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?

Taking reading notes with Freeplane

For some time now I’ve been using Freeplane as my reading-note capturing application. I would be reading a book at my desk, in front of my computer monitor(s), and use Dragon NaturallySpeaking to dictate my notes and quotes into DragonPad first, and then paste them into Freeplane. In the case of electronic materials, mainly journal articles in PDFs, I would convert the PDF into a Word file with ABBYY FineReader (so that I preserve word-wrapping and formatting while copying), and then would paste the quotes into Freeplane.

What are the advantages of this method? Firstly, it allows me to reverse-outline the book’s argument by organising the quotes and notes into a hierarchical mind map. Such a reverse outline helps with reconstructing and understanding the main train of thought of the reading, as the hierarchy records logical relationships between ideas. Here the mind map format has an advantage over a traditional vertical outline, as the individual nodes are easier to see and comprehend when distributed across a wide monitor in landscape form.

Secondly, each node can have a title and a note, and the latter can be seen inline (as opposed to being separated into another pane, as in most dual-pane outliners). Also, Freeplane can preserve rich text formatting (unlike let’s say Natara Bonsai). You can use icons and different styles to mark important notes. It is easy to restructure the outline by dragging and dropping nodes and branches around.

Thirdly, it is easy to convert a Freeplane mind map (which uses Freemind’s .mm file format) to other file formats. I use iThoughtsHD on iPad as my Swiss-Army Knife converter of mind map formats. I usually convert it into OPML, in order to import it into Bonsai, if further organising and analysis is needed, or simply to convert it into RTF, so that it can be imported into my main database, ConnectedText, which is the final destination of all my notes. I also link to all the different formats of a file (.mm, .opml, .otl, .rtf) from the final CT document, so I can easily find them later.

But Freeplane is useful not only for capturing and organising my reading notes into a hierarchical outline. It also comes in handy when it’s time to write up the notes for a chapter or article. I start a new Freeplane file as my outline for the new piece of writing, and I can simply copy and paste selected nodes and entire branches of quotes and notes from other Freeplane files, thus gathering relevant information for one author from let’s say five other mind maps with notes for five books by that author. (It is useful though to have two monitors for this, to take full advantage of the landscape orientation of mind maps.) Then as I write the final piece, I use a big red X icon to mark off the nodes and branches that have already been discussed.

Freeplane reading notes

I hear people complain about Freeplane not being pretty or visual enough. To me that is an advantage. I find pretty colour schemes distracting. All I want is black font and a white background. I do like the automatic colouring-in of the lines representing the branches, as that guides the eye and helps comprehension. But otherwise I want to be the one who decides when to apply additional colour or an icon to introduce new visual information. And I only do that to highlight important nodes, so I can quickly pick them out from a complex mind map. I thank the developers for keeping the main interface simple.

By the way, don’t be confused by the screenshots on the Freeplane website. Obviously, the developers are trying to show off all the different features. However, pretty much all the colour noise can be switched off, and you can use it as a minimalist, almost black-and-white (or whatever colour-combination you like) note-taker and organiser.


Docking panes in ConnectedText

ConnectedText (CT) is a highly modular application, with a large number of panes that can give different views of your data more or less simultaneously. Viewing a lot of panes at the same time requires screen real estate, therefore CT can particularly benefit from having a second monitor. Users with two monitors are presented with a decision to make: one could undock some of the panes and move them over to the other monitor, or one could keep them all docked but stretch the CT window across both monitors.

I belong to the first camp and I only use my second monitor for undocked floating CT panes (especially the Navigator pane, occasionally the Outliner pane). My main reason for this is that I only turn on the second monitor when I really have to, as I usually find it too distracting when I need to concentrate on working in the main monitor. However, recently I came across Brian Lennon‘s screenshot of his CT setup, who prefers to work with the CT window stretched out across both monitors.

I find Brian’s setup very interesting. There are clearly some benefits to this approach as well. You can have a more complete and diverse view of your project. You can have a more fluid workflow by staying within the CT environment, rather than using e.g. an external PDF viewer and web browser, as I do, which requires me to switch back and forth. (In fact only now I’ve understood why CT needs an internal browser and file viewer: so that you can create this sort of total CT environment.)

Below is a screenshot of Brian’s CT window (remember, it’s stretched across two monitors). I have added some labels and arrows to show all the different panes that are visible and the relationships between them. As you can see, Brian even had a bit of space left over in the right-hand side monitor, so he could have stretched the CT window out even further and made more of the panes visible. His CT project is also an interesting example of a reading notes database. (If you do have two monitors, you could try to stretch out the image across both of them to see the screenshot in its actual size and full glory.)

ConnectedText panesMany thanks to Brian Lennon for giving me permission to use his image.

P.S. Novices may find the docking process in CT rather tricky at first. Watch the second tutorial video to see how to carry out the docking of panes in ConnectedText.