Networked note-taking as feminist research method


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Notes as structures of knowledge

Last updated May 28, 2023

Whether understood as materializations of memory or the process of situated thought itself, notes do not stand alone: They are always in relation to other thoughts, ideas, and observations. These relationships are always shaped by power, meaning that feminist note-taking must go beyond the contemporary emphasis on note contents to consider the broader system which places notes in context with each other and structures their retrieval.

For example, institutions such as museums, libraries, and archives use organizing tools and techniques such as collections, databases, lists, maps, catalogues, and indexes all contribute the meaning of their written contents. Archives do not simply document the past: They actively shape the construction of the past—of cultural memory—by the way they store and present different forms of information ( Schwartz & Cook, 2002). The placement of one record next to another offers evidence of a shared context and begins to piece together a story which is as much formed by what is present, where, as what is not present at all ( Vismann, 2008). Rather than offering a guide to finding pearls of meaning, the organization of this information is part of the very production of such knowledge—be it within the fonds of an archive or the My Documents folder on a personal computer ( Gitelman, 2014).

Turning critically to note organization over note content is not by any means new: Historical studies of early modern European scribal practices emphasize the role of organization over content, turning to indexes, topic-specific notebooks, and even cabinets of keyword slips as solutions to finding information amongst the vastness of one’s notes (see Blair (2010) and Soll, 2010). In comparison, however, most contemporary literature on note-taking takes their organization as a given, perhaps due to the reliance of computers on deep folder structures and the availability of keyword searches, tagging, and flexible file ordering. These tools are undoubtably useful for note organization. Still, the lack of attention to the need to clearly connect notes prevents cross-fertilization of ideas between subjects, disciplines, sources, and moments.

The zettelkasten—a series of slip boxes containing notes on index cards—is a popular approach to the problem of note organization. Media historian Markus Krajewski (2011) traces a genealogy of zettelkasten as “the scholar’s machine” (p. 50) by drawing on 18th century German jurist Johann Jacob Moser’s descriptive use of zettelkasten to generate writing. Moser attributes his prolific (500+) publication record to this method, which includes writing short notes on small slips of paper, filing them in boxes by theme, and then removing them and reorganizing them to form his writing. Krajewski argues that the crux of the zettelkasten is in the way it affords a personalized cross-referencing system, “a kind of argumentative surplus that is the true value added of a box of index cards, while incessantly helping the reader fix his or her [sic] impressions and associations” (p. 65). He suggests that the value added by cross-referencing principle of Moser’s zettelkasten was an inspiration to other writers such as Hegel, who describes the absolute spirit as a “hidden box of index cards” (as cited in Krajewski, 2011, p. 57) due to the way the spirit vanishes within a chain of references. The additional value emerging from the zettelkasten’s cross-referencing technique brings Krajewski to argue that the zettelkasten is not simply an index tool but a writing tool, enabling novel connections between thoughts as opposed to the referential role of a library catalogue.

1950s German sociologist Niklas Luhmann is commonly cited as relying heavily on his own zettelkasten in the production of his prolific writing. Where Luhmann’s contribution to the system lies is in his use of numbers, letters, slashes, and commas to refer to individual notes’ positions within the larger system ( Ahrens, 2017). This approach allows notes’ labels to be endlessly expansive, meaning that Luhmann could organize them contextually and always knew their location within his ever-expanding information system. Further, since these labels did not shift as new notes were added to the system, he could also reference existing notes in different areas of the system. Through this ever-expanding reference system, Luhmann created a web of knowledge which “very much resembles, of course, the way we use hyperlinks on the internet” ( Ahrens, 2017, p. 24))—an anachronistic analogy which brought Daniel Lüdecke to develop a free software in 2015, titled Zettelkasten, which digitizes Luhmann’s process. Rather than cards in a slip box, these notes are now housed in the binary code of the hard drive.

This attention to digital note-taking has spurred the creation of a loosely-termed “PKM” (Personal Knowledge Management) scene online. The PKM community is rich for its experimentation and openness to knowledge sharing, and I owe much of my thinking on networked note structures to the many individuals contributing to digital note-taking methods and methodologies. There are YouTube channels, forums, and blogs dedicated to not just taking notes, but to developing and maintaining note-taking systems (e.g., Dubois, n.d.; [[Jenks, nd|Jenks [@BryanJenksTech], n.d.]]; r/PKMS, n.d.). In these spaces, professionals, students, and academics exchange methodological principles for note-taking, experiment with new note-taking software, and sometimes even contribute the creation of such software if they are free and open source.

In its emphasis on note-taking strategies, however, PKM tends to focus on individual productivity as the ultimate measure of a note-taking system rather than any consideration of the types of knowledge these systems might help produce. For example, the fact that Luhmann wrote over 50 books and over 500 journal articles in his 30-year career using his note-taking system is often cited in PKM spaces ( Ahrens, 2017) but there are few if any discussions about Luhmann’s qualitative contributions to his field. The tendency for PKM to glorify productivity via technological means echoes the way digital technologies are largely shaped by neoliberal narratives which treat the internet as a space of profound egalitarianism, despite the dependency of contemporary communications infrastructure on global racial capitalism ( Noble, 2016). While the free and open source software developed by members of the PKM community is helpful for many, little has been theorized about who and what these systems can be useful for outside of a general appeal for neoliberal productivity.

This is not to say that there is no opportunity for feminist interventions into digital note-taking technologies, however. Describing how database organization is critical to the access and distribution as well as autonomy and privacy of the information it contains, Communication Studies scholar Cait McKinney (2020) outlines a history of feminist “information activism”:

This concept brings together people, their visions of justice, and the media they use to organize, store, and provide access to information, a relationship that is key to understanding feminism’s role in histories of commonplace technologies such as computer databases. (p. 2)

Inspired by this history, I see an opportunity to bring a vision of social justice to the networked note organization strategies emerging from PKM. These strategies offer alternatives to the critiques launched against folders and files, bringing notes out of artificially imposed hierarchies and into an always-relational network to bridge disciplines and integrate situated knowledges in a variety of media forms.

👈 📖 Notes as constructions of knowledge | 📖 Four nodes of a feminist note-taking methodology 👉