Writing by Bob Doto

Using Diaries and Journals as Source Material for Zettelkasten Notes

All source material is handled more or less the same way when working with a Luhmann-style zettelkasten. Whether it's a 500-page book on literary theory or a three-line haiku, any piece of media that inspires thoughts and ideas is a potential source for main notes, which can then be cited, referenced, and, if desired, indexed through the creation of a literature note. Your personal diary or journal is simply another one of these sources.

The Importance of Indexing Your Journals

The trick with incorporating a personal journal into your zettelkasten practice is that it, unlike media sources you will typically engage with, has been created by you, often rough in writing, loose in organization, sans indexable markers. By contrast, the media sources we refer to in our zettelkasten notes tend to arrive in well-defined packages complete with TOCs, page numbers, headings, indexes, etc., all of which make research and reference easy. In order to use your journals as source material, you will need to adopt some of the above organization techniques.

The easiest way to turn your journal entries into source material is to add unique identifiers or "UIDs" to your writing. There are a few different ways to do this.

First, if you're working with physical journals, you'll want to give each booklet a volume number, then add dates and/or page numbers to the entries inside. Digital journals can be handled in a similar fashion. You can name your journal files with a date (ie 2023 or 2023_week_1), then date each individual entry inside the file.1 Many digital text-editing platforms also make it possible to link back to specific paragraphs or "blocks" in a file, which, in many cases, can take the place of page numbers.2

How Indexed Journals Function in a Zettelkasten

Unique identifiers referred to in your main notes point to where in your journals your ideas come from. This allows you to go back to entries if ever you want to see the context in which an idea was developed.

Below is an example of how this might look in a main note (reference at bottom):


# The self gives form to the spirit

The spirit, which in spiritist circles is often understood to be erratic and untethered to societal conventions, is tempered by the self where it is made to conform to social situations.

— from Journal, vol. 2, pg. 36, para. 2


Adding unique identifiers has the additional benefit of making it possible to create literature notes (aka reference or bibliographic notes) off of your journals, which will function as personal indexes of your own work.3

A typical literature note made from one of your journals may look something like this:

Page Para Note
36 2 the concept of guilt in both Buddhism and Christianity
42 3 see for John as mystic gospel
67 1 non-dualism in Christianity

If in your physical journals (or in the case of digital journals) you use dates instead of page numbers, the literature note might look like the example below:

Date Para Note
6/23/23 2 the concept of guilt in both Buddhism and Christianity
6/24/23 3 see for John as mystic gospel
7/6/23 1 non-dualism in Christianity

However, if in your journals you eschew writing in full paragraphs, instead scribbling feverishly in every direction, you could substitute page locations for paragraphs:

Date Location Note
6/23/23 mid page the concept of guilt in both Buddhism and Christianity
6/24/23 bottom see for John as mystic gospel
7/6/23 top corner non-dualism in Christianity

In either of the above cases, a literature note / index of your journal makes it possible to come back to your entries months or even years after they were written and still have an idea of what and where specific topics have been discussed.

A Zettelkasten is a Welcoming Note-Making System

It may seem counter-intuitive to incorporate something as chronological as a diary or journal into your very much anachronistic zettelkasten. However, when we remember that anything can be a source for ideas contained in main notes, that all sources of equal inspiration are treated equally, and that a personal journal is nothing more than a potential source of inspiration for notes, then their inclusion makes perfect sense. By appending volume numbers, page numbers, and/or dates to your journals, you will dramatically increase the use-value of these typically unsearchable thought records, turning writing that's often loose and personal into something more particular.


*If you enjoyed this piece, consider signing up for my weekly newsletter HERE. To learn more about me, click HERE. For my full website, click HERE.
  1. Since there are no pages in a digital file, page numbers will be of no help. Although, here I am referring to platforms like Obsidian, Notion, etc. Word processors like Google Docs and Apply Pages will indeed have page numbers.

  2. Not all platforms support block links, though many are choosing to do so.

  3. A literature note is a long-note containing a list of citations and references to what you found interesting while engaging with a media source. The practice is a take on that of Niklas Luhmann who, rather than writing in the margins of his books, took notes on slips of paper, which were stored in his zettelkasten and used as a source for main notes.

#essays #zettelkasten #2023