Zettelkasten: The Original Personal Knowledge Graph

Volodymyr Pavlyshyn
3 min readSep 1, 2023

In the age of digital transformation, the concept of a “Personal Knowledge Graph” (PKG) has become increasingly popular. It’s a networked approach to organizing information, where each node represents a piece of knowledge and the edges signify the relationships between them. But long before the term PKG was coined, there was the Zettelkasten method — a system that, in many ways, serves as the original Personal Knowledge Graph. Let’s delve into how Zettelkasten laid the groundwork for what we now understand as PKGs.

The Flow of Zettelkasten

  1. Fleeting Notes The Zettelkasten method starts with what are called “fleeting notes.” These are quick, temporary notes that you jot down when an idea strikes you. They can be as simple as a sentence or a keyword. The purpose is to capture the thought before it escapes your mind.
  2. Literature Notes When you read a book, article, or any other source of information, you create “literature notes.” These are summaries or paraphrases of the material, written in your own words. The aim is to distill the essence of what you’ve read, making it easier to review later.
  3. Permanent Notes The next step is to convert these literature notes into “permanent notes.” These are well-thought-out notes that you integrate into your Zettelkasten system. They are written in a way that makes them understandable even when taken out of context. Each permanent note should focus on a single idea or concept.
  4. Linking and Indexing The real magic of Zettelkasten comes into play when you start linking these permanent notes together. By creating links between related notes, you’re essentially building a web of interconnected ideas. This enables you to see the relationships between different pieces of information, facilitating deeper understanding and creative thinking.

The Importance of Using Your Own Words

One of the key principles of the Zettelkasten method is the emphasis on using your own words when creating notes. This is crucial for several reasons:

Enhanced Understanding: Paraphrasing forces you to understand the material at a deeper level. Memory Retention: Writing in your own words helps solidify your memory's information. Original Thought: It encourages you to think critically and form your own opinions, thereby fostering creativity and originality.

Zettelkasten as a Proto-Personal Knowledge Graph

Nodes: Permanent Notes In a Zettelkasten system, the “permanent notes” act as the nodes in your PKG. Each note represents a single, atomic idea or concept, much like a node in a graph.

Edges: Links Between Notes

The Zettelkasten method encourages linking related notes together, thereby creating a web of interconnected ideas. These links serve as the “edges” in your PKG, connecting one node to another.

Metadata: Tags and Index Notes

Zettelkasten also allows for the use of tags and index notes, which can be considered as metadata in a PKG. They help categorize and navigate your web of notes, providing additional context and meaning to your nodes and edges.

Why Zettelkasten is Essentially a PKG

  1. Non-linear Organization Both systems thrive on a non-linear organization of information. While traditional note-taking methods often rely on hierarchical structures, both Zettelkasten and PKGs allow for a more fluid, networked arrangement.
  2. Emphasis on Relationships The power of both systems lies in the relationships between individual pieces of information. By focusing on how one idea connects to another, you’re able to gain a deeper understanding and generate new insights.
  3. Facilitates Serendipity The interconnected nature of both Zettelkasten and PKGs allows for serendipitous discovery. You can easily traverse from one idea to a related one, often leading to unexpected but valuable insights.
  4. Personalization Both are highly personalized systems. In a Zettelkasten, you’re encouraged to write notes in your own words, which makes the system uniquely yours. Similarly, a PKG is a reflection of your own understanding and interpretation of information.

Conclusion

The Zettelkasten method, emphasizing individual notes and their interconnections, can be seen as a precursor to the modern concept of a Personal Knowledge Graph. It offers a structured yet flexible way to organize information, making drawing connections and generating new insights easier. In essence, if you’re using a Zettelkasten, you’re already participating in the rich tradition of knowledge graphing — making it the original Personal Knowledge Graph.

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Volodymyr Pavlyshyn

I believe in SSI, web5 web3 and democratized open data.I make all magic happens! dream & make ideas real, read poetry, write code, cook, do mate, and love.