Zettelkästen

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A zettelkasten is note taking system featuring atomic notes which are densely interlinked and are used primarily for writing and acting as an external memory. While most often private repositories, some can be maintained in public as a supplement to or part of a personal website. The word is from German and translates literally as "slip box" (plural Zettelkästen).

They often will have taxonomies including tags, usually expressing membership in a group, and categories which more often act as subject headings which might be found on an index page. Portions of the system also include citations and references for use in attributing ideas to original sources.

While online zettelkasten may have many user interface features in common with their intellectual history antecedent the commonplace book or related forms like wikis and digital gardens their form and function is subtly different.

In practice, there are very few websites that one might call "traditional" or stand alone digital Zettelkästen in the wild, but people may have their zettelkasten integrated into their website in a hybrid fashion with other functionalities and forms including wikis and blogs.

IndieWeb Examples

The examples below are closer to traditional zettelkasten functionality only. Those with hybrid examples are encouraged to place them on the commonplace book, wiki, or other appropriate pages and annotate them as such. This may help those designing specific types of functionality and use cases be more focused on real world examples of actual use.

Andy Matuschak

Andy Matuschak has a digital zettelkasten at https://notes.andymatuschak.org which features a user interface similar to that of FedWiki.

  • Note that his zettelkasten site is physically separate from his main personal site.
  • Rather than using the German word zettelkasten to describe the form or function of the site, Andy uses the more English-centric terms "notes" or "evergreen notes".

Soren Bjornstad

Soren Bjornstad, an engineer for RemNote in 2021, has a digital zettelkasten online at https://zettelkasten.sorenbjornstad.com/. It's built using a customized version of TiddlyWiki. He's created a video walk through of how his system works which can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GjpjE5pMZMI.

Brad Enslen

Brad Enslen has created a digital zettelkasten site using WordPress and Webmention which he converted to ClassicPress beginning in August 2022 at https://cyberzettel.com/.

Dave Gauer

Dave Gauer has nascent digital zettelkasten on his website though he calls them a virtual box of cards "(as opposed to 'zettelkasten' or 'wiki' or 'notes')".

Heinrich Kummerle

Heinrich Kummerle example at https://iiics.org/h ostensibly built using Detlef Stern's https://zettelstore.de/

Digitized Examples

Examples of analog zettelkasten which were subsequently digitized:

Silo Examples


Software

Due to large overlap in functionality a large variety of related software or platforms can be found at commonplace_book#Platforms

WordPress Plugin:

  • Slippy, a WordPress plugin for creating a digital zettelkasten https://wordpress.org/plugins/slippy/
    • "Description
      Slippy allows you to take slipbox or zettelkasten style notes from within WordPress.
      Notes are stored separately from your posts and pages, but otherwise use all of the features of WordPress.

Wiki software used for Zettlekästen:


Books / Articles

  • 2021-05 David Kadavy Digital Zettelkasten: Principles, Methods, & Examples (book)
  • 2014 - ongoing https://zettelkasten.de/ is a website focusing on the concept and use of zettelkasten (both digital and analog). While most of the focus of the site is on using digital tools to maintain private, personal zettelkasten, one may be able to extract some hints and use cases for building and maintaining a public digital zettelkasten on a personal website.


Historical Examples

  • Jean Paul (1763-1825), a German romantic novelist, kept an early version of a Zettelkasten made of slips of paper in bound books.

"In the event of a fire, the black-bound excerpts are to be saved first."
—instructions from Jean Paul to his wife before setting off on a trip in 1812 [1]

  • French theorist, philosopher, and writer Roland Barthes (1915 – 1980) kept a fichier boîte or card index file beginning in 1943 until his death. Curator Nathalie Léger has indicated that there are 12,250 slips in Roland Barthes' bequest at the Institut Mémoires de l’édition contemporaine (IMEC). Louis-Jean Calvet explains that in writing Michelet, Barthes used his notes on index cards to try out various combinations of cards to both organize them as well as "to find correspondences between them." In addition to using his card index for producing his published works, Barthes also used his note taking system for teaching as well. His final course on the topic of the Neutral, which he taught as a seminar at Collège de France, was contained in four bundles consisting of 800 cards which contained everything from notes, summaries, figures, and bibliographic entries. In his autobiographical Roland Barthes par (by) Roland Barthes, Barthes reproduces three of his index cards in facsimile. Published posthumously in 2010, Barthes' Mourning Diary was created from a collection of 330 of his index cards focusing on his mourning following the death of his mother. The book jacket of the book prominently features one of his index cards from the collection. In a well known photo of Barthes in his office taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1963, the author is pictured with his card indexes on the shelf behind him.
  • Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998), a German sociologist and philosopher, was famous for his use of the Zettelkasten (or "slip box") note-taking method. He created a zettelkasten of 90,000+ index cards, and credited it with making his prolific writing possible. His collection was digitized and made available online in 2019.
  • W. Ross Ashby (1903-1972) started a commonplace book/zettelkasten in a journal in May 1928 as a medical student. He kept it for 44 years until his death at which point it occupied 25 volumes comprising 7,189 pages and was indexed with 1,600 index cards. The British Library created a digital archive of his system which has been published online with extensive cross linking based on his original index. http://www.rossashby.info/index.html. While somewhat more commonplace in form, Ashby's system also functioned as a zettelkasten in practice.

See Also