Building Your Personal Encyclopedia


How do you organize your notes? Are you the kind of person that fills 1 notebook per month? Do you keep everything in text and PDF files on your hard disk or cloud account? Or do you use more elaborate note-taking software such as Notion, Obsidian, and Logseq?

Personally, I’m still scattered between these 3 categories. But I’m slowly migrating everything into the third category, as note-taking tools are becoming more and more powerful. In my opinion, this is the most powerful way of building a personal knowledge base, or Personal Knowledge Encyclopedia.

Today I want to share with you my findings along this journey, and share with you a couple of great resources to learn how to do it…

Why everyone is talking about personal knowledge management these days?

Personal Knowledge Management, or PKM for short, is a very hot topic these days in the productivity field. Today, we have new powerful options to create a personal knowledge base, most notably using a more dynamic, interlinked approach. As a result, you can get a better return on investment on your self-improvement and content creation efforts.

I’ve been paying close attention to this evolution since the start of 2021. And in my opinion, there are 2 main things that can explain this trend: the Zettlekasten note-taking system, and new generation note-taking software.

The Zettlekasten Note-taking System

One of the reasons personal knowledge management is trendy is because of the book “How to Take Smart Notes”. This book explains how to create a Zettlekasten.

The Zettlekasten was a note-taking system famously used by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927–1998), who wrote his thoughts in 90,000 index cards. This system has been credited for enabling his exceptional prolific writing, which includes over 70 books and 400 scholarly articles.

It is composed of several boxes of notes, which explains why it is called “Zettlekasten” — box of notes in German. It looks a bit like a paper-based wiki, as each index card is connected to other ones by a unique index card and branching hierarchy.

The result is a collection of many boxes of notes and drawers, such as this one:

New generation note-taking applications

– The other reason why we speak a lot about personal knowledge management these days is because of the increasingly sophisticated note-taking applications at our disposal.

One of the key features is bi-directional links, which connects 2 notes, and makes it easy to navigate in your whole system of notes. Those connections create graphs such as this one (taken from my own Personal Knowledge Encyclopedia):

Those applications also allow having dynamic displays that adapt to our specific uses. For example, you can typically include a note inside another note. And you can use templates which makes it easier to specialize your notes. For example, you can have templates for a journal entry, a checklist, a table, etc.

With those kinds of new generation note-taking tools, you can easily create a digital version of the Zettlekasten. And once you collect a sufficient amount of notes and ideas, it becomes easy to assemble them to generate original content, just as Luhmann did with his own Zettlekasten.

4 options to build your personal knowledge encyclopedia

Now let’s see 4 options you can use to create a personal knowledge base:

Notion: this one is probably the most famous. It is a cloud-hosted web app that can be used inside the browser. The personal version is free, and once you need to collaborate with multiple users, you need to pay. One of its main features is to create databases of information, which makes it great to create various project management boards. Unfortunately, creating bi-directional links is not as easy as for the other options, so I don’t use it currently for my own knowledge base.

Roam Research: this is another tool that has been very famous early in its development. This one is also hosted in the cloud. It looks a bit like Workflowy as everything you write on a note is a bullet point. Unfortunately, it is an expensive option, as it costs $15 per month to use, and when I tried it, it was also very slow, so I quickly gave up on it.

Obsidian: Obsidian is the main option that I use right now. It is a desktop application that is based on a collection of markdown files — which really are just text files with a simple formatting syntax. The offline version is free, and you can also synchronize your data in the cloud for a monthly fee, and there’s a mobile phone app. It has a rich ecosystem of plugins and a large supportive community of PKM enthusiasts.

LogSeq: this option is gaining traction these days, it is completely free and open-source, relying on donations as an economic model. It is also based on bullet point documents, just as Workflowy and Roam Research. I use it mostly on my main job (I’m a software engineer), and as an editing app to write my articles (this is the software I’m using right now to write this article).

How to start building your personal knowledge encyclopedia

Last but not least, let me share a couple of resources with you, that got me started on my personal knowledge management journey:

Take smart notes: this book is the bible on Luhmann’s Zettlekasten. I read it back to back and it’s very well written. It also explains the various reasons why this system is so effective to create original writing pieces.

Niklas Luhmann’s Zettlekasten: this is a digital archive of every paper note contained in Luhmann’s Zettlekasten. It helped me to make his system more concrete in my mind.

My 2021 Comprehensive Obsidian Zettelkasten Workflow: a 4-hours long presentation on how to create a Zettlekasten with Obsidian. It’s a great showcase of the possibilities offered by this software, and I’ve stolen many ideas of the author, Byan Jenks, on my current Obsidian setup, such as creating tags with emoticons.

Obsidian and Logseq – Why Use Both?: thanks to this video, I discovered that you can actually use Logseq notes inside Obsidian!

Obsidian Roundup: this is a weekly newsletter that tells you everything that’s happening around the Obsidian community. I love to read it to keep up on the new features coming up regularly on this software.

The Second Brain Summit

Finally, let’s finish this article on a note about a series of exciting digital events on personal knowledge management scheduled for next week. I plan to attend them or at least register to get the replays.

It is organized by Tiago Forte who has been writing for a long time on personal knowledge management. He likes to describe personal knowledge management systems as a “Second Brain”. That’s how he created this summit, which features many of the foremost thinkers in this field.

It’s free to attend, and here’s the link: The Second Brain Summit (14 – 18 March 2022) (note that I’m not affiliated with this event)

Personal Knowledge Management is a big trend these days. It has been fueled by Niklas Luhman’s Zettlekasten note-taking system that has great ideas on how to organize notes and the advent of next-generation note-taking applications that you can finely customize to apply Luhman’s ideas in a digital context. If you haven’t started yet to inquire about this new phenomenon, I would advise you to at least try to create a couple of notes on Obsidian. It’s free and the learning curve is not that steep for basic usage. I think it is well worth the effort considering the big leaps it can help you make in your creative process and self-improvement efforts.

Featured photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

About the author 

Alex Philippe

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