As if I didn’t have enough to do, the last few days I’ve been trying out the note-taking (or PKM, or “second-brain”) app, Obsidian. Like Roam Research, it’s also on the bleeding edge of newness, not yet actually out of beta. However, it’s free (although I paid for a voluntary level of membership to support the developers), so I can ask my students to use it if I can work it into my course planning for teaching them History content and also note-taking.
I haven’t abandoned Roam Research, which I think is a very powerful app as well — but perhaps not as well-suited to longer-form writing. However, my needs are not entirely the same as other people’s. I’ve talked a bit with other scholars such as Mark Robertson (@Calhistorian) about how he uses each app, and I’m going to be fairly unashamed about emulating and adapting the aspects of Mark’s and others’ workflows that I find useful.
I had already been talking a bit in the Roam Research Reading Group devoted to Sönke Ahrens’ book How to Take Smart Notes, about how much I wanted to actually import into Roam. Some people were block-quoting extensively and then commenting on big chunks of Ahrens’ text. I was more interested in synopsizing and commenting, which I think is sort-of the “Reading Notes” stage of the process. Beginning to put the author’s ideas into my own words as I address them. I had already thought I might keep big hunks of text (pdfs etc.) in apps like MarginNote 3 (or even Evernote, which still has that awesome clipper function…), highlight them, and then “process” them into the beginnings of my own ideas in something like the sequence I showed in a video earlier this week:
So I had already been “retreating” from the idea of storing everything in Roam, and instead was beginning to think of it like an actual zettel box, where I’d tend the notes in more of a Luhmann-esque way. I may still try to do that; but I may also use Obsidian as a place to pull this stuff together and write about it. And also as a place to teach students how to do the same.
(Ironically, I just wrote this in the Substack draft page, but I’m now going to copy and paste it back into my Obsidian vault!)
I also turned this into a podcast episode and a video: