Information flow in my zettelkasten

August 09, 2022

Diagram of how information flows in my zettelkasten, the note-taking and personal information management system to understand it graphically.

The blueprint of the structure

Structure of my zettelkastenStructure of my zettelkasten.

Since 2019 I started to document things in my zettelkasten. I used a blog in Wordpress, but since it was a very heavy infrastructure and keeping it in a local environment gave me many problems, I decided to start using Zettlr, whose manual I translated into Spanish in 2021. This produced several changes to my information flow:

  • I started writing in markdown almost all the documents I produce.
  • From my zettelkasten I create presentations, PDF documents with LaTeX, in other editable formats and even small websites in HTML.
  • Now I have access to the notes of the readings that I do and I can quote them from the notes that I write in my zettelkasten.
  • I have no problems updating databases, but at the same time I lost some features that I was already used to in Wordpress, such as managing images, metadata, search engines or comments.

I used to be an information architecture professor, partly because of the work I did to develop the Colombian public domain calculator (in Spanish), where I used flowcharts to understand when a work falls into the public domain. In this work I found situations in which the works never entered the public domain, a situation that was adjusted in the update of the copyright law of 2018. It turns out that the unpublished works of authors who were not natural persons never started the count to be in public domain to find out when they could be used by anyone.

Now, making this blueprint of the structure of my zettelkasten, I found bugs where, for example, I read certain types of information, but I don't have a way to incorporate it into my personal information system. When someone recommends an article to me, I don't read it immediately. I pass it to my Pocket, which is synchronized with my digital book reader and my mobile phone, and I read it there. I found that I had no way to pass the annotations of these types of readings to become part of my digital memory.

How my personal information system works

I will start at the end, the publication of a text and I will go back, in the diagram I will go down. At the end of everything I have a publication, which appears in the image on the top right. This can be a blog post, like the one you're reading, a presentation, a document, a book, and even a letter.

These documents are sets of permanent notes, which develop ideas. These permanent notes are based on the zettelkasten method, particularly in the book by Sönke Ahrens. I don't follow it exactly step by step, but I think the adaptation I have works quite well for me. These permanent notes contain bibliographic references and tags, to organize them.

On a daily basis, I write fleeting notes. I keep a timeline or diary. These are much more chaotic notes, memories, ideas that come up, memories of conversations or even minutes of my meetings. From many fleeting notes, I consolidate and develop permanent notes. The fleeting notes are impressions, sketches or just a few words of what I remember.

I also have bibliographical notes. When I underline a book or annotate it in the margin, those notes become bibliographic notes in my Zotero. From here I get ideas or quotes that feed my fleeting notes and permanent notes. They are direct quotes. That is to say that the ideas that come from other books are stored in the Zotero note system, which I eventually quote in fleeting notes and also in permanent notes.

I use tag indexes, which are notes to identify the keywords with which I describe all the notes. Both fleeting and permanent notes have tags. In this index of tags I can write the general ideas that are developed and link to entry points of the sequences of notes that I write on a specific topic or following a chronology.

Structure indexes are similar to tables of contents. In this way I can build sections within a text. They have a hierarchy.

Up to this point, I think I am more or less following the proposal of the zettelkasten method. The text The Zettelkasten Method from the LessWrong community is one of the most interesting posts about this method, which is not the book by Sönke Ahrens. Then I include a couple of additional things, which I think will help me make decisions with the information I have. Among them the use of GNU Cash, to keep track of my finances and the use of other devices or tools to read and organize my readings.

For example, I use a Kobo book reader, the Pocket app for my phone and web browser, and Calibre to manage the ebooks on my hard drive. I installed in Calibre the Zotero Metadata Importer, to connect both systems, in this way, what I cite in Zettlr through bibliographic references to Zotero , I can open it from the quote. It's like clicking on a quote in my text on Zettlr and accessing the document through Zotero, which is organized into folders through Calibre.

I also use Annotations, to automatically transfer my annotations from the Kobo eBook reader to Calibre. Thus, the highlights and annotations are attached to the books I read. The problem I found is that this highlight does not work for the articles I read in Pocket from my Kobo, that's the bug that made this diagram visible.

What's left out

I've been storing my mp3 music collection on hard drives for a while now, which is close to 1 terabyte. I've been wondering if I should continue with this collection, which I started around 2001 and now, with access to streaming platforms like Spotify, I don't know if I should keep it or abandon it. The same thing happens to me with the videos or movies that I collected, with platforms like Netflix or Filmin.

I believe that the criterion for these cases is: should I have a copy of the information that interests me or is the reference enough for me? Am I okay with changing the folders with the files for playlists or a history list? I had built this personal information system thinking I wouldn't have a constant Internet connection, but I think it's much more practical to assume that most of the time I will have access to the Internet. It is also interesting that there are documents that are not on the Internet, but I do have physical or digital copies of them.

On the other hand I used to keep the contact data in Thunderbird. I think I still do, but it is much more practical to have that data on the mobile phone.