Luhmann’s Zettelkasten with DEVONthink
I suppose every old scholar has had the experience of reading something in a book which was significant to him, but which he could never find again. Sure he is that he read it there, but no one else ever read it, nor can he find it again, though he buy the book and ransack every page.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
I use Circus Ponies Notebook for my notes on topics, resulting in Topic Notebooks which are inherently hierarchical: Sections, Pages, Cells in an Outliner — there is a strong structure in place. That can be very helpful to find what you are looking for, but it also poses problems if you want to work in a more networked, non-linear style, without a clear structure (at least in the beginning).
One old-school way of working in a more non-hierarchical way is the “Zettelkasten” by Niklas Luhmann. Luhmann, a prolific author, did write his notes on index cards and used a system with references to other index cards to organize his creative work (an interesting video is on YouTube, unfortunately in German).
Personally I wonder regarding the time distribution between working with the content and working to keep the system alive, but the system is impressive.
Today, there are digital systems which provide similar functionality. The probably best-known are Wikis, but there are also dedicated programs that strive to provide the same functionality, for example, the “Zettelkasten” (did not try it out, but seems to be a German product).
Given that I use DEVONthink, I was wondering whether it would be possible to use it for a “Zettelkasten”, and yup, it seems to work:
Okay, no screen captures before the first coffee — and that Latte is a serious disappointment, too chunky — anyway. Like written below, the # do not make sense and you probably cannot see the field for the tags at the bottom of the screen. Given that I did not put the files into a folder (group in DEVONthink), you have to click the area below the smart folders to show them (they are not in the Inbox).
It’s only a short proof of concept, given that I do not really work this way (well, it would be something for my idea database, come to think of it), but you can:
- easily create rtf files
Using the Icon which you can put into the task bar of DEVONthink), use the three panes view to quickly enter the text in the field below. RTF files allow for links, images, and the usual formatting, yet are still quick and easy to use.
- tag the files
Select View – Show Tags to get the tag bar below the entry. Enter the tags. DEVONthink supports auto-completion. Press enter after each tag, otherwise you get a different tag (“,” does not separate tags, see video). You can see the tags by using the icons on the left side (you can use this tag list to tag entries, just drag and drop the file on the tag).
- use references to other entries
You can “Copy Item Link”s and insert them into files where you want to create a link to another file. Note that the links themselves are references to a file in DEVONthink (e.g., x-devonthink-item://12225501-BB79-4904-8E0B-AD2C6491B316). This means they will work if you change the file name and you can also change the text of the reference, but you lose your links if you quit using DEVONthink. This means you should probably use the file names as link text or make very sure that you never quit using DEVONthink.
- You can use source information (but # won’t work)
Literature notes are worse than worthless if you do not have the source information. Given that the notes in a file will probably include more than one piece of information, you can simply copy and paste them where you need them. I strongly recommend using a standard format like authorname_(authorname_…)year. DEVONthink’s search function allows you to search for file names or content (and a lot more). However, using “tags” in the text like #apple# won’t work, DEVONthink seems to ignore the # which would differentiate a deliberately given text-tag from the normal occurrence of the word. If you want to use tags, use DEVONthink’s tags or make sure that the words you use are unique (like that author_year reference). Personally, I would store the literature in a reference manager, but you can also put the literature in this or another database. Note that if you put it in the same database, DEVONthink will include it in the “see also” results. In both cases you can copy the item link and directly refer to the files this way.
Note that “source_4″ is just an example, like “Aspect 1″ etc. If you’d use it, there would be something like “miller_1992″ or the like.
- Go backwards with the navigation triangles
DEVONthink allows you to quickly move back like the back and forwards button in a browser. Just use the triangle-arrows above the content field.
- Use the DEVONthink functionality like “See also”
DEVONthink has it’s own AI and analyzes the entries. You can use the “See also” function by clicking on the Wizard’s Hat in the bar above the file window. It will show you similar files.
But that’s it for now, if you are working this way I’d be very interested in a few comments — what works for you, what does not, what did change over time, etc. Perhaps I will play around with this way of organizing creativity for a while. My general idea collection (non-work related) is not that hierarchical and it might benefit from a few of the tips here.