasten itself. The idea is for the Zettelkasten to maintain a more fluid structure than a hierarchical outline, to allow idea formation, prior to the composition of a tightly-structured argument. I do have tables of contents, structure notes, ‘maps of content’, hubs, indices, etc. within my Zettelkasten, but ultimately each of these is just another note in the wider network.

    Notes connect in several different ways

    Links can connect notes in all kinds of directions. Niklas Luhmann emphasised this possibility of referral [Verweisungsmöglichkeiten]:

    “When there are multiple options you can solve the problem by placing the note wherever you want and create references to capture other possible contexts.” - Luhmann, Communication with Zettelkasten

    Consider too Daniel Lüdecke’s presentation on Zettelkasten structure PDF. This clearly shows what Luhmann did and didn’t do (according to Lüdecke at least - see especially slide 31 or thereabouts).

    Avoid premature closure

    A finished piece of work such as a book or article is fixed. Its structure is basically final. This is not true of your notes. They are still fluid, still open to shuffling and re-shuffling. The Zettelkasten’s adaptive structure is confirmed by Schmidt’s summary:

    “At first glance, Luhmann’s organization of his collection appears to lack any clear order; it even seems chaotic. However, this was a deliberate choice. It was Luhmann’s intention to “avoid premature systematization and closure and maintain openness toward the future”. A prerequisite for a creative filing system, Luhmann noted, is “avoiding a fixed system of order”. He pinpoints the disadvantages that come with one of the common systems of organizing content in the following words: “Defining a system of contents (resembling a book’s table of contents) would imply committing to a specific sequence once and for all (for decades to come!)”. His way of organizing the collection, by contrast, allows for it to continuously adapt to the evolution of his thinking.” - Johannes F.K. Schmidt. ‘Niklas Luhmann’s Card Index: Thinking Tool, Communication Partner, Publication Machine’, in Cevolini, Alberto.; Forgetting Machines : Knowledge Management Evolution in Early Modern Europe. Brill, 2016. Ch. 12, p. 300. PDF

    A disclaimer

    Your mileage may vary. When turning your note-work into a network, do what works for you, not what worked for a dead German sociologist.

    See also:

    Walter Benjamin on the obsolete book

    “Already today, as the current scientific mode of production teaches, the book is already an obsolete mediation between two different card file systems. For everything essential is found in the index box of the researcher who wrote it, and the scholar who studies it assimilates it in his own card file.”

    “Und heute schon ist das Buch, wie die aktuelle wissenschaftliche Produktionsweise lehrt, eine veraltete Vermittlung zwischen zwei verschiedenen Kartotheksystemen. Denn alles Wesentliche findet sich im Zettelkasten des Forschers, der’s verfaßte, und der Gelehrte, der darin studiert, assimiliert es seiner eigenen Kartothek."

    Walter Benjamin - Attested Auditor of Books, in One Way Street (1928) 💬


    Was the book really already obsolete in 1928, as the German cultural theorist Walter Benjamin claimed?

    If so, it has nevertheless enjoyed a long and distinguished afterlife. And Benjamin’s sly reference to what ‘the current scientific mode of production’ teaches, may suggest a certain irony in his claim.

    But the real irony is that the card index was sooner for obsolescence than the book. During the 1980s and accelerating into the 1990s millions of index cards were thrown out, to be replaced with computer databases. Despite a very niche resurgence of interest in the quaint technologies of the ‘Zettelkasten’ (German for ‘index card box’, there’s no real sign of a come-back. The book, meanwhile, has been assailed mightily by the e-book, but as Monty Python fans would say: “It’s just a flesh wound”.

    However, another way of viewing this technological transition would be to say that the card index, in the new form of the electronic database, has utterly triumphed. Now everything is just the front-end of a database, including books.

    A cardboard box on the street, containing a set of card index drawers for disposal. An attached hand-written note says: Rubbish - please clear away.


    Benjamin, W. (2016[1986]) One Way Street, Trans. E. Jephcott. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. P. 43.


    Cited in Stop Taking Regular Notes; Use a Zettelkasten Instead - Hacker News

    See also: Researching Benjamin Researching

    Hermann Burger - Serious about a Zettelkasten?

    Hermann Burger's red typewriter. Source: Wikipedia

    The Swiss writer Hermann Burger (1942–1989) wrote the draft of a novel in 1970 called Lokalbericht (1970) [Local Report].

    “‘Local Report’ – I already have the title, the hardest part of a book. Now, I’m just missing the novel.” [“Lokalbericht – den Titel, das Schwierigste an einem Buch, habe ich schon. Fehlt mir nur noch der Roman."]

    The story’s narrator was right. Burger was a poet and novelist but he never finished this early novel. He died in 1989 and it wasn’t published until October 2016. I found a single English-language review.

    The protagonist of Lokalbericht, the young teacher Günter Frischknecht1 is in the canton of Ticino trying to write two pieces of work at the same time, a dissertation and a novel, writing on two different typewriters and using two different Zettelkästen. These two card indices get mixed up and the slips intermingle. What to do in this situation? Reality and fiction apparently can no longer be distinguished.

    This farcical Zettelkasten confusion is foreshadowed early on in the novel by Frishknecht’s academic supervisor Professor Kleinert, of whom he says:

    “He didn’t believe I could actually be serious about a Zettelkasten.” [“Dass ich tatsächlich Ernst machen könnte mit einem Zettelkasten, hat er mir wohl kaum zugetraut."]

    This story-line seems to be consistent with a long-standing trope among scholars that the loose slips of paper with which they ordered their work could at any moment get mixed up, or even worse, blow away, resulting in chaotic disorder.

    Well, now it’s all been put back together. There’s a very impressive interactive online version of the novel, and in 2017 there was an exhibition centred upon it at the Aarau Museum.

    It was Manfred Kuhn’s wonderful, though sadly defunct, blog Taking Note Now that originally alerted me to this novel and the Zettelkasten mix-up, but I had completely forgotten.

    1. a composite name made up of Günter Grass and Max Frisch, with more than a nod to the old Knecht, the Magister Ludi of The Glass Bead Game↩︎

    Thoughts are nest-eggs - Thoreau on writing

    In October 1837 the writer Ralph Waldo Emerson prompted the twenty-year-old Henry David Thoreau to start writing a journal.

    “‘What are you doing now?’ he asked. ‘Do you keep a journal?’ So I make my first entry to-day.”

    Thoreau finished up with fourteen full notebooks: seven thousand pages, and two million words. Small fragments can add up to an awful lot. From these fragments he constructed pretty much all of his completed works. What began as jottings ended up as mature reflections.

    He claimed his disconnected thoughts provoked others, so that ‘thought begat thought’.

    Thoreau wrote in his journal:

    “To set down such choice experiences that my own writings may inspire me – and at least I may make wholes of parts.

    Certainly it is a distinct profession to rescue from oblivion and to fix the sentiments and thoughts which visit all men more or less generally. That the contemplation of the unfinished picture may suggest its harmonious completion. Associate reverently, and as much as you can with your loftiest thoughts. Each thought that is welcomed and recorded is a nest egg – by the side of which more will be laid. Thoughts accidentally thrown together become a frame – in which more may be developed and exhibited. Perhaps this is the main value of a habit of writing – of keeping a journal. That so we remember our best hours – and stimulate ourselves. My thoughts are my company – They have a certain individuality and separate existence – aye personality. Having by chance recorded a few disconnected thoughts and then brought them into juxtaposition – they suggest a whole new field in which it was possible to labor and to think. Thought begat thought.” – Henry David Thoreau, The Journal, January 22, 1852.

    The writer, according to Thoreau, doesn’t have a privileged position in relation to ideas or experiences. Everyone has the same access to their “sentiments and thoughts.” But the writer’s special task is to record them.

    Thoreau’s meticulous editing process moved from raw field notes, to his journal, to lectures, to essays, and from there to published books. Walden, for example, was published after seven drafts, which took the author nine years to complete.

    “The thoughtfulness and quality of his journal writings enabled him to reuse entire passages from it in his lectures and published writings. In his early years, Thoreau would literally cut out pages or excerpts from the journal and paste them onto another page as he created his essays.” - Thoreau’s Writing - The Walden Woods Project

    This pretty much sums up the Zettelkasten approach to note-making for me. Thoreau lays out a simple process for “fixing” one’s thoughts in writing and for making something of them.

    • Record your thoughts, one by one.
      • “Each thought that is welcomed and recorded is a nest egg…”
    • Build up a collection of notes, without worrying about whether they are coherent.
      • “…by the side of which more will be laid.”
    • Connect your notes, creating a dense network of association.
      • “Thoughts accidentally thrown together become a frame in which more may be developed and exhibited
    • Construct meaning from your previously disconnected thoughts
      • “Thought begat thought.”

    Note that the thoughts don’t necessarily follow on from one another. The very next idea Thoreau noted in his journal is on a completely different subject: the colour of the winter sun not long before dusk.

    Someone who has found their own distinctive approach to writing that seems to echo that of Thoreau is Visakan Veerasamy. He lives in the 21st Century, not the Nineteenth, and instead of a cabin in the woods he probably has a laptop in a cafe. Instead of field notes he writes using tweets and threads, which he then links together in a dense network of thought.

    “I’ve basically taught myself to manage my ADHD with notes and threads."- Visakan Veerasamy

    What calls Visakan to mind as I reflect on Thoreau’s writing practice is the sense they both seem to share of the seriousness of the practice of making something from nothing by writing short notes in a journal. Visakan says something of which I’m sure both Thoreau and Emerson would have approved:

    in a way journaling for yourself is a radical act! It’s an act of self-ownership, self-education. It’s about setting your own curriculum, defining your own worldview, deciding for yourself what is important. I don’t think this should be outsourced to others.

    People tend to think of writers like Thoreau as immensely successful. True he became a popular speaker, but Thoreau was not a successful writer, at least not in his lifetime.

    “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers [1849] was initially an abysmal failure. Henry was forced to take back the books that were not sold, totalling 706 out of the 1,000 originally printed. Writing humorously of the event in his journal, he quipped, “I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself” (Thoreau 459). Walden [1854], in contrast, was a relatively successful book, though it took most of the rest of Thoreau’s life to sell the 2,000 books of the first edition.” – Thoreau’s Writing - The Walden Woods Project

    This knowledge inspires me to write without too much concern for the outcome, and to focus instead on those aspects of the process that lie within my control - recording my thoughts and like Thoreau turning them into nest eggs.


    The Journal

    Thoreau, Henry David. 2009. The Journal, 1837-1861. Edited by Damion Searls. New York: New York Review Books.

    Thoughts as nest eggs

    Thoreau SubReddit

    Image of Thoreau suitable for use on currency

    Image of Henry David Thoreau, suitable for use on currency.

    How to be interested in everything

    A Day With Thomas Edison - a still from a 1922 movie.

    Thomas Edison claimed he was interested in everything

    “One day while Mr. Edison and I were calling on Luther Burbank in California, he asked us to register in his guest book. The book had a column for signature, another for home address, another for occupation and a final one entitled ‘Interested in’. Mr. Edison signed in a few quick but unhurried motions… In the final column he wrote without an instant’s hesitation: ‘Everything'”. - Henry Ford on Thomas Edison. Quoted by John Naughton

    It’s all very well to believe that everything interests you, but what does that mean in practice?

    If you really were interested in everything, how would you get anything done? Each new thing you encountered would surely distract you from your previous interest, and you’d end up surrounded by a heap of unfinished projects. But Thomas Edison, the prolific inventor, had a heap of finished projects - innovative products ready for the market and ready to transform society. More than 1000 US patents were filed under his name, including some of the greatest inventions of all time.

    But when nothing prevents you from chasing a new interest, how do you stay focused for long enough to complete the work in front of you?

    You need a system

    What was Thomas Edison’s system for staying on track? He was clearly very effective, so he must have been able to harness his many diverse interests to produce outcomes. How did he do it? How did he avoid ‘shiny object syndrome’?

    Edison recorded everything meticulously. He used notebooks and legers extensively and he encouraged his laboratory workers to do the same. The resulting mountain of notes is a treasure trove for understanding where Edison’s ideas came from and how they developed over time. In their day, these records were mainly used to ensure patents could be registered and defended. Now though, up to five million pages of Edison’s massive work can be studied online through the Edison Project at Rutgers University.

    For individuals today, without a team of engineers behind them, but with the amazing advantage of Twenty-first century technology, being interested in everything is a great opportunity, if only we can harness it. Then like Edison, we can happily admit that we’re interested in everything, and put our diverse interests to work.

    Publish small fragments to create a larger whole

    According to Cory Doctorow, the prolific author and tech activist, blogging (or whatever you want to call it this week) allows you to write simple fragments each day about what interests you today, and to publish it, quite without friction. Over time, Doctorow attests, these small fragments coalesce, and begin to add up to something more substantial.

    the traditional relationship between research and writing is reversed. Traditionally, a writer identifies a subject of interest and researches it, then writes about it. In the (my) blogging method, the writer blogs about everything that seems interesting, until a subject gels out of all of those disparate, short pieces.

    Blogging isn’t just a way to organize your research — it’s a way to do research for a book or essay or story or speech you don’t even know you want to write yet. It’s a way to discover what your future books and essays and stories and speeches will be about.

    Mattias Ott has more to say about this process, and if you read German, there’s even more.

    It’s still just up to you

    You might well be interested in everything, but the bottleneck all your interests must pass through is you. The measure of your note-taking and writing system is the extent to which it helps you make sense of your diverse interests in a way that communicates meaningfully to yourself and/or to others. Publishing small fragments as you go, which then add up to larger pieces is a way forward that just wasn’t possible in Edison’s day, but is easily available online now to anyone who wants to pursue it.

    The lost index cards of Harold Innis

    Chris Aldridge has discovered yet another writer who used index cards to construct an extensive body of work from smaller pieces. This practice is often referred to as keeping a Zettelkasten, whether or not the owner was actually German.

    The Idea File of Harold Adams Innis (University of Toronto Press, 1980) reproduces an edited version of the typescript Innis, an economic historian, made of his original index cards.

    Chris wonders if the index cards themselves might be re-issued for interested readers.

    While I appreciate the published book nature of the work, it would be quite something to have it excerpted back down to index card form as a piece of material culture to purchase and play around with. Perhaps something in honor of the coming 75th anniversary of his passing?

    I guess such a work might look something like the 138-index-card edition of Nabokov’s unfinished novel, The Original of Laura, which Chip Kidd designed; or his dream diary, constructed from 118 index cards and published with some images of the original notes as Insomniac Dreams.

    Sadly, a new edition such as this seems unlikely. That’s because according to the Introduction of the Idea File, Innis himself had around 1,500 of his index cards transcribed to 339 typed and numbered sheets of paper. And the cards themselves were lost, it seems, so I’m not holding my breath. However, it’s always possible that some interpid researcher might investigate the archives1 and discover them hidden away there one day. Stranger things have happened.

    “The early history of the material that came to be called the Idea File is obscure. Innis’s son, Donald, recalls that his father used to keep notes on card files, and that there were, at one point, about eighteen inches of white cards, with another five or so inches of white cards containing an index. This index, according to Donald Innis constituted ‘a cross referencing system so that one idea might be referred to under several headings and vice-versa’. These cards appear to have been in manuscript. However, at some point or points, Innis had these notes typed on sheets of paper, and near the end of his life collected the typed notes into one collation which he numbered consequently from 1 to 339.

    The cards themselves appear to be lost. It is possible that they still existed at Innis’s death, for there is a second typed version of part of the Idea File. What might have happened is that in the process of preparing Innis’s posthumous material for limited circulation, a typist began working from the cards; then, during the typing, the family discovered the typed version and stopped the retyping.”

    I’ve gleaned a few ideas from all this.

    First, cross-referencing matters. Innes kept a very extensive index to his cards: 5 inches of index to 18 inches of actual notes. This means his ideas were probably extensively cross-referenced. Makes me think no amount of cross-referencing is too much, if you feel like doing it. But also: don’t get obsessive. Life’s too short to cross-reference everything.

    Second, I’m wondering about longevity of work. It really seems like the original notes on index cards were lost. This is such an interesting feature of the resurgence of interest in the working methods of writers and scholars. Is the ‘finished product’ - book or article - really more important and permanent than the supposedly transient and disposable noted from which it was created? And what happens to the ‘Nachlass’ in the age of digitization? Is it both eternal and wipeable at the same time?

    Third, the meaning is in the links, but the links are fragile. Given the interlinking of the original notes and their subsequent disappearance, it’s fairly clear that the published ‘idea file’ has lost a significant part of its meaning, since that meaning resides in the links between ideas, not just in the ideas themselves.

    Fourth, I noticed that Innis’s notes were often very short. Sometimes just a sentence or two, with compressed, abbreviated syntax. It reminds me of Lichtenberg’s aphorisms, many of which fall slightly flat as prose. Here’s an example. I just wonder what it used to link to:

    “University presidents giving each other degrees. A university not an institution designed to that end, or to give members of boards of governers degrees.”

    I really appreciate looking into the working practices of writers like this. No doubt there are many more such examples to be found and explored.

    1. Manuscript Collection #845, Innis Papers, Archives of the University of Toronto, Thomas Fisher Library, Box 8 ↩︎

    I read the top ten Zettelkasten posts on Hacker News so you can do something more wholesome with your day

    I really did read a lot of geeky Zettelkasten posts and now I’m going to share them with you

    Every so often someone on Hacker News mentions Zettelkasten, a method of making longer work from simple, connected notes. An interesting conversation usually follows. Several of these posts have reached the front page of the Hacker News site, making their authors ‘HN famous’, which is the geek’s version of blowing up on TikTok. The top Zettelkasten post there has around 300 comments, while the 10th has 31.

    It’s worth staying a little sceptical about whether visibility on Hacker News is a good proxy for competence. But the comments are usually interesting and often helpful. So here’s a countdown of the top Zettelkasten posts, from 10 to 1. And here, top simply means ‘most commented upon’. For your reference, I’ve noted whether each article is introductory/basic, intermediate/involved, or advanced/complex.

    And I’d be interested to know what your favourite Zettelkasten article or resource is - there are a lot to choose from. Or else feel free to tell me exactly why you think this is all a daft waste of time.

    So now…

    The Zettelkasten article top ten countdown

    10. Zettelkasten, linking your thinking, and Nick Milo’s search for ground


    Bob Doto, presents a constructive comparison of two different approaches to note-making. The Zettelkasten method, and Nick Milo’s ‘Linking Your Thinking’ (LYT) may appear similar, but as this article points out, they’re really quite different:

    “The things that differentiate zettelkasten from LYT are the very things that make each system truly work.”

    Bob has some additional articles about the Zettelkasten approach, which are highly recommend.




    9. Org-roam-UI – graphical front end for exploring your org-roam Zettelkasten


    Org-Roam is a plain text knowledge management system based on Emacs Org-mode. This post provides an add-on visual interface that shows a map of your notes, similar to other tools such as Roam, Obsidian and Logseq. The tool is “a frontend for exploring and interacting with your org-roam notes.” If you use Org-mode and think you might need this, read on.



    Github Repo

    8. The Zettelkasten Method (2019)


    Abram Demski of goes to town on explaining the evolution of his paper-based Zettelkasten system. He uses 3x5 inch index cards, but he also tried Workflowy and has nice things to say about it. There’s a follow-up at the end, in which the author says he now uses notebooks, but still finds the Zettelkasten referencing system very useful. Along the way he offers one of my favourite principles: “small pieces of paper are just modular large pieces of paper”. This particular article also one of Abram’s top posts on






    (Yes, this article covers a lot)

    7. My Second Brain – Zettelkasten


    Web developer Scott Spence writes about the tools he has been using for notetaking: GitHub, Notion, RoamResearch, Obsidian, Foam. There’s a helpful warning at the top of the article that since it’s three years old the technical details may be out of date. This post is for lovers of digital tools!



    6. Luhmann’s Zettelkasten


    An article from a small German software company about Niklas Luhmann and the structure of his notes. Warning: the description here of how Luhmann connected notes through consecutive numbering (Folgezettel) seems a little simplistic. And TBH I’m not sure how useful this article really is, but the authors do seem to have succeeded with the HN popularity contest.



    5. Introduction to the Zettelkasten Method


    A very full introduction to the Zettelkasten method, by Sascha Fast of It’s a great introduction, which also goes into useful depth. If you’ve already been building your Zettelkasten for a while, it’s worth coming back to this to see what you can pick up now you’ve got a real example to play with. These guys also have an app (the Archive) and a great forum, but if you’re reading this you probably already know that.




    4. Zettelkästen?


    Brian Kam (of Interintellect) writes a simple summary of the Zettelkasten approach, with a follow-up post two years later, by which time he was no longer a beginner since he’d written (drum roll…) 6,837 notes. He implements his Zettelkasten with a Git-based wiki.



    3. A tour to my Zettelkasten note clusters




    Tech writer Mingyang Li describes his Zettelkasten categories in Obsidian. There are categories like ‘Journal’, ‘chat with people’ and ‘distinguishing-between’. It’s quite useful to see how one person benefits from specific clusters of notes.

    2. Zettelkasten note-taking in 10 minutes




    GitLab software engineer Tomas Vik runs through the slip-box method, based on Sönke Ahrens’s book, How to Take Smart Notes. He recommends creating individual plain text (markdown) files and gives clear examples of how this is structured. He used Zettlr as his markdown-enabled text editor of choice, but mentions alternative apps that do similar things. As a bonus, there’s a follow-up post a year later, in which the author describes how his process has changed (not much) and why he now uses Logseq instead of Zettlr.

    1. Stop Taking Regular Notes; Use a Zettelkasten Instead




    Amazon data scientist Eugene Yan wins the HN Zettelkasten popularity prize with his post on how he implements the system in Roam. Well, it has attracted the most comments anyway. It’s a useful introduction, and commenters mention other apps such as TiddlyWiki, Obsidian and Workflowy. The author seems to have moved on, and started using Obsidian in 2023.


    Well done If you’ve read this far you are clearly my kind of person. Though you’ve probably noticed that these aren’t necessarily the very best articles about the Zettelkasten method. In any case, everyone differs on what that would even mean. But if you want to gain an understanding of this particular approach to note-making and writing, most of these articles are well worth reading. And if this was all you had available you’d certainly be able to make a good start.

    I was interested to discover that quite a few technically-competent people are interested in the Zettelkasten, and are even using one, and was mildly amused to see how keen some seem to be on their many and various digital tools.

    I found the follow-up posts, where they existed, the most useful, because they showed how the authors' methods had evolved over time, with actual Zettelkasten use. This is much better than the kind of breathless article that says, basically: “I heard about this Zettelkasten word two days ago and now I’m up against a deadline to post something, anything.” The HN comments are worth skimming too, not least because there are a some sensible criticisms of this system and plenty of alternative suggestions.

    To be honest, though, I’ve found the commentary on Reddit and at the forum to be generally of a higher quality. This is probably because the participants there are all already Zettelkasten-curious.

    Aby Warburg's Zettelkasten and the search for interconnection

    Aby Warburg and the compulsion to interconnect

    Aby Warburg was a German art historian obsessed with the connections he saw across European and Mediterranean culture in the afterlife of Antiquity. He even coined a phrase: Verknüpfungszwang - the compulsion to find connections.

    “Coining a word that is as fitting as it is symptomatic of the urge it describes, [Aby] Warburg spoke of his Verknüpfungszwang. This ‘compulsion to interconnect’ lies not only at the root of his research and working methods. It is also manifested in regular references within his work to events in his private life, his family and collaborators.” - The Warburg Institute

    Three projects in particular display Warburg’s extraordinary scholarly methods.

    “The library, panels and boxes formed the ensemble of supports on which Aby Warburg’s spiritual work and intellectual creativity were based.” - Benjamin Steiner, Aby Warburgs Zettelkasten Nr. 2 “Geschichtsauffassung”, In: Heike Gfrereis / Ellen Strittmatter (Hrsg.): Zettelkästen. Maschinen der Phantasie (Marbacher Kataloge, 66). Marbach 2013, S. 154-161.

    Taken together, these three amount to a technology for exploring Warburg’s obsession with interconnection.

    Aby Warburg

    Image source: Helix Center Warburg Symposium

    The Zettelkasten as a thread through the labyrinth of thought

    The first technology of note is Warburg’s Zettelkasten, his collection of index boxes, containing notes on many subjects.

    “Aby Warburg’s collection of index cards (III.2.1.ZK), containing notes, bibliographical references, printed material and letters, was compiled throughout the scholar’s life. Ninety-six boxes survive, each containing between 200 and 800 individually numbered index cards. Cardboard dividers and envelopes group these index cards into thematic sections. The online catalogue reproduces the structure of the dividers and sub-dividers with their original titles in German and consists of about 3,200 items.” - Warburg Institute Archive

    “…Warburg apparently worked constantly with these boxes, and, as his first biographer Carl Georg Heise has reported, he often stood with a strained facial expression bent over the mass of papers and arranged and shifted the individual cards in a long-lasting and never-ending process of order. “Those who follow Warburg’s note box follow his train of thought; from the banking system in Florence, the medieval trading company, the development of individuality, the restless professional work of the Calvinists and the Reformed form of asceticism, to Warburg’s own origin from the old Jewish banking family. The slip box is Warburg’s Ariadne’s thread through his labyrinthine library like his labyrinthine thinking: from the werewolf to the historical concept. A thought, an idea or a new concept does not emerge in a linear progression, but in a process of reciprocating units of ideas and cross-references, which continues until new intersections and nodes have formed.” - Benjamin Steiner, Aby Warburgs Zettelkasten Nr. 2 “Geschichtsauffassung”, In: Heike Gfrereis / Ellen Strittmatter (Hrsg.): Zettelkästen. Maschinen der Phantasie (Marbacher Kataloge, 66). Marbach 2013, S. 154-161.

    According to Fritz Saxl, Warburg’s assistant and collaborator, “this vast card-index had a special quality… they had become part of his system and scholarly existence”.

    “Often one saw Warburg standing tired and distressed bent over his boxes with a packet of index cards, trying to find for each one the best place within the system; it looked like a waste of energy. […] It took some time to realise that his aim was not bibliographical. This was his method of defining the limits and contents of his scholarly world and the experience gained here became decisive in selecting books for the Library.” - Fritz Saxl, The History of Warburg’s Library (1943-44, p. 329), quoted in Mnemonics, Mneme And Mnemosyne. Aby Warburg’s Theory Of Memory, Claudia Wedepohl (p.389).

    A library of good neighbours

    Second of note, and much larger than the card-index, is Warburg’s library. As the oldest son, Aby Warburg was in line to inherit his family’s seriously wealthy banking business. But his lack of interest in finance led him to offer the business to his younger brother Max, on the condition he could purchase any books he needed for his research into his true interest, art history. It may have seemed like a modest request, but Warburg’s book collection grew ever larger and eventually expanded into a significant research library. This library was organised like no other. The shelves, and eventually whole rooms were arranged to enable serendipitous connections across and between categories.

    “the book you need might not necessarily be the one you were looking for. It might, in fact, be the one next to it. The books are shelved around the law of the good neighbour, meaning that the library’s collection is organised thematically instead of by author, title, or publication date. Gertrud Bing, an architect of the classification system and director of the Institute when it moved to London, said that ‘the manner of shelving the books is meant to impact certain suggestions to the reader who, looking on the shelves for one book, is attracted by the kindred ones next to it, glances at the sections above and below, and finds himself involved in a new trend of thought which may lend additional interest to the one he was pursuing’. Although the Warburg’s serendipitous system may initially seem unconventional and somewhat esoteric, the structuring of the library’s collection around the law of the good neighbour means that it is much easier for readers to discover and find texts they didn’t even know they needed within the interconnected, interdisciplinary classmarks. For Warburg, every book was useful in the context of the whole collection.”

    …“the arrangement of the books at the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg, the first Warburg library in Hamburg, was intended to encourage rather than obstruct discoveries. Whenever Warburg, an avid book collector, took receipt of one of his many deliveries of new acquisitions, he would rearrange the shelves to accommodate each new book into the collection. In this way, his theories on the interrelation of various images, literary motifs and disciplines found physical form in the arrangement of the books on the shelves. Bing remarked that ‘Warburg had chosen and arranged the books like stones from a mosaic of which he had the pattern in his mind’. They were collected for research into specific areas, under a general theme of the afterlife of antiquity.” Source: The Warburg Institute

    An Atlas of Images

    The third technology for making connections was Warburg’s visual Memosyne Atlas, intended to demonstrate in a series of large panels the lines of connection between artistic motifs in varying periods and locations.

    “Warburg believed that these symbolic images, when juxtaposed and then placed in sequence, could foster immediate, synoptic insights into the afterlife of pathos-charged images depicting what he dubbed “bewegtes Leben” (life in motion or animated life).” - ZKM Center for Art and Media

    Warburg’s institutional legacy

    These three enterprises, card index, library and atlas, are today combined into the Warburg Institute, which began life in Hamburg and since 1944 has been in London.

    Above the front door of the Institute is inscribed the Greek word MEMOSYNE. Warburg saw this not straightforwardly as the name of the goddess of memory, but as a sphynx presenting a great riddle. The Institute revolves around memory as a problem. What is memory? How does it persist in culture and individuals, and especially through art?

    “In the first public occurrence of the word “Mnemosyne” I am aware of in his writings, found in the annual report on the Library for the year 1925, Warburg identifies Mnemosyne not as the goddess of Memory and mother of the Muses but rather as “the great Sphynx,” out of whom he hopes “to unlock, if not her secret, at least the formulation of her riddle [der grossen Sphynx Mnemosyne, wenn auch nicht ihr Geheimnis, so doch die Formulierung ihrer Rätselfrage zu entlocken]”” – Davide Stimilli, «Aby Warburg’s Impresa», Images Re-vues (En ligne), Hors-série 4, 2013.

    Arguably, Warburg’s self-diagnosed Verknüpfungszwang, his ‘compulsion to interconnect’ hindered the completion and publication of his work. Perhaps his constant sorting and re-sorting represented a kind of perfectionism, or even a form of obsessive-compulsive behaviour. Indeed, he spent several years battling significant mental health problems and the end published comparatively little.

    However, in another sense, through his Zettelkasten, his library and his atlas of images, the compulsion to interconnect became Warburg’s life’s work. It is telling that though Warburg left relatively few completed texts, his institutional legacy, especially through London’s Warburg Institute and Hamburg’s Warburg-Haus, has proved extremely influential and highly intellectually fertile over many decades - and continues strongly into the Twenty-first Century.

    In his novel The White Castle (1998), Orhan Pamuk’s narrator says: “I suppose that to see everything as connected with everything else is the addiction of our time.” The life and legacy of Aby Warburg, shows that this doesn’t have to be a pointless pursuit of arbitrary links but can generate lasting knowledge and meaning with wide implications.

    Further reading and viewing:

    Chernow, Ron (1993). The Warburgs: The Twentieth Century Odyssey of a Remarkable Jewish Family. New York: Random House. ISBN 978-0525431831.

    The Warburg Institute Library: A Brief Description

    Introduction to the Warburg Institute Library and Collections - description of Warburg’s Zettelkasten at 8:36

    Aby Warburg: Metamorphosis and Memory - and Chris Aldridge’s online notes on this documentary (which is how I discovered it).

    Big changes at

    New year, new website (backend)

    It’s a new year, so it must be time for new web connections! Well, I finally decided to shift from a hosted Wordpress site to go all in on

    It was fairly easy to migrate, just following the instructions. Things already feel easier and less complicated.

    Why did I decide to make this change?

    1. I need a simpler system for online writing. It’s been clear for some time that Wordpress was holding me back. I know: “poor workers blame their tools”, and obviously there’s something wrong with me if I can’t just log in to Wordpress and write a line or two from time to time. But really, it felt as though the user interface was presenting a psychological barrier. Every time I logged in it seemed the WordPress UX had got more complex. Anyway, that’s my excuse. I’m hoping that a switch entirely to hosting will help the writing to flow a bit better.
    2. I like the IndieWeb. Although I had some Indieweb plug-ins set up on my Wordpress site, it didn’t feel as though they were getting much use. The Musky shenanigans at Twitter have made it even clearer that independence on the web is essential and that the true social network is the web itself. Switching to will hopefully connect me better, and if I ever change my mind, there’s no lock-in.
    3. Updating the app feels like a chore. When I checked my hosting dashboard it was clear that there were several insecurities caused by a lack of updating. I just hadn’t gotten around to it for ages. But really, I don’t have much interest in which version of PHP I’m supposed to be using, or what version the plug-ins are - so I’d rather not think about this side of things. If can do this for me, I’m not complaining.
    4. I also quite like Mastodon. has a certain amount of compatability with Mastodon, through the activitypub protocol. So I plan to try that out.
    5. Writing in Markdown syntax has become more and more intuitive to me, despite its limitations, and I like the relative simplicity of static sites. uses Hugo as its site generator, so now I’m now using Markdown to create static pages.

    Look, I’m not really complaining about WordPress. I like it, and Automattic isn’t Apple/Facebook/Google/Twitter/Amazon, so there’s that. If I had to choose a dictator to rule the world, Matt Mullenweg would be on my shortlist. It’s not Wordpress, it’s me. I’m ready for a change.

    Writing about reading

    Also, I’m making a commitment to writing about my reading in 2023.

    I love reading. Each year I read about 30-40 books and this year I’ll be writing about it here. There’ll soon be a ‘reading’ category at the top of the webpage. Why am I doing this?

    • for motivation, and
    • to leave a record, sharing what I know and
    • to encourage you, dear reader, to stop scrolling and go read a good book. has a series of companion apps, one of which is Epilogue. You can set an annual reading goal and every time you blog about a title you’ve finished, your goal moves one step closer to completion. also has some other great book-related features, including a handly bookshelf, and this is one of the things that made me want to switch.

    I keep a private TiddlyWiki Zettelkasten in which I already reflect on my reading, so the only real change is in making it public.

    Don’t panic

    So that’s what’s new. But don’t worry, whatever happens I’ll still be writing slowly.

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