The Personal Wiki System!

Some Idiosyncratic Reflections on Note-Taking in General
and ConnectedText in Particular

by Manfred Kuehn

ConnectedText is used in a variety of ways and in many contexts. I am always surprised to hear how other people use it, and the way I use it will probably appear just surprising as their use of the program will be to me. This essay is just my attempt to show how and why I use it for my research. I do not want to suggest that my way is the only or perhaps even the best way of using it. In other words, this is just a testimony in which I offer some personal reflections on the role ConnectedText plays in my own research, backed up by some reflections on the way this is related to the way in which I and many other scholars have used card indexes and journals during the precious century for keeping or making notes. I would like to show how a program like ConnectedText improves on this approach, and why I consider ConnectedText the best among such programs.

I am a 60 years old academic teacher and I have been using ConnectedText exclusively since August 2005 to keep my research notes and other bits of information. Before I began relying on ConnectedText I did used several other programs, namely (in reverse order):

  • Will Duquette's Notebook (from May 2003 to August 2007). [1]
  • Wikit (from the end of 2002 until May 2003) [2]
  • and between 1985 and the end of 2002: InfoHandler, Ecco, InfoSelect, Packrat, Agenda, and Scraps for DOS, as well as MS Word (in its many incarnations). [3] I also experimented with many other so-called "PIMS," databases and other programs that promised to be useful for keeping research notes, but never really committed to any others.

Before 1985, in the days well before internet, broadband, and many of the technologies we now take for granted, I had no access to electronic solutions in note-keeping, unless I count IBM's Displaywriter system, on which I prepared two books between 1980 and 1983 (one published, one still unpublished). But I could use it only at night when the administrative assistants of the college I worked at allowed me to use it.

In writing my dissertation and working on my first book, I used an index card system, characterized by the "one fact, one card" maxim, made popular by Beatrice Webb. [4] This was not at all unusual during the 1970s. Many people and organizations that had to keep track of a large amount of data used primarily index cards to keep things organized. I accumulated altogether between 5.000 and 6.000 note cards from 1974 to 1985, most of which I still keep for sentimental reasons and sometimes actually still consult. Later–in writing my Kant-Biography (Cambridge 2000)–I also tried the notebook-method, that is, keeping notes in different notebooks. But this was already a hybrid system, as I kept these notes in close connection with Ecco Pro, which I used to keep an index of the notebook material. In retrospect, I must say that notebooks never felt "natural" to me. Taking notes on index cards always seemed to be the better alternative, even if it became more and more of "a missed alternative."

Looking back at my history of note-taking, I notice that there were two significant or radical changes in the way, in which I dealt with my notes or research information. The first had to do with the change from the analog to the digital ways of recording notes, thoughts, and ideas. I am sorry to say that this change led at first to a kind of disorientation and many false steps. I was searching for a new "paradigm" of keeping my research notes, but this search led to nothing–all I have from this time are Word files of papers I wrote. Notes, insofar as they exist at all, exist only on paper.

Agenda seemed like the ideal solution for some time, but, being stuck in DOS, it was severely limited. German Umlauts, for instance, did not translate well into Windows applications, and it became more and more isolated from the other applications I used. It was not the only program with such problems. Scratch, a DOS program, was fairly unreliable, often crashing without warning. Ecco, a capable outliner, became a mainstay (with similar problems, you could format the information, but if you pasted it into other applications, the formatting was gone. Furthermore, I have always relied on outlining in writing, but the outliner paradigm just seemed to get in the way when large amounts of information were involved–or so it seemed (and seems) to me. Ecco has a powerful search function that allows one to find information quickly, and that is why I ultimately kept using it. The earliest versions of Infoselect for windows, which could be used like a big shoe box into which one could throw all kinds of information to recover it later was similar in this respect, but much it was much more limited. Later versions of the program developed in ways that I found rather less useful. The less said about Packrat and InfoHandler the better.

It was my discovery of wiki technology some time in 2002 that ended this undirected search and constituted the other fundamental change in the way I dealt with information. What I liked about it from the beginning was that it allows of easily linking bits of information and favors the braking down of large chunks of information into smaller bits. This emphasis on the granularity of information reminded me not only of the old index card method, but it also convinced me almost immediately that it was a significant improvement over the paper-based system. I adopted this technology and I have never looked back.

As you know, a wiki is primarily a free-form, searchable database, with an unlimited number pages, which, at least in principle, can be linked or associated in an unlimited way. In this way it is just like a potentially infinite card index or slip box. It might be said to involve three fundamental ideas, each which can be separated from the others:

  1. it is a simplified form of HTML–a kind of markup language that allows one easily to write entries, to organize, and "refactor" them; a wiki is rather plastic and does not impose any prior order or structure on what is being recorded in it,
  2. it allows of easy and quick linking of entries,
  3. and it can be written to by anyone.

Most people focus on the third of these features, and perhaps it is ultimately the most important characteristic of wikis. But the first and second ideas are more important to me and my purposes. I have never felt the need to put up a public wiki, and, in fact, am somewhat worried about publishing half-baked and preliminary ideas for everyone to see. It was for this reason that I opted from the beginning for a local, private, single-user, or desktop wiki–first in the form of Wikit, then in the form of Notebook, and finally ConnectedText.

Transferring the information from Wikit to Notebook, and from Notebook to ConnectedText was not exactly easy, but it was well worth it. Notebook was a large improvement over Wikit, and ConnectedText with its fulltext search capability was a definite improvement over the simple search available in Notebook when the number of entries went over 2000.

It has been said that Wikis are the purest form of Hypertext. I would agree. But many exaggerated claims have been made Hypertext and how it revolutionizes reading and writing. Thus the "electronic writing space" is supposed to be, among other things, "a thorough rewriting of the writing space."[5] I am not sure what precisely this is supposed to mean. Hypertext has neither changed my reading nor my writing habits. Thus, I have never read or written in an entirely "linear" way. I suppose no one has. I am sure, however, that hypertext enhances note-taking and adds a new dimension to it. The linked chunks of topical information clearly amount to more than the isolated topics. A wiki allows one to build increasingly more complex relationships between what might appear to be at first unrelated bits and pieces of information. The motto that characterizes this approch is: "It's not the data, it's the relationship" and it certainly rings true for me in the context of note-taking.

Wikis are indeed very much like collections of electronic note cards. In beginning to take notes, one does not have to think very much about their classification. Rather, one can concentrate on collecting information first without paying much attention to whether they are relevant and how they might or might not fit into a later classification. Beatrice Webb, the famous sociologist and political activist, reported in 1926: "'Every one agrees nowadays', observe the most noted French writers on the study of history, 'that it is advisable to collect materials on separate cards or slips of paper. . . . The advantages of this artifice are obvious; the detachability of the slips enables us to group them at will in a host of different combinations; if necessary, to change their places; it is easy to bring texts of the same kind together, and to incorporate additions, as they are acquired, in the interior of the groups to which they belong.'" [6] Relationships and classification can come in at any time, but it is not of prime importance that we observe them in note-taking, at least at first. Furthermore, one idea about how the stuff should be classified does not exclude a different classification later on. This holds for paper note cards, and much more for the topics of a desktop wiki, since they can be much more easily revised and reshuffled than their paper equivalents.

Furthermore, just as the method of recording notes on index cards forces one to break down or analyze the subject matter into the smallest possible chunks– the slogan is: "one fact, one card" or "one thought, one card"-so the topics or pages in a wiki also force you to think about what actually constitutes "one thought" or "one fact." [7] Indeed, one of the beauties of the electronic version of the index card system is that you can easily revise even your ideas about what constitutes one thought or one fact. [8]

The physical cards of a card index have to be kept in boxes or some other container, and they need to be ordered in some way or other before they can be shuffled and re-shuffled in various ways.

Another theoretician of the index card system, the German sociologist Niklas Luhman, whose so-called "Zettelkasten" (slip-box) has achieved independent fame in Germany, used to talk about this first analytic step as "reduction for the sake of [building] complexity." [9] We need in this context not worry about whether Webb's approach that emphasizes re-organization or is compatible with Luhmann's approach that emphasizes or favors a more static model at this point, if only because this distinction is essentially a limitation of a paper-based system, and not one that is relevant for an electronic version of a card index. Since Luhmann's system is widely regarded as the best and most advanced version of a paper-based card system, I think it might deserve some analysis. (Another reason is that it has influenced my thinking about these matters, since about 1999.)

The idea that analysis must precede synthesis is old, of course. Galileo Galilei and René Descartes already thought it was necessary to distinguish between an analytic and a synthetic step in dealing with any problem. First, they thought, we have to take a problem apart into its most basic components, and then we may able to find a solution by re-assembling the pieces. Perhaps this approach is a little simple-minded, but it remains a useful fiction. Nor does it always work as well in practice as in theory, as many of us know from early childhood experience. It was frustrating, when after taking apart the toy train the pieces just would not fit together again. But however that may be, I find a desktop wiki like ConnectedText immensely useful in thinking about problems, and I do so for very similar reason.

Luhmann opted in his own "incarnation"-he did talk of "communicating" with his card index–for a system that differed from that which for which most of my predecessors and contemporaries (including an earlier version of myself) opted. He did not sort the cards alphabetically or in accordance with some systematic criteria (like the subject catalogue in a traditional library). Rather, he gave every slip of paper what might be called a numerus currens that had nothing to do with any systematic consideration of order or classification. In fact, he explicitly rejected any ordering based on the contents of the card index because he realized that such a system would inevitably run into problems having to do with changing needs, interests, and insights in coming years. Systematic considerations are far too inflexible and limiting. Giving the note cards abstract numbers, like 1, 1.1, 1.3.6 and even 1.1a.5 ... "sometimes up to twelve digits," allows for infinite possibilities for further ordering and sub-ordering without any constraints. Any given slip can be connected with any card one chooses and lead to different internal branchings of the card index. And this "internal branching ability" ( interne Verzweigungsfähigkeit) leads to further capabilities of the system. One of these has to do with cluster formations in the card file. Certain topics will over time become much more elaborate than certain other, and in principle such internal branching could go to infinity. There are no a priori limits on what information can be included. And all this is possible only because each slip or note card (Zettel) has a fixed place, indicated by a number to which other slips can refer. And the note can always be found-unless, of course, the slip gets lost or is mechanically displaced.[10]

This fixed number is equivalent to a unique record id or an auto-generated sequence numbers for records in database applications. Indeed, you might say that this laborious numbering scheme (and the worry as to where you fit in a new record in the numbering scheme) is completely eliminated by a system based on a database, like Connectedtext.

This adoption of a fixed primary numerus currens also allows for a supervening systematic order by means of a register that introduces a classification by means of keywords or categories, recorded on other slips. [11] This is, of course, absolutely necessary in the absence of a systematic primary classification (and represents to a certain extent the analogue of the traditional subject catalogue, whose demise Nicholson Baker so eloquently laments in his essay "Discards." [12] Indeed, Luhmann's system functions very much like a library, with the note cards corresponding to the books and the index corresponding to the subject catalogue. Again, a program like ConnectedText, improves significantly on Luhmann's paper-based system in this regard. The user does not have to worry about what number to assign to a certain slip, and need not decide at the beginning where it fits in. Nor do keywords have to be assigned right away or recorded on separate cards. They can be added later.[13] And any keyword or category that is assigned at any point need not be final or stand in the way of re-classification (something that would be difficult in the paper-based system). Apart from note cards that contain information and note cards that provide the index, it is also useful to keep note cards with the bibliographical information of the information. So, there are altogether three types cards: Note cards, cards with indexes, and cards with bibliographical information. The first two types are essential, but the index cards are made superfluous by ConnectedText. You might think of topics as correspnding to the other two types of cards. I have chosen to isolate bibliographical topics by naming them, using the author's last name and the date of the publication, enclosed in brackets, like so [[(Kuehn 2000)]].

In any such note-taking system, some problems or research areas will grow faster and more extensively than others. The formation of clusters in such a system is desirable. Some regions of the slip box will be more active than others, some will lead to further research and the publication of articles, and others will never amount to much. But, and this is important, no one would be capable to predict precisely what he/she will be working on within a year of taking a certain note, let alone what will be of interest in ten or twenty years. It is good that the system allows growth in many directions. And a wiki like ConnectedText does this just as well, if not better.

Just as any other good system of notes, ConnectedText will lead to what Luhmann called a "Zweitgedächtnis" or a secondary memory that might be described with Luhmann as a "chaos (Unordnung) of non-arbitrary internal structure."[14] When we consult this external or artificial memory, we will often be surprised by what we find. In fact, the more information we have fed into the system, the more we will be surprised. Luhmann, who had an interesting concept of "communication," had no problem to call this serendipitous interaction with his notes, communication. In fact, and perhaps somewhat sadly, this seems to have been the main form of communication that interested him, late in his life. One might therefore say with Nietzsche: Be careful, "our writing instrument work on our thoughts." But however that may be, it is true that a large collection of notes leads to the appearance that you are interacting with a thinking being or an alter ego, even if the thought that is going on is largely the thought you put in yourself in excerpting, ordering and thinking about your notes. You will find connections that you do not explicitly feed into the database or project.

I am not as sure as Luhmann seems to have been that this thought-like appearance of a large accumulation of notes is largely due to the fact that there is no hierarchical order in the index card system. But I am sure that hierarchies can get in the way, especially at the beginning. I am also sure that such a collection of notes is an associative network in which the significance of each slip is largely dependent on its relation to other slips. Finally, it appears to me that a network of associations is superior in comparison with a hierarchy when the collection of information is concerned, for it is not always possible to determine where in a hierarchy a certain bit of information should go. While I do not think that there is any real incompatibility between hierarchical and networked thinking, I am sure that the introduction of hierarchical considerations at a too early stage might get in the way of discovery.[15] And this is one of the reasons why I like ConnectedText. It does not commit you to any hierarchical structure at any point, though you can introduce it through a hierarchically ordered system of categories and through an outline view at any time you wish.

This can be put differently, systems like Luhmann's card index and electronic versions of them, like ConnectedText, augment human memory and thus also intelligence, which is precisely the phrase Engelbart used for a computer-based and hyperlinked database. In any case, this is how I view ConnectedText, one of the best equivalents of a card index. It is a program that amplifies my intelligence. While it does perhaps not make me smarter, it has become an essential aspect of my research and my thinking. I do not mean that it thinks for me, but rather that it stores what I have noted and thought about, and that in my further thinking I am building or elaborating on these thoughts, which often are expressed in the connections that are expressed by the links between the different topics I have made. Put more modestly, my ConnectedText databases have become the repository of all of my stuff. ConnectedText does not just store my information and my thoughts, it also allows me to sort them, according to different categories, and to build or discover the relationships or connections between the different bits of information.

For these reasons, it would not be sufficient to say that ConnectedText is a "note-taking" application for me. There are many ways, in which "note-taking application" can be understood. One might simply mean that such an application is a tool in which we keep and organize the snippets of personal information necessary for our daily life (phone numbers, addresses, passwords, reminders, to do items, and other scraps). ConnectedText is certainly appropriate for such use (and I do, accordingly, have a project, called "Personal"), but it is more. A note-taking application may also be a repository of reference materials (for longer text, web pages, and reference materials that are relatively static); and I do view it in this way as well, having a project called "Stuff". Furthermore, since ConnectedText makes it easy to link to any file on your computer or on the web, it is eminently usable for such a library function. But the most important way in which I use has to do with the way I organize my research, my thoughts and my ideas, very much in the way in which I would use a card index in the way Luhmann described it. It has become a "thinking environment" for me; and it is in this way that it shines the most. To say again, it does not think for me, but it allows me to think about matters in a way that would be impossible without this tool. This could also be put more modestly. Connectedtext is a tool for writing, for I do believe that you cannot have sustained thought about anything difficult or complex without writing. I could quote Luhmann on this as well, who thought that "without writing one cannot think," But there is nothing peculiarly "Luhmannian" about this idea. Isaac Asimov is said to have said "Writing to me is simply thinking through my fingers." And, to give one other example, E. B. White (of "Strunk and White" fame) claimed that "writing is one way to go about thinking." In other words, writing is thinking. And since I do almost all my significant writing in ConnectedText these days, it might be called my "writing environment."

I should perhaps also note that I try, whenever possible, not to collect raw quotes or information simply copied from the Internet or from books, but to write excerpts or summaries in my own words on the basis of my reading. Luhmann called this "reformulating writing" and argued that such an approach is most important for one's own intellectual life. But this idea is not a new discovery Luhmann made. In fact, the idea that excerpts should be used to keep on's research goes back to at least the Renaissance when people first began to make extensive excerpts on paper. Reading should never be merely passive and consist in the mere absorption or copying of information. It should be critical and engage the material reflectively, being guided by questions such as "Why is this important?" "How does this fit in?" "Is it true?" "Why is the author saying what she is saying?" etc. The result of such active reading is what he also called a "Lesegedächtnis" or memory of one's reading, which will be the beginning of a creative engagement with other thinkers, or the necessary condition of the possibility of original thought (or writing). Many of the greatest philosophers of the modern period have been "thinking on paper" or "thinking by writing." ConnectedText is the electronic equivalent of paper in this process. It allows of the same kind of "externalized thought" as paper does–and then some. It is for this reason that I do not use the "Clipboard Catcher" as extensively as other people seem to be using it. But, as I said, mine is an idiosyncratic use.

During the last century, many writers also used index cards as their favorite medium for writing. Vladimir Nabokov is perhaps the most famous of these. He wrote all of his later works in pencil on index cards, which he stored in shoeboxes and burned the cards after the manuscript was typed up. Some have argued that he therefore wrote in an associative way in which the ultimate shape of the work would gradually emerge from preliminary explorations of the issue at hand. Nothing could be further from the truth, at least if we believe Nabokov: "The pattern of the thing precedes the thing. I fill in the gaps of the crossword at any spot I happen to choose. These bits I write on index cards until the novel is done. My schedule is flexible but I am rather particular about my instruments: lined Bristol cards and well-sharpened, not too hard, pencils capped with erasers." For Nabokov thepattern or shape of the book came first. It just needed to be described correctly, and since it was so clear and distinct, he could describe any part of it and any convenient time, like, for instance, sitting in the car, waiting for his wife to take care of the more ordinary things of life. ""... Since this entire structure, dimly illumined in one's mind, can be compared to a painting, and since you do not have to work gradually from left to right for its proper perception, I may direct my flashlight at any part or particle of the picture when setting it down in writing. I do not begin my novel at the beginning I do not reach chapter three before I reach chapter four... This is why I like writing my stories and novels on index cards, numbering them later when the whole set is complete. Every card is rewritten many times ... " I am no Nabokov, as this essay will prove to anyone's satisfaction (even though English is also a second language for me). But this way of writing in increments has become more and more important to me. It consists of working out the implications of my ideas and the attempt at discovering some of the more complex relationships between what would at first appear unrelated bits and pieces of information.

I will close by calling attention to the advice of another great sociologist, namely, C. Wright Mills' profound "Appendix: On Intellectual Craftsmanship," as found in his book on The Sociological Imagination.[16] His advice is for beginning students reads as follows:

It is best to begin, I think, by reminding you, the beginning student, that the most admirable thinkers within the scholarly community you have chosen to join do not split their work from their lives. They seem to take both too seriously to allow such dissociation, and they want to use each for the enrichment of the other. Of course, such a split is the prevailing convention among men in general, deriving, I suppose, from the hollowness of the work which men in general now do. ... Scholarship is a choice of how to live as well as a choice of career; whether he knows it or not, the intellectual workman forms his own self as he works toward the perfection of his craft; to realize his own potentialities, and any opportunities that come his way, he constructs a character which has as its core the qualities of the good workman.

What this means is that you must learn to use your life experience in your intellectual work: continually to examine and interpret it. In this sense craftsmanship is the center of yourself and you are personally involved in every intellectual product upon which you may work. To say that you can "have experience," means, for one thing, that your past plays into and affects your present, and that it defines your capacity for future experience. As a social scientist, you have to control this rather elaborate interplay, to capture what you experience and sort it out; only in this way can you hope to use it to guide and test your reflection, and in the process shape yourself as an intellectual craftsman. But how can you do this? One answer is: you must set up a file, which is, I suppose, a sociologist's way of saying: keep a journal; many creative writers keep journals; the sociologist's need for systematic reflection demands it.

In such a file as I am going to describe, there is joined personal experience and professional activities, studies under way and studies planned. In this file, you, as an intellectual craftsman, will try to get together what you are doing intellectually and what you are experiencing as a person. Here you will not be afraid to use your experience and relate it directly to various work in progress. By serving as a check on repetitious work, your file also enables you to conserve your energy. It also encourages you to capture "fringe-thoughts": various ideas which may be byproducts of everyday life, snatches of conversation overheard on the street, or, for that matter, dreams. Once noted, these may lead to more systematic thinking, as well as lend intellectual relevance to more directed experience. ...

By keeping an adequate file and thus developing self-reflective habits, you learn how to keep your inner world awake. Whenever you feel strongly about events or ideas you must try not to let them pass from your mind, but instead to formulate them for your files and in so doing draw out their implications, show yourself either how foolish these feelings or ideas are, or how they might be articulated into productive shape. The file also helps you build up the habit of writing. You cannot "keep your hand in" if you do not write something at least every week. In developing the file, you can experiment as a writer and thus, as they say, develop your powers of expression. To maintain a file is to engage in the controlled experience. ...

For instance, as a student working toward the preliminary examination, writing a thesis, and, at the same time, doing term papers, your files will be arranged in those three areas of endeavor. But after a year or so of graduate work, you will begin to re-organize the whole file in relation to the main project of your thesis. Then as you pursue your work you will notice that no one project ever dominates it, or sets the master categories in which it is arranged. In fact, the use of the file encourages expansion of the categories which you use in your thinking. And the way in which these categories change, some being dropped and others being added-is an index of your intellectual progress and breadth. Eventually, the files will come to be arranged according to several large projects, having many sub-projects that change from year to year.

All this involves the taking of notes. You will have to acquire the habit of taking a large volume of notes from any worth-while book you read-although, I have to say, you may get better work out of yourself when you read really bad books. The first step in translating experience, either of other men's writing, or of your own life, into the intellectual sphere, is to give it form. Merely to name an item of experience often invites you to explain it; the mere taking of a note from a book is often a prod to reflection. At the same time, of course, the taking of a note is a great aid in comprehending what you are reading.

Your notes may turn out, as mine do, to be of two sorts: in reading certain very important books you try to grasp the structure of the writer's argument, and take notes accordingly; but more frequently, and after a few years of independent work, rather than read entire books, you will very often read parts of many books from the point of view of some particular theme or topic in which you are interested and concerning which you have plans in your file. Therefore, you will take notes which do not fairly represent the books you read. You are using this particular idea, this particular fact, for the realization of your own projects.

But how is this file-which so far must seem to you more like a curious sort of "literary" journal-used in intellectual production? The maintenance of such a file is intellectual production. It is a continually growing store of facts and ideas, from the most vague to the most finished.

I wish that I had read this passage when I entered graduate school. Nor could I have said this as well as Mills. In any case, it appears to me that ConnectedText is ideally suited for starting and keeping such a file. It will facilitate precisely the kind of reflection and intellectual life that Mills recommends, or so it seems to me. In any case, that is how I use it.[17]

One final thought: I have talked a great deal about reading and note-taking, but reading and note-taking are only the beginning. At some time, you have to begin to think for yourself. One might think that there is a deep divide between the two. I think the experience of many of the thinkers I have referred to shows that this is so. Note-taking, if one right, shades imperceptibly into original thought–especially if you take care to appropriate the the thoughts of others by thinking them through and by formulating them in your own words.

Lest anyone thinks that I completely endorse the description of the card index and its function, given by Luhmann, I should perhaps point out that I think it has fundamental problems, having to do with two seemingly unrealted issues, namely (i) his so-called "systems theory" and (ii) his apparent eclecticism, or the tendency to assume that things "will fit in," which, however, appear to me closely connected. Luhmann is confident that his card file, if consistently kept, will "develop an internal structure, which has never been imparted to it in this way, but which can be extracted from it." Now, this may well be true, but there is no guarantee that this structure reflects anything but the structure of the card file. What comes out of the card file might be interesting, but this does not mean it is true. Luhmann was not that interested in "truth," while I have not given up on pursuing it. Secondly, Luhmann ultimately remained an intellectual "bricoleur" or "tinkerer," as Claude Lévi-Strauss, another thinker who used Zettelkästen extensively, would have put it. The bricoleur is different from the engineer because the engineer can develop or acquire tools that are designed for a technical need. He re-designs the part of the world he deals with, while the bricoleur restricts himself to tinkering with collections of odds and ends left over from other projects, that is, with a certain subset of our cultural enddeavors "that might come in handy." The structure, he extracted from his Zettelkasten, ultimately "systems theory" is ultimately an arrangement of these odds and ends. Anyone who uses his method should be aware of this danger. But I do not think that this is a danger inherent in the note-taking system, but one that has to do with how one uses it. You can cut yourself with any sharp tool, if you are not careful.

I wrote this short essay entirely in ConnectedText, using some of the notes on note-taking that I assembled and thought about during the last four or five years. The new outliner and footnote function was indispensable in writing this draft. In fact, this was the first time that I used ConnectedText not just as a note-taking system, but also as a writing environment. After finishing the rough draft, I exported it to MS Word in order to revise it and give it whatever "polish" it may now have.

Hoping that this might help the one or the other person in making the decision to adopt ConnectedText and, perhaps more importantly, in thinking about some of the intricacies of scholarly research,

Manfred Kuehn

[1] See

[2] See

[3] Thus I created a "scrap file" for every paper I wrote and alo tried to keep notes in a special notes folder.

[4] She observed in the appendix to her My Apprenticeship of 1926, called The Art of Note-Taking: "It is difficult to persuade the accomplished graduate of Oxford or Cambridge that an indispensable instrument in the technique of sociological enquiry - seeing that without it any of the methods of acquiring facts can seldom be used effectively - is the making of notes" Webb, Beatrice (1926) My Apprenticeship (London: Longmans, Green, and Co.), pp. 426-7.

[5] Bolter, Jay David (1991) Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1991), p. 40.

[6] Webb 1926, p. 363. The number of scholars who have used the index card method is legion, especially in sociology and anthropology, but also in many other subjects. Claude Lévy-Strauss learned their use from Marcel Mauss and others, Roland Barthes used them, Charles Sanders Peirce relied on them, and William Van Orman Quine wrote his lectures on them, etc.

[7] Webb 1926, p. 364: "For a highly elaborated and skilled process of" making notes", besides its obvious use in recording observations which would otherwise be forgotten, is actually an instrument of discovery. This process serves a similar purpose in sociology to that of the blow-pipe and the balance in chemistry, or the prism and the electroscope in physics. That is to say, it enables the scientific worker to break up his subject-matter, so as to isolate and examine at his leisure its various component parts, and to recombine them in new and experimental groupings in order to discover which sequences of events have a causal significance. To put it paradoxically, by exercising your reason on the separate facts displayed, in an appropriate way, on hundreds, perhaps thousands, of separate pieces of paper, you may discover which of a series of hypotheses best explains the processes underlying the rise, growth, change or decay of a given social institution, or the character of the actions and reactions of different elements of a given social environment. The truth of one of the hypotheses may be proved, by significant correspondences and differences, to be the order of thought that most closely corresponds with the order of things."

[8] I have found that the "size of a thought" is usually not much larger than 500 words. Nicholson Baker, who has written an essay on "The Size of Thoughts" thinks that "most are about three feet tall, with the level of complexity of a lawnmower engine, or a cigarette lighter, or those tubes of toothpaste that, by mingling several hidden pastes and gels, create a pleasantly striped product." Mine are a lot smaller. It takes between 50 and 500 words for me to express one thought or one idea (or perhaps better a fragment of a thought or an idea, because thoughts and ideas usually are compounds of such fragments). See also Steven Berlin Johnson on his experiences with an electronic outliner, called Devonthink:

[9] See Luhmann, Niklas (2000) Short Cuts. Edited by Peter Gente, Heidi Paris, Martin Weinmann. Frankfurt/Main: Zweitausendeins), p. 33.

[10] By contrast, a systematic ordering, which finds its contemporary equivalent in modern outliners, soon runs into difficulties. The anthropologist Alan MacFarlane noted some time ago that "one danger inherent in paper indexes is the amount of effort they take to add to and maintain. That means that more and more of the worker's energies go into the creation of the tools for research, and the less time there is to actually do the research and the writing." He traced this problem to the hierarchical classification that he thought paper makes necessary and complained that the system broke down at 40.000 cards because the preconceived categories proved inflexible. Luhmann's alternative avoids this problem. By the way, Luhmann's system is said to have had 35.000 cards. Jules Verne had 25.000. The sixteenth-century thinker Joachim Jungius is said to have had 150.000, and how many Leibniz had, we do not know, though we do know that he had one of the most ingenious piece of furniture for keeping his copious notes.

[11] There will, accordingly, be several kinds of slips, namely those containing the notes and ideas, those that record the bibliographical information of the sources, and those that contain the keywords.

[12] Also found in his The Size of Thoughts of 1996.

[13] There are several programs that try to reproduce the functionality of Luhmann's skip box more faithfully; see, for instance, and I tried these programs, but decided against them because they follow the paper-model too closely. I don't think it is necessary for the electronic equivalent of a card index to restrict itself to connecting the different entries by means of keywords only. With a powerful modern computer, any word can become a "keyword" in a search. Direct links that lead to other direct links may replace the index in a system like ConnectedText. On the other hand, there is nothing that would prevent one from choosing to use categories like tags or keywords either. But, while I do use categories extensively in ConnectedText, I would not want to have to rely on them exclusively. But I miss the ability to make wiki-style links, which for me are the equivalence of references on one index card to others.

[14] Luhman, "Kommunikation mit Zettelkästen. Ein Erfahrungsbericht," in Niklas Luhmann (1992) Universität als Milieu. Kleine Schriften. Edited by André Kieserling (Bielefeld: Verlag Cordula Haux).

[15] I am just as dubious about some of the more extreme views on the "rhizomatic" nature of human thinking as I am about inflationary claims about hypertext.

[16] New York: Oxford University Press, 1959.

[17] Nor will it lock you into the proprietary format of ConnectedText, as you can easily export to text and html.

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