March 4, 2020
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The New Zettelkasten

There’s a lot of interest lately in zettelkasten. In German, this just means “note cards”; the term alludes to the a 1992 chapter “Communicating With Slip Boxes: An Empirical Account” by Niklas Luhmann in which Luhman described his note-taking practice. The latest revival has centered around Roam Research, an interestingly hypertextual Web app by Conor White-Sullivan.

When I first read the Zettelkasten paper, in the late 90s, the interesting point was the physical filing system. Luhmann wound up with 20,000 note cards, which obviously is quite a stack to shuffle. His idea was to avoid systematic or categorical filing: every note had a unique number, which was arbitrary. If it wasn't obvious where a new note should go, you’d give it the next number in sequence and file it away at the end. If it was clear that a note belonged alongside some other note, you'd just extend the numbering system: if it belonged with Note 571, then this would be 571.a. The let you easily refer to (link) notes in other notes, and an external index listed interesting entry points for later use.

The new zettelkasten revival isn’t about all that: it’s about facile linking. Three components seem to be key:

Tinderbox is good at this, but it arguably could be better. Indeed, there's been a gargantuan thread on the Tinderbox Forum exploring various routes to faster or more facile link discovery.