Thoughts Like A Runaway Train: Notes on Information Management with Zettelkasten

black train on railway bridge under heavy clouds
Photo by Roland Lösslein on Unsplash

I made the decision earlier this year to spend the year preparing my grad school applications — that’s right, I’m planning a return to academia after a very long hiatus, provided that the schools of my choice accept me.

Because I’ve made this commitment to myself, I’ve been focusing on studying “hacks” and trying to learn new ways to organize my thoughts. So far, the Zettelkasten system seems to be the best that suits my uses. Essentially, the system is supposed to help make analyzing and synthesizing reading easier, as it facilitates making connections between seemingly unrelated ideas and information over an extended period of time.

I’ve tried unsuccessfully in the past to keep a commonplace book – a collection of notes, quotes, and random ideas that I intended to refer back to but somehow never did. It turns out that effortful engagement is the key to being able to easily retain and recall this information, and to make meaningful connections between seemingly disparate collections of information. By making an effort to engage with the work and make these connections, we’re then able to fully think through our own thoughts about what we have read, and to make connections between ideas that might not have otherwise been possible. I’ll give you an example.

I’m currently reading Andre Brock, Ph.D’.s Distributed Blackness for an upcoming book review that I’m supposed to be writing (sorry, Emily). While I was reading the book, I came across the following quote from Brock:

The internet should be understood as an enactment of whiteness through the interpretive flexibility of whiteness as information. By this, I mean that white folks communications, letters, and works of art are rarely understood as white; instead, they become universal and are understood as “communication,” “literature,” and “art.”

This reminded me of Langston Hughes’ essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” where Hughes muses on the responsibilities Black artists have to Black communities when they are funded by white patrons. That essay opens with Hughes relating a story about an encounter he had with a Black artist:

One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, “I want to be a poet — not a Negro poet,” meaning, I believe, “I want to write like a white poet”; meaning subconsciously, “I would like to be a white poet”; meaning behind that, “I would like to be white.”

Because I’m using the Zettelkasten system, I was able to physically and visually make a connection between these two ideas in a system of my own design. Watch the video below.

Once I discovered how easy making these connections would be, and how effortless it would be to create, and how much difference effortful engagement would be in helping me to retain, recall, and contextualize disparate information chunks, I became hooked.

I could go into greater detail about the tool I’m using
to create my Zettelkasten, but I’ll save that for another blog post, because this one is already long enough. Instead, I’ll provide a few links to blog posts, videos, and information management tools that have been especially useful over the last 8 weeks.

Craft | A fresh take on documents – requires subscription

Obsidian: A knowledge base that works on local Markdown files. – free

Introduction to the Zettelkasten Method – from the official home of Zettelkasten, an (incredibly) deep dive to the method, why it works, and how you can set it up for yourself

Zettelkasten Method: The What, Why, and How of Getting Started – Sean Lawson’s extensive primer on the problem, the promise, the program, and the platform of the Zettelkasten system

Do you use a system like this? Do you use a different system? How do you make connections when preparing to write or when studying? Let me know in the comments.

By Cecily Walker

Cecily is a mid-career library professional. She is an internationally recognized speaker in library and information studies, user experience, equity and social justice. When she's not being a humourless feminist, you can find her holding court on Twitter or riding a Vespa around town where she entertains fantasies of being Batgirl. The ideas and thoughts expressed on this blog are her own: Cecily does not now, nor has she ever, spoken for her employer.