Zettelkasten: one database or several databases?

In recent months I have decided to implement the Zettelkasten approach to taking reading notes a bit more rigorously than I did in the past, by which I mean that I started taking individual bite-size (index-card type) notes, rather than keeping all notes pertaining to a book or article within a single document. I created a separate database in ConnectedText (my Zettelkasten software) for this, which I named “Quotes.” I also created another database called “Notes” for my own ideas, which I intended to keep separate from “Quotes.” My main reasoning was that I wanted to keep “Quotes” ‘pure’ as a reading notes database, rather than contaminate it by a type of notes that were of a different provenance.

This dualism didn’t matter much until just recently, as I was almost exclusively taking reading notes, which allowed me to record my own associated comments, without the need to start populating the “Notes” database. You could say that I did not have any “original” ideas of my own to record. However, just today I had an idea, which, although inspired by my reading of a book, I thought was an original thought worthy of recording on its own. And then it dawned on me that I do not need to put that note into a separate database. I can just consider it a special type of a “reading note,” the author of which is me. Rather than recording it separately, I can just add my own name as an author in the Categories field, so that I can filter those, if needed. Otherwise there are all kinds of benefits to keeping it together with my other reading notes. For example, they can be searched together or grouped together thematically. And there is no need to be switching between databases.

I realise this may not sound like a very profound realisation that should merit its own blog post, but for some reason I found it a relief that I could reduce the number of databases for my notes. I still have my old “Readings” database, which is based on the principle of collecting all notes per publication in a single CT document. But since I’ve started using the index card approach, I had not felt the need to create another “Readings” entry. I suspect that one day I may break those up into index cards as well and merge them with the “Quotes” database (which I should really rename to “Quotes and Thoughts”).

How do you deal with quotes and your own thoughts? Do you keep them in the same database or in separate databases? Do you keep quotes and your comments about them in the same note or in separate ones? And why?

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17 thoughts on “Zettelkasten: one database or several databases?

  1. I do not separate my quotes & thoughts because my own thoughts are meant to reinforce the quotes & vice versa. Putting them into separate databases would actually weaken both & not deliver the full potential of my Zettelkasten.

    • Thanks for your comment. I agree with you. I still have two different types of notes though: 1) quotes with my comments, and 2) my own thoughts (not triggered by a specific reading). But they all go into the same Zettelkasten. The only difference is that the latter have me as the author in the title (as opposed to someone else being the author).

      • OK, I agree with you, I do it the same way. But I do also add my own comments to the note of another author if relevant, although I could also create a new note for that & put a a link in the other author’s note to mine. In any case we are on the same wavelength :-))

  2. Hello again, Dr.!
    I’ve decided to maintain my own thoughts together with my quotes. But I have some issues closely related to what Angry Thinker replied to you.
    Let’s assume that I’m reading a long and difficult book. I’m still trying to make sense of it. At some point I’m struggling with a doubt I have on how I should interpret some of the points the author made. I select some passages from different pages and try to make an argument in favour of one interpretation. I may even write more than one option of interpretation. Or I just try to express what exactly is puzzling me – I’m at the stage of trying to make sense of my reading, anyway.
    So, my question is: since you have two (or more) quotes and a comment relating one to another, how would you put it into your Zettelkasten? Would you have just one topic? Or would you have three topics, one for each quote and another one for your comment?
    Thank’s!

    • Hi Thiago,

      The situation you are referring to normally happens as I’m in the process of reading and note-taking. So there is a certain linearity and chronology to it. E.g. I read passage 1, create Zettel 1, and my comments. I read on, encounter passage 2, create Zettel 2, and my comments. I notice there is a relationship to Zettel 1, so I add a =See also= section in ConnectedText (which I know you also use), and create a link by dragging and dropping Zettel 1 into it. I may add a comment explaining the relationship. I read on, I come across passage 3, create Zettel 3, add my comment and add links to Zettel 1 and 2 as well, as they appear to be related, and explain or reflect on the relationship.

      Now, if Zettels 1, 2 and 3 together produced a significant new interpretation, I could create a new Zettel with my own name as author in its title as well as the name of the author I’m referring to, and record my own interpretation and synthesis as the main text of that note, with links to the three Zettels. In fact in my “Thought” template for my own ideas I have a heading called =Prompt= where I record the author or event or note that triggered that idea (as ideas rarely, if ever, come out of the blue, without some prompt).

      If it is important to see Zettels 1, 2, and 3 together, in order to add one’s thought to them, then, as you know, CT supports “inclusion” (transclusion), therefore it’s easy to include their texts in the same note, so they can be read together.

      But, if you had a sudden idea about 3 separate passages that you have not recorded in your Zettelkasten yet, there is no reason why you couldn’t just record them in a single Zettel, with your comment below or on top of them (whether you’re interpreting them or using them to support your argument).

      As to whether to entitle the Zettel with yourself as the main author or the source author, it’s not a clear-cut decision. But I only tend to use myself as the main author of a zettel if it’s a radical new interpretation or a highly critical one, which I would like to use as the basis of a paper’s main argument in the future. Otherwise I just include my interpretation under the quote of the original author (it’s easier to navigate the notes that way, if the author’s name is in the title of the zettel).

      • Thank you, Dr.!
        This makes perfect sense.
        Nowadays I’m trying to approach my readings with the following:
        – Create an outline to show the text’s structure
        – Create an index of the text’s main themes, concepts, ideas, etc.
        – Create the properly Zettel notes, with quotes and comments.
        The thing is, I’m usually reading at the iPad with GoodReader. At the first reading of a text, I usually try to make sense of it. So the first notes/comments/highlights I make are only provisional. I still have to refine it later. At this scenario, the creation of Zettels only occurs after I “fully” understand the text and complete the reading. I then use Zotfile to extract the notes and finally create Zettels at ConnectedText. This explains a bit why I frequently find myself in the position you mention here: “But, if you had a sudden idea about 3 separate passages that you have not recorded in your Zettelkasten yet, there is no reason why you couldn’t just record them in a single Zettel, with your comment below or on top of them (whether you’re interpreting them or using them to support your argument).” That is, I end up with a plain text file with a lot of chunks which I can arrange at my convenience. I don’t remember if you’re familiar with Zotfile, but it delivers a nice result. If you highlight a passage and make a comment on it, the extraction gives you both: first the highlighted text and below the comment in italics (it shows all the notes/highlights you made on the pdf in a linear way, that is, the first note on the page 1, the second note on the page 2, the first note on the page 2 and so on). This way I even could choose an approach which is not “quote-centric”, so to speak, to my Zettels. For instance, I could make a Zettel for each entry at my index, feeding it with both quotes and my own words.
        I’m still wondering if the above is a fine workflow, if it has too many steps, etc. Would you have any thoughts about it?
        Once again, thank you very much!

        • Hi Thiago,

          if it works for you, then I’m sure it’s fine! I don’t think it’s possible to come up with one generic workflow that would work for everyone for every reading situation. I have noticed that I need to do (at least two) different types of reading (and therefore note-taking) in different stages of a research project.

          One scenario, which sounds like what you’re describing, is when one is reading intensively, often long or difficult texts (for instance to develop a literature review), when it makes a lot of sense to try to work out and record (i.e. reverse outline) the overall logical structure of the argument and the text. For those situations I would also use PDF annotation, extraction, and then hierarchical outline organisation of notes (I have a blog post on here somewhere about how I did that with Freeplane, before exporting it into CT).

          The other scenario is when one is in a writing phase, or even a post-writing (promotion) phase, where you don’t read any long and heavy works but do come across individual interesting quotes or ideas which merit the creation of individual Zettels. In those situations I wouldn’t bother recording the outline of the source, as it’s possibly not that interesting or important. I’d just create an individual note in CT.

          • Thank’s to you, Dr.!
            So, at the “intesive reading” phase you still use the Zettelkasten approach?
            I’m looking forward to see how you’d handle all the process you described!
            I give I careful look at the post about how you did it with Freeplane.

            • Currently I’m thinking to use PDF annotation to highlight quotes and create notes, export them as a single plain text file, import into CT as a single long topic, add headings to reverse outline the overall argument’s logical structure, and then possibly create smaller index card size Zettels, but only of the most significant quotes and my thoughts that I want to emphasise as individual observations.

        • Oh, and thanks for bringing ZotFile to my attention. I’ve come across it before, and I even have Zotero installed on my system. The only reason I haven’t switched from EndNote to Zotero yet is because the raw code is a lot cleaner (simpler and shorter) in EndNote, when I’m writing in plain text and I paste in the reference. I just found the Zotero raw code for an individual reference too long, it created too much “noise” in the plain text. But anyway, I’ll check out ZotFile’s PDF extraction, as I’m also moving back into the “intensive reading” phase and will be annotating PDF files over the next few months.

          • Nice! Thank you!
            PS: About the ===Prompt=== at your thoughts template: do you put the reference with the attributes [[Author:]], [[Title:]], etc. under the heading? Or maybe just a link to the bibliographical topic?

            • I don’t use bibliographic topics, I might just paste in the reference from EndNote (and add the author etc. attributes), or a URL, or drag and drop an existing CT topic (or link to one in another CT project), or just describe it in my own words, if the prompt was another activity (like seeing something in TV) or another thought in my head.

              • Got it!
                Last questions, I swear:

                – You wrote: “As to whether to entitle the Zettel with yourself as the main author or the source author, it’s not a clear-cut decision. But I only tend to use myself as the main author of a zettel if it’s a radical new interpretation or a highly critical one, which I would like to use as the basis of a paper’s main argument in the future. Otherwise I just include my interpretation under the quote of the original author (it’s easier to navigate the notes that way, if the author’s name is in the title of the zettel).”
                Do you use your own name as a category at these both scenarios? I imagine that sometimes you just pick a quote and don’t make any comments about it. But sometimes you also make a comment, perharps an interpretation of the quote. Do you put yourself as I category at this latter case scenario?

                – When you write a thought and indicate a bibliographical source under ===prompt===, do you also put that bibliographical source as a category?

                – Where do you keep track of your doubts? With what type of note?

                I’m sorry for making all those questions!

                Thank’s again.

                • My answers in the order of your questions:

                  1) No. 2) No. 3) No, I never put bibliographic sources as a category. I only use the author’s name as a category if it’s a reasonably important author. Otherwise bibliographic sources are just put under the =Reference= heading (or =Prompt= heading), marked up with attributes.

                  4). I only keep track of my own “thoughts” separately when I record myself as an author in the title of the Zettel and in the category. I don’t do that for “Quote” zettels even if they contain a significant interpretation or commentary.

                  Let me explain why. In a sense all Zettels are **my** notes, even the “Quote” ones. The act of selecting the quote, giving it a descriptive title, and labelling it up with category tags is a form of interpretation, which is **my** interpretation and contribution. Every Zettel is in my database because I specifically selected it to be there and the title and categories explain why it has been included, even if there is no further comment (although I try my best to add interpretive commentary, whenever I can). For this reason I don’t feel the need to identify which Zettels might have extra comments from me. They all have my interpretation one way or another.

                  But if I want to make sure I remember a particular note with extra comments for future purposes, I may add a red exclamation mark icon to it in the Topic List pane, or I might create an outline file (.cto), and drag and drop the topic there, so I can remember to revisit it. Or I can copy the URL link and drop it into WorkFlowy, again, to remind myself to come back to it, or as a part of a developing outline for a paper.

                  • “1) No. 2) No. 3) No, I never put bibliographic sources as a category. I only use the author’s name as a category if it’s a reasonably important author.”

                    I see. If I’m not mistaken, you used to put the author’s name and the title of the source as a category at your quote notes. Is that right? If it is so, why did you change? I’m doing like you did some time ago, e.g., putting the author’s name as an attribute and also as a category. I thought that it would be nice to filter all the notes categorized with a title of a source, including the thoughts triggered by it. But you could have the same result by clicking at the attribute link, so I guess maybe it would be a little redundant. I’m still not sure about that.

                    As for my question about how you keep track of your doubts, I did it because I’m about to include them my doubts, as well as some little reminders, into the “thoughts” type of note. Here I’m not so sure as well. I mean, I’d use this type of note in a very flexible way. Perharps it would be better to create a different type of note, an “journal” broadly conceived. I’d use this type when, in the middle of a close reading of a text, something very remote comes to my mind and I don’t want to miss it. It could be a general doubt, a reminder (“I have to think about how to relate source A and B with that one I’m reading; perharps a good way would be through the concept X”… something like this, which maybe don’t stand for a thought strictly speaking). I don’t know how the structure of this type of note could look like – the same as “thoughts” with a different icon, maybe?

                    I know I didn’t keep my promisse to shut my questions up. I’m sorry, I could’nt resist.

                    • Yes, I used to put an author’s name into the Category but I no longer do that for every author. I only do that if it’s a significant author (a big name) that is likely to recur later, or if I’m the author. The reason for that is that I didn’t see the point of wasting time recording the names of authors of secondary or tertiary literature, especially when there are multiple co-authors. I don’t want to pollute my Category list with hundreds of names that will only have 1 entry each. But I never recorded titles in the Category (except maybe it’s something very special such as the Bible or sources like that). Attributes are sufficient for authors in most cases.

                      As for “doubts”, I’d normally just record them in the =Comment= section of whatever type of note I’m working on. If this “doubt” requires that there is an action, such as I need to be reminded of it and revisit it, then, as I said, I do a number of things. I can use a special icon to remind myself (such as “under construction” or “red exclamation mark”), or I can drag and drop it in an outline, or in WorkFlowy, or add to Freeplane, or insert an attribute such as “Important”, or a due date attribute, and then have a Summary query in the Home topic, so it builds a table with the topics that have these attributes. So far I mainly used this latter (Summary) method with other CT projects, but now you’ve just given me the idea to come up with a similar system for my “Quotes and Notes” Zettelkasten project as well. So thanks for that! :)

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