Down the Rabbit hole: Building a “slip box” or “zettelkasten”.
I have been down a rabbit hole for a few months now – this blog post is about that journey and what I have discovered.
Taking notes is one of the basic skills of good research. We are often taught how to take notes early in our careers but very few research guides tell us how to store and manage them properly. In the ‘olden days’ before computers revolutionised research we used a ‘slip box’ (‘zettelkasten’ in German) of cards with references and ideas from those references stored in a box. What Luhmann and others did was something quite different with this approach. In this blog post I am going to run through one of my most recent discoveries in reading and working that has got me really excited about note taking and how to improve this process. What I want to do is introduce why I decided to recreate a slip box on my computer and, more importantly, how it is organised in order to allow thinking to ‘organically develop’.
Why go down this rabbit hole?
After 20 years of doing research I recently hit a bit of a wall in terms of energy for the continual grind of developing yet another project from scratch. It struck me that moving from project to project was unsustainable. At least in the way I was doing it. My career has been one frantic grind after another. I would pick up an idea say ‘drug use and recovery’, ‘quality of life and dentine hypersensitivity’ or ‘quality of life and dry mouth’ and start thinking about the topic as a sociological problem. This would involve reading. Lots of reading around oral health but also the relevant sociological literature. This worked fine. I would read articles and books and make notes. Copious notes. After a while the project would become saturated  and I would start to write. The method worked. I have lots of notes. Tons of them. I think over the period of my academic career I have developed thousands of pages of notes. My Evernote has 558 separate notes and I have only used it in earnest for a couple of years. All of the others are on google drive or my laptop.
The problem is however that I have got to the point where I am struggling to move on and start yet another project with another ‘topic’. That and the fact I wanted to say and do more. I am not happy with the level of my writing at the moment. It has to get better. I started this blog as a way to help organise my thoughts but also to trace how this project on the sociology of oral health and dentistry develops. But for that to develop I needed a way to access my previous work. The problem is that a lot of my previous thinking, notes and diagrams are locked away in topics based on old ‘projects’. All written with the immediate topic in mind and stored in lengthy notes and basically inaccessible. I was trying to figure out what to do. I thought about NViVo – but it is too structured and actually could not cope with the sheer size of the notes I am talking about (I have 40GB of PDF files of papers alone).
OK so what next?
So I spent the last month developing the background tools to be able to take notes. The thing that helped me do this was the lucky discovery of this blog post through a post on the Niklas Luhmann Facebook group. The post is a book review of Sönke Ahrens’ book “How to Take Smart Notes” . After reading the blog post and Ahrens book I decided to build my own database to enable me to a) transfer all of my previous notes over to a more accessible format, and b) to be able to read and develop my ideas differently.
The surprising thing about this exercise is rediscovering an intuition I once had that Luhmann’s approach to building his theory of social systems was remarkably similar to the approach used to build grounded theory [3, 4]. The approach is about allowing yourself to think organically and creatively about the topic or problem. Focusing on what is ‘going on’ in the field you are looking at and then making notes in a way that is accessible. But also preparing to write and publish about those ideas. The trick however is to take your notes and thoughts down in a way that will enable this to happen – this is why I turned to access.
So how do you do this?
For this to work you have to be able to take notes and then file them in a fluid but also organised way [i]. I built a database for this using Microsoft Access. Why? Because I wanted to be able to develop the technique to suit my own well established way of working. Much of my work is based on literature, data and other sources (visual etc) and so I wanted to be able to build a database that recognised these sources and stored material in separate fields. Plus I wanted to be able to modify how the database worked myself top suit my working style. So with the help of my brother Ian I learned how to use access. The result is a data base that really works. I am using it to develop a book chapter for an upcoming book on oral health and dentistry with Claire Jones.
The central idea behind Luhmann’s approach to his ‘zettelkasten’ was that he only ever put one idea per note and he organised cards into threads and sub threads. So lets say I do some reading around the phenomenology of the body. This is of course very relevant to the study of oral health and in particular the impact of oral disease on everyday life. I do a bit of reading on this topic and discover that the author, Gallagher  in this case, thinks there has been a neglect of the preconscious body in psychology. I make a note on this and give it a unique reference (2b in this case).
As I continue to read Gallagher I find more useful thinking around the distinction between the conscious body (in psychology this research has become known as the body of work on body image) and the pre-conscious body (body schema). I develop topics for phenomenology and sub topics around body schema and body image. But I also add any subsequent notes on body schema behind 2b. So all additional notes on body schema become 2b1, 2b2, 2b3 and so on.
The system will enable me to add to these sub threads of reading by simply adding an additional letter to sub themes i.e. 2b1a, 2b1b and so on. For a detailed look at this please look at the resources linked to this post.
As the notes on reading and data are input a second level of thinking is developed which is careful reflection on what the reading actually means for the project. These are entered into a separate table on project thoughts. All of these thoughts are also given a unique id and in turn developed carefully into threads and themes. The splitting of observations on reading and data and then into project thoughts and ideas recognises that the purposes of reading and writing are often very different. Organising these into threads enables a flexible and reflexive way of working that goes beyond just typing thoughts into a word document.
The database might not look beautiful! But what this does is digitally recreate an evolving slip box that can be modified as I read. Luhmann said that this method of working served an important memory function for him because the themes and threads were organised as he came to them . He might perhaps return to a card and a theme years later to discover his younger self writing around social differentiation or problem functionalism. What it has also done for me is to cement the creative method of thinking I first discovered when I did grounded theory and in addition give me a new lease of life.
Luhmann’s golden rule was never write or read something that he did not want to do. This is the one thing I should have learned to do years ago. So I am now really enjoying my COVID-19 lock down, merrily reading and writing my book chapter. Allowing my curiosity to develop in whatever direction seems appropriate. Several ideas have appeared and developed at the same time whilst doing this, all of these will become papers at a later date. The sheer beauty of the slip box is that these various 'diversions' are not distractions. They can be allowed to happen because I can always return to the notes at a later date and develop them into a new paper or book. In short I am developing a rabbit warren into which I will be working away on this oral health and dentistry project.
So if you want to know where I have been for the past month or so. It has been down this particular rabbit hole – avoiding COVID-19 and merrily reading about oral care and tooth loss!
1. Glaser, B., ; Strauss, A.,, The Discovery of Grounded Theory. Aldine. 1967, Chicago.
2. Ahrens, S., How to take smart notes: One simple technique to boost writing. 2017.
3. Gibson, B., ; Gregory, J.,; Robinson, PG.,, Grounded theory and systems theory: The emergence of the grounded systems observer. Qualitative Sociology Review, 2005. 1(2): p. 3-21.
4. Gregory, J., ; Gibson, B.,; Robinson, PG.,, Variation and change in the meaning of oral health related quality of life: a ‘grounded’ systems approach. Social Science & Medicine, 2005. 60(8): p. 1859-1868.
5. Gallagher S., Body Schema and Intentionality, in The Body and the Self, J. Bermudez, ; Marcel, A., ; Eilan, N.,, Editor. 1995, MIT Press: Boston, USA.