Why do I need a Zettelkasten?
The idea of a Zettelkasten struck me in a chat recently. I have been keeping physical journals, using a modified form of bullet journalling, for a while; I had been keeping less structured notes before that, and ruminating on how to digitize them. After learning about the concept of Zettelkasten, it seemed like the solution; and that led me down the rabbit hole of investigation. Because of that investigation, I am now building a Zettlekasten for myself. The idea of a way to grok all notes for eternity is an obvious boon to any knowledge worker. This system has less obvious, and much greater benefits beyond just digitizing notes.
What is a Zettelkasten?
The Zettelkasten is a concept, essentially, of a graph of data interconnected by metadata, links and taxonomies. It was originally laid out by a German sociologist:
If you wish to educate a partner in communication, it will be good to provide him with independence from the beginning. A slip box, which has been made according to the suggestions just given can exhibit great independence.Communicating With Slip Boxes, by Niklas Luhmann
It was also explored in this physical format by Umberto Eco (1977) in How to Write a Thesis. This format involved drawers full of annotated index cards.
This loosely organized graph allows a Cartesian explosion of complexity. The core idea of the system is a second brain, one mirroring the structure of the human mind. This organic structure is how zufall, or randomness, eventually emerges, resulting in serendipitous discovery. The weighting of links produces more prominent and less prominent regions, much like search engine rankings. This starts to sound an awful lot like a preeminent description of the internet and search engines. There is, however, another aspect to consider:
Without variation in the given material of ideas, there are no possibilities of examining and selecting novelties. The real problem thus becomes therefore one of producing accidents with sufficiently enhanced probabilities for selection.Niklas Luhmann, Communicating With Slip Boxes
The distillation of broader research into notes with metadata allows for your own personal internet, with a less hierarchical structure than say, a wiki. The balance between order and chaos is essential, Luhmann purports, to the extract synthesis of new ideas from a body of notes.
What Makes a Zettelkasten?
A zettel is a set of data, along with related attachments and metadata. Every zettel, or note, is a node in the graph that becomes the Zettelkasten.
Arbitrary Internal Branching
Any zettel must have the ability to branch and be a parent of other zettels
Possibility of Linking
Any zettel must be able to link to any other zettel.
Index, or Register of Taxonomies and Tags
For the zettels to be useful in the concept of the Zettelkasten, there must be an index or register that is searchable.
There must be a source of content. For me that is my paper notes and digital notes. Those notes must be collected; then they must be processed into zettels with metadata, and links to other zettels.
The Zettelkasten is accessed via the register to search for ideas while writing or producing other outputs. Optionally there is a feedback into the inflow during this process.
How Can We Make a Digital Zettelkasten?
Thoughts on Design
The physical design of the system as proposed by Luhmann is outdated. Physical space was a concern, but in the context of cheap hard drive space it is not. The issue ordering also becomes irrelevant. Though, the question of a flat structure to prevent usage bias, or obsession over categorization and order, has it’s merit. So digital is definitely the way to go.
That leads to the question of how best to do it. There are ready made solutions out there like The Archive, and that may be the solution for most. It does seem however to duplicate extant functionalities in hypertext and web browsers. All we really need is URIs, metadata, and a search system for that metadata to create a functioning Zettelkasten.
Enter: A Hugo Based Zettelkasten
In From WordPress to Hugo, I migrated my blog to Hugo. This proved to be the extant solution I was looking for. I thought about an optimal design for a Zettelkasten; one that would be portable, open source, and stand the test of time. A solution that could check the boxes of arbitrary metadata, linking and search of those things. Hugo, with its use of markdown, standard URIs and static page generation is a great solution.
I stumbled upon the
After Dark theme for hugo, by Josh Habdas.
It already had many of the features I needed, such as search, citations,
and rich linking between pages, or zettels implemented. So I switched my blog over
to the aforementioned theme. I then created a private
repository, and put that in the
content/zettelkasten folder of my hugo
setup. Voila, a public blog with a private Zettelkasten.
The only caveat on the theme is that it uses Fuse.js for search. I am not sure if it is the implementation in the theme, or the nature of the fuzzy search, but it isn’t always the best at finding things. I am considering tweaking the implementation or switching it out for Lunr, but those are future problems.
When the CI pipeline runs to build the blog, does not have permissions to pull the Zettelkasten, which is secured by private key. But when I run a local development server, I have both my Zettelkasten and my blog, an outflow, searchable at my fingertips.
What about portability?
Here is the cool part, Hugo can run on android. So with git, I can just clone my blog on my phone and run a local web server. More to follow on that in another blog post.
I still have to approach getting all of my notes into zettels. Maybe I’ll have more to say after that. I’ll also likely add a technical step by step for setting up a Zettelkasten using Hugo and the After Dark theme, as time permits. Leave your thoughts in the comments below.