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?

Another example of ConnectedText notes database

Here is another example of a ConnectedText database for academic notes from Jamel Ostwald, although he in the end opted to stay with MS Access. It’s worth comparing the design of the database (or the underlying template for a topic) with some of the other designs mentioned here earlier, such as Brian Lennon’s setup, Steve Zeoli’s example, Glen Coulthard’s library project, or my template.

ConnectedText template for reading notes

Several people have asked me recently how to use ConnectedText (CT) for taking notes for academic research and for writing a literature review. I’m in the middle of writing my own literature review, and unfortunately I don’t have time right now to construct a sample database (my own is confidential) for a tutorial. I will definitely do it one day. In the meantime however here are a few pointers.

  1. Think of CT as a traditional slip-box with index cards. Just drop your notes into CT (each note as a separate “topic”) and add some categories at the bottom or the top of the page, e.g. [[$CATEGORY:politics|Barack Obama]]. That’s it. You now have a reading notes database with two categories (“politics” and “Barack Obama”).
  2. You can create links between the “index cards.”
  3. You can create a bibliographical database in the background by adding “attributes” markup to key data such as [[Author:=Smith, J.]], [[Year:=1989]], [[Publication:=Journal of Sociology]], [[Abstract:=<value>]] etc. Clicking on any of these links will create a dynamic meta-topic that displays a list of topics with those values, such as a list of all the authors with links to the topics that contain those authors. Inserting [[$SUMMARY:]] into a new topic creates a table with your complete bibliography automatically.
  4. You can use the headings tags (=Heading 1=, ==Heading 2== etc.) to annotate your reading notes (e.g. quotes that you have pasted into the topic), which will be displayed dynamically (as you type) in the Table of Contents pane, giving you a quick overview of the contents of your note.

ConnectedText iconsBelow is a template I have created for my “Reading Notes” database in CT. You can copy and paste this into a text file and save it in the folder “My Documents/ConnectedText/Templates.” Then when you create a new topic in CT, select this text file in the “new topic” dialog box from the “Template” pull-down menu, tick the box “Always remember last used  template,” and select an icon to represent your notes (I have imported my own 16x16px icons that I’ve downloaded from the Internet, so notes, categories etc. all have their own icons). Similarly, tick the “Always remember last used icon” box. Icons are useful not only for visual browsing but also because you can filter topics in the Topic List pane by their icons.

You can of course alter this template to suit your own needs by using Notepad. If you haven’t used Categories or Attributes before, you may want to read up on those topics first in CT’s Welcome Project (Help file). By the way, the [[$INFOBOX]] markup will create a neat box that looks like an old style index card (assuming you have marked up the bibliographic data with attributes)! Very satisfying… :) (Obviously you will need to switch from edit mode into view mode to see what these markups actually do.)




### Paste reference from EndNote here

### Add attributes to Author name [[<Attribute name>:=<value>]], e.g. [[Author:=Smith, J.]]
### Add attributes to Year, e.g. [[Year:=1989]]
### Add attributes to Title, e.g. [[Title:=<value>]]
### Add attributes to Publication, e.g. [[Publication:=Journal of Sociology]]
### Add attributes to Publisher, e.g. [[Publisher:=Oxford University Press]]
==Cite as==
### Paste "raw" citation from EndNote here
### Drag & drop PDF or URL here
### Add attributes to Type, e.g. [[Type:=journal article]]

### Paste journal article abstract here and summarise its main point as [[Abstract:=<value>]]

### Paste keywords associated with journal article here
### Paste quotes from readings here
### highlight important information in yellow
==Quote 1: description==
### Annotate quotes with headings
===Comment 1: comment on quote 1===
### Add comments under own headings
### Draw conclusions, summarise key learning points here
### Summarise key contributions and/or shortcomings of article as [[Verdict:=<value>]]

=See also=
### Drag & drop related topic links, external files or URLs here
### Add categories below, e.g [[$CATEGORY:politics]]

This is what a new CT topic with this blank template looks like in view mode. It would need to be filled in with content as discussed above for the attributes to spring into action and produce the Infobox, as well as for the Table of Contents on the left to display the headings as annotations. For now this is just a skeleton for a note (index card):

blank CT topic with template

ConnectedText for me is part of a bigger note-taking system that I don’t have time to describe right now, though it’s similar to the one discussed here. For further examples of how to organise academic reading notes and bibliography see Steve Zeoli’s example here and Glen Coulthard’s tutorial video here.


For me each “topic” represents a specific publication, such as a book or a journal article. I name the topics using the author’s name and the publication date, such as “Smith 1989″ or Smith & Tailor 1988” or “Smith et al. 1977.” If there is more then one publication by the same author, then I use “Smith 1989a,” “Smith 1989b” etc. For historically important books, I also record the original publication date in parentheses: “Smith 1989 (1886).”

This naming convention is helpful because the Topic List pane lists topics in alphabetical order, so it’s easier to find authors this way. Also, if you decide to write up your literature review in CT, you can just drag and drop the topics from the Topic List straight into the body of your draft chapter and they become linked references automatically: “According to some observers (Smith 1989a) …” In edit mode it would look like

According to some observers ([[Smith 1989a]]) ...

This note-taking approach can result in fairly long topics, if they contain summaries of entire books or particularly important journal articles that I have annotated heavily. For me there are benefits to keeping a particular publication in one topic. However, one could just as well pursue a more granular approach and implement the traditional index card format more literally, by breaking down notes about articles and books into much smaller chunks.

Using links, categories and attributes/properties would be much more important under the latter scenario, for threading all of the related notes together. With my approach it’s not a big deal if I forget to add categories or attributes because I can find the relevant publications by their topic names. CT’s powerful search facility comes in handy in both scenarios, as sometimes searching for a single word or phrase might be the quickest way to find something (yes, it’s your own mini-Google :).

Visitor stats for launch week

It’s been a week since I’ve launched this blog and posted my list of favourite software and hardware tools for research, note-taking, outlining, writing and other aspects of personal information management and productivity. About 70% of the visitors came from the Outliner Software forum, so the following stats may also give a quick snapshot of which countries readers of Outliner Software are based in and what software that was discussed here they were most interested in.

Here are the countries of origin where visitors came from (or at least where their servers were based in) (click on graphic on the left):

66% came from English-speaking countries, which is understandable, considering that the Outliner Software forum and this blog are in English and that these countries have led development in information technology. One of the most curious absences is Australia, considering the size of the country and their software sector (and that they are English-speaking). I even mentioned two Australian software on my list (Mindsystems Amode V2 and Directory Opus). However, three other giants in terms of population and size and importance of IT sector are also missing: Russia, India (I did mention WhizFolders), and China. Looks like folks in these countries haven’t discovered Outliner Software or haven’t been reading it recently (or just weren’t interested in my blog). They don’t know what they’re missing – I’m talking about Outliner Software :)

In terms of which software visitors were most interested in, here is the top 10 list, based on the number of clicks on links:

1.  ConnectedText  – personal wiki
2.  Mindsystems Amode V2 – project management
3.  Protopage.com – customisable home page (free)
4.  Freeplane – mind mapping (free)
5.  Noteliner – fast outlining (free)
6.  Nebulous Notes – note-taker for iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad (with Dropbox)
6.  VUE – concept mapping (free)
6.  Natara Bonsai – outlining
7.  CarbonFin Outliner – outliner for iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad, with online companion
8.  MyLifeOrganized – to-do list
8.  Storybook Pro – for structuring writing
8.  NoteTab – text editor (free)
9.  A-PDF Collector – PDF utility
9.  Directory Opus – Windows Explorer replacement
10. PureText – utility for stripping rich text formatting (free)
10. Debenu PDF Maximus – batch PDF processing
10. Surfulater – note-taker for websites
10. PDF XChange Viewer – PDF viewer (free)

It’s understandable that CT and Amode were top of the list, considering that I have reviewed both in dedicated posts. I’m happy that Protopage has made it to no. 3, as I’ve been a long-time fan and user and I can’t imagine my life without it. (Apparently there is even a way to embed your Google Calendar into Protopage – although I haven’t tried it.) There are two one-trick ponies on the list: A-PDF Collector and PureText. I use PureText several times daily, pretty much every time I am doing copying and pasting. A-PDF Collector is a more occasionally used tool but can be very useful for the specific job it does. Debenu PDF Maximus is the one software I use the least frequently, simply because those big jobs it’s designed for don’t come along that frequently. It’s quite expensive as well, though I was able to grab a free copy at the ever so useful BitsduJour service. In my top 10 I would have probably also included other iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad apps such as iThoughts, GoodReader and PDF Expert.