Friday, 29 July 2022

Building a knowledge network

I plan on restarting my PhD, and am currently exploring tools to smooth the process. Open to any hacks I can find, recently I saw a video by Morgan Eua (2022), a Canadian PhD scholar who is using two key pieces of kit for her study: a system of notation called Zettelkasten; and a tool to trap the information called Obsidian.

The system: Zettelkasten

Zettelkasten is a note taking system or process. A knowledge management web, perhaps. It was designed by sociologist and professor Niklas Luhmann somewhere in the 1950s, enabling him to publish over 550 pieces of academic work during his lifetime. Having died in 1993, Professor Luhmann's papers apparently contain a hundred or more semi-complete papers which are still being worked through and are being published thirty years posthumously (Schmidt, 2016).

This prolific output is attributed to the card index system that Professor Luhmann developed to codify his ideas, the connection between ideas, and bridging theory. On some 67,000 A6 index cards, he collected bibliographic information, small excerpts from readings, and page numbers detailing the academic reading. Each card contains one idea from a reading, which he later connected to other cards via his filing method. The filing method used a numbering system similar to a Word document outline: setting master chapters (e.g. 3), then each sub-heading (3.1), and sub-sub-heading (3.1.1) slipped underneath where there was connection (Schmidt, 2016). Thus ideas were cross-tabbed as they were consumed and processed.

Professor Luhmann effectively created a far more detailed Dewey decimal system to reorganise his notes into concept clusters, as each was filed (Schmidt, 2016). Each idea had a separate note, and bibliographic links/ideas would be filed in multiple places, wherever the source linked to any other idea in his taxonomy. This enabled him to more easily write: he effectively had a non-computerised database.

For the more practical applications of Zettelkasten, also read Ahrens (2017), and Fast (2020).

 The tool: Obsidian

Luckily, we can use Professor Lehmann's system using a computer instead of index cards. Obsidian allows us to trap the same ideas using a live link label feature. Even better, we only need trap each idea once to allow multiple notes/links/nodes to form, building a nodular cloud (Eua, 2022, 15:03). While there are a number of tutorials for how to do this, I was very taken with Morgan Eua's video (2022), which laid out her thought process with a quick tutorial clearly showing the benefits of where the two systems connect. 

We can create labels for the bibliographic entry, insert quotes, page numbers, write the item in our own words for what each idea actually means to us, and link to multiple other notes. One entry on its own has no value. 100 entries from a single piece of work has a small amount of meaning. But 100 entries from 100 pieces of academic writing starts to map a PhD (Eua, 2022), and helps us to see connections which we may not have seen without a lot more time to think.

The best thing is that Obsidian is downloadable as freeware if you are a single user (2022). See the link below. 

Morgan recommended a list of sources, which I relist below, along with Morgan's video, which is well worth a watch (Eua, 2022).

Good luck!



Ahrens, S. (2017). How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Eua, M. (28 January 2022). The FUN and EFFICIENT note-taking system I use in my PhD [video].

Fast, S. (27 October 2020). Introduction to the Zettelkasten Method.

Obsidian. (2022). Pricing [and download link]. 

Schmidt, J. F. K. (2016). Chapter 12: Niklas Luhmann’s Card Index: Thinking Tool, Communication Partner, Publication Machine. In A. Cevolini (Ed.) Forgetting Machines: Knowledge Management Evolution in Early Modern Europe (pp. 287-311). Brill Publishers.

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