Roam Research, Obsidian and The Zettelkasten Method

See “Notion, Roam Research, Obsidian, and RemNote” for the list of related articles.

Roam Research bills itself as “a note taking tool for networked thought.” Linking is the core of this product and it shows. Its backlinking capabilities were its most coveted feature until Notion had it too. It can show the network in a graphical format (which Notion cannot). I bet it’s fun to look at, but I am not quite sure what value it brings to the table. Its sidebar enhances its link-centered approach to knowledge management.

Obsidian is very similar to Roam. Unlike most of the SaaS solutions in this article, by default Obsidian stores its data only locally, which some privacy-conscious people consider an advantage. If you’d like your Obsidian data on multiple devices to sync up, you either set up an appropriate system yourself or opt into their paid syncing service. Supposedly Obsidian data is essentially a bunch of text files in the Markdown format, so devising your own syncing system should not be all that difficult.

The Zettelkasten Method is often cited as an inspiration for systems/apps like Roam Research and Obsidian.  “Introduction to the Zettelkasten Method” gives you an overview of the “classical,” i.e., pre-computer, everything-by-hand Zettelkasten Method.

Mechanics-wise, it is far easier now to implement the Zettelkasten Method as a computer system; all it needs is a hypertext system (though backlinking is considered essential) with tagging. The original paper-card-based system called for an elaborate ID assignment scheme so the cards can be sorted for easier retrieval, but that’s no longer a concern. Following a link must have taken a long time, but not any more. A “hub” card collected links on a specific topic. One reason for creating hub cards was to expedite the manual search for a card or cards you were looking for, because each hub card served as a shortcut. Today tag indices can be automatically generated and serve the role of hub cards, but manually created hub cards may still be useful if they are structured well within (see below).

However, from the content management point of view, there is some advice we still need to heed:

  • A card should contain just one thought. (Some would readily see an analog to the concept of paragraph in essay writing.)
  • When linking, you need to explicitly state why you link (“context”).
  • Take advantage of “structure notes,” which describe relationships amongst other cards.

Org-roam is a group of Emacs packages that emulate Roam with Org-Mode on Emacs. Org-Roam-Server is “A Web Application to Visualize the Org-Roam Database.”

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