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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Make your own research tool

I have described the chart below that depicts my use of ConnectedText (CT) for qualitative data analysis as representing a “conceptual model” and “a process flow.” But these terms don’t quite get the idea across that in fact CT had allowed me to construct my very own data analysis machine.

Once you have the basic structure and the logic of this system set up in CT, it works almost like a “sausage machine” with some filters put in. All you need to do is start pumping your empirical data in at Step 1, and as long as you follow the procedure and apply your theoretical filters during the abstraction process, the machine guides you through the production of some “truths,” i.e. your qualitative findings, the answers to your research question.

This brings me back to my earlier points (here and here) about why I prefer to do my qualitative analysis in CT, rather than in Atlas.ti or NVivo. There is no question that those other two dedicated CAQDAS software have more data analysis features and capabilities than CT. However, CT trumps them in one regard hands down: rather than just allowing you to analyse your data, it in effect allows you to create and operate your very own research tools, such as my “idea-sausage machine” below.

Check out my tutorial here, if you are interested in creating your own research tool.

Why do I love ConnectedText?

I have decided to change tack with how I discuss ConnectedText (CT) on this blog. First I thought I’d proceed in a linear manner by introducing interested new users to CT through a series of step-by-step tutorials. Unfortunately the writing of full-blown illustrated tutorials is very time-consuming and obviously I’m pretty busy with writing the PhD itself at the moment. So while I’ll carry on working on the longer but less frequent tutorial posts in the background, I will also start posting occasional short musings on CT as and when they occur to me.

So you may wonder, what compels someone to spend time writing blog posts about a piece of software? The short answer to that is that I simply love CT. If it were a woman, I would want to marry it. Is this a short term infatuation or a long-term relationship? Well, I’ve been attracted to the idea of CT for many years: I’ve been circling around it like a moth around a street lamp. However, we’ve been now in a serious relationship for 7 months and things are going really well…

Why do I love CT so much? I think it comes down to flexibility. It allows me to do things that other mainstream software just won’t. For example, let’s take the interface [check out the screenshots on CT’s homepage]. It’s totally modular and flexible. Let’s say I don’t like the Table of Contents pane (Outliner pane, Navigator pane, etc., etc.) docked on the left? Well, I can dock it on the right, or have it as a third docked pane on the right, or drag it out altogether and have it as an independent window on a separate monitor.

Okay, there might be other software that can also do that to some extent (Ultra Recall comes to mind). However, CT’s flexibility also extends to its conceptual use, the way you use it to organise and analyse existing ideas or develop new ones. The reason I talk about it as a CAQDAS software on this blog is because even though it hasn’t been designed as such, it allows me to model thought processes and work flows that usually only dedicated CAQDAS can do. That’s what I call flexibility (which leads to versatility). And it’s just amazing to hear the wildly different uses that people adapt CT for. Just the other day I heard of someone who uses CT 90% of the time for numerical work. So it’s not just ConnectedText but ConnectedNumbers as well!

Finally, there is the flexibility and responsiveness of the developer, Eduardo Mauro. He uses the CT Forum actively to elicit ideas from his users on how to improve the software, tests ideas on them and implements suggestions and requests with amazing speed. CT is an evolving creature that not only is developing in front of your eyes but you can actively take part in shaping it. Now try doing that with [substitute your favourite big name global software company]!