Zettlekasten to Online Wiki

I was never taught how to take notes. Periodically, I try to develop better habits. I’ll go read various blogs, forums, product pages, looking for the thing that’ll make everything come together, make my reading more effective, make my thinking so much sharper…


Some time ago I bought an ipad (‘it’ll be for research! honestly! for pdfs!’) and still my reading/note taking didn’t come together. I have Liquid Text on it and pdf viewer. Liquid Text is pretty neat… but I find its ability to pull multiple pdfs together and all of its note taking, connecting just doesn’t work for me – on an iPad. Part of the problem is that I wasn’t using it the way its designers imagined a person might use it. (Apparently, it’s now available on Microsoft devices and in that context I think it would really work for me). The other part was, well, probably a discipline thing. Or lack thereof.

PDF Viewer is a nice little app for reading pdfs, and when I tied it to Zotero with zotfile… now we’re talking! Got my notes back on my writing machine, so headway.


In the past, for various projects, I’ve tried the whole one-idea-per-card note taking system called ‘Zettelkasten‘. Combine that with an editor that does search and creation at the same time (like nvAlt), and I actually got kinda good at pulling stuff out and framing searches, finding connections between my notes. It’s a bit like ‘commonplace books‘, at least the way I’ve been using ’em.  I’ve also been thinking of these in the context of open notebook science, reproducibility and that sort of thing – Caleb McDaniel put it best:

: The truth is that we often don’t realize the value of what we have until someone else sees it. By inviting others to see our work in progress, we also open new avenues of interpretation, uncover new linkages between things we would otherwise have persisted in seeing as unconnected, and create new opportunities for collaboration with fellow travelers. These things might still happen through the sharing of our notebooks after publication, but imagine how our publications might be enriched and improved if we lifted our gems to the sunlight before we decided which ones to set and which ones to discard? What new flashes in the pan might we find if we sifted through our sources in the company of others?

He used an open notebook powered by Gitit to write his book Sweet Taste of Liberty and it won a Pulitzer Prize! (Caleb’s original open notebook) .

So how do I put these ‘zettels’ online? ‘The Archive‘ is a nice little bit of software, developed on top of nvAlt, and I like how it works. I have it saving each note as an md file into a git repository on my machine. I push these things to a github repo. Now, there are plenty of static site generators that will turn a collection of markdown into a static website, but collaboration on the underlying files is still an iffy process. I spun up a wiki.js instance on Reclaim Cloud and then figured out how to connect it to the github repo (thread here).

I am now the proud owner of a wiki that my students can edit and collaborate with me on some of my larger projects (they can just use the web interface, which is nice, no faffing about); whenever I git pull I have their research to hand in my preferred note taking app; whenever I push they get my stuff. And our research is out there in the open.


– configure storage to grab from github using https, not ssh

– spaces in file names will break the import/export

– set up a metadata template in ‘The Archive’ so that notes will render nicely there.