Writing by Bob Doto

What is a Permanent Note? (Correcting Some Common Misunderstandings)

The term "permanent note" comes from Sonke Ahrens' book How to Take Smart Notes,1 where the author refers to two categories of notes permanently stored in the slip-box: "the main notes" and "literature notes."2 While many in the zettelkasten scene seem to think that "permanent note" refers only to the main notes in the slip-box, this is inconsistent with Ahrens' usage.

And yet, not entirely.

In other areas of the book,3 Ahrens refers to the main notes as "permanent notes" to the exclusion of literature notes, suggesting that the main notes are both final and permanent, while literature notes are transitional and fleeting. Here is where much of the confusion comes from. Is "permanent note" a proper noun (ie the Permanent Note), or is "permanent note" a descriptor of both the main notes and literature notes?

In some ways, the question is a red herring, since regardless of where you land, both understandings of the term are limited in scope. In reality, the term "permanent note" is far more inclusive than is let on.

Permanent notes: "We are legion"

Permanent notes are any notes permanently stored in your zettelkasten. This includes the main notes (sometimes referred to as "zettels" or "primary notes"); literature notes (also known as "reference notes" or "bibliographic notes"); index notes (used for orienting and navigating one's slip-box); structure notes (used to highlight and develop trains of thought found in the slip-box); and any other notes that, by keeping them around, help the note maker populate, navigate, and/or make sense of their zettelkasten.4

The "main notes" as permanent notes

The main notes in the slip-box are considered permanent because they make up the interwoven fabric of your zettelkasten. Since most will be dynamically linked to other notes, to remove one of the main notes (in other words, to consider a main note "impermanent") would be to create a hole or gap in the network.5 In the same way that pulling a strand of yarn from a cable-knit sweater would disturb the integrity of the sweater, so too would removing a well-linked zettel from one's zettelkasten.

Literature notes as permanent notes

Literature notes are long-notes comprised of multiple references to passages from a piece of media, some of which will eventually be converted into individual zettels.6 Literature notes are considered permanent, because, even after all the references have been converted, you are left with a personal index of your reading / listening / watching, which can be stored in your zettelkasten as both a bibliographic reference or as a way to look up passages in a book or piece of media you'd like to revisit.

Structure notes as permanent notes

Structure notes are where trains of thought found in your zettelkasten can be further realized and organized, doubling as maps of how your thinking has been developing. These notes may be project-specific or simply a way of making sense of what's been going on in your slip-box. Structure notes can be considered permanent because they are engaged with, referenced, and developed over long stretches of time.

Indexes as permanent notes

Some zettelers have developed extensive slip-boxes comprised of many thousands of notes. In order to skillfully navigate these behemoths, zettelers will often create indexes of their content. Indexes used in any size zettelkasten are an essential, possibly even necessary resource for engaging with one's slip-box.

The anatomy of the main note

Despite the many kinds of permanent notes found in the zettelkasten, when people talk about permanent notes online, they're often referring only to the main notes in the slip-box. As such, let's take a look at these special permanent notes a little more closely.

The typical main note will be comprised of a few different elements. At their most basic, main notes should have:

Other elements one may find in the formatting of main notes include:

Here are a few examples of common main notes (Niklas Luhmann's example is at bottom right):


As you can see, a typical main note will contain some or all of the above-mentioned elements.

How are the main permanent notes created?

While all of the various permanent notes in the slip-box have their particular genesis, most questions online relate to how the main notes get created. This can be summed up in two typical pipelines: from fleeting notes or from literature notes.

Main notes created from fleeting notes

Fleeting notes are the notes you've been taking your entire life: brief jots to jog your memory, to-do lists, meeting notes, etc.7 Not all of these notes will become permanent zettels, however. Those that do are rewritten or edited, and given some or all of the elements listed above. Once the fleeting note has been transformed into a useful zettel, the original note may be discarded.

Main notes created from literature notes

Literature notes are one of the primary sources for the main notes in the slip-box. If a captured idea from a piece of media is considered "zettel-worthy," that idea will be converted into a unique zettel. The difference between fleeting and literature notes is that while fleeting notes are discarded after having been converted into main notes, literature notes can be integrated into one's slip-box.

Summing it all up

Despite the term "permanent note" being described as either the main notes in the slip-box or both the main notes and literature notes, the term actually refers to much more. A permanent note is any note permanently stored in the zettelkasten. These notes may deal with the way certain trains of thought are being developed (ie. structure notes); provide entryways into the zettelkasten itself (ie. indexes); serve as personal indexes of media that has been consumed (ie. literature notes); or function as the primary notes of connectivity between ideas (ie. main notes aka zettels).

So, the next time you're about to type "permanent note" in the comments of one of the online zettelkasten forums, be sure to specify which permanent note you are referring to. As my first publishing boss once said to me regarding how to write an email, "Always assume the receiver has no idea what you're talking about, and you won't have to write them another email to clarify what you've already said."

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  1. Neither Luhmann nor any other writer previous to Ahrens refers to a so-called permanent note. This is not a problem, per se, but it's important to note that when we use the term, we're working within Ahrens' specific understanding of what Luhmann's zettelkasten was and how it functioned. For more information on confusions around Ahrens' use of the term "permanent note," see https://writing.bobdoto.computer/dont-throw-away-your-old-notes-an-argument-for-holding-onto-abandoned-ideas/)

  2. Ahrens, S. (2017). How to Take Smart Notes. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. pp. 23 and 24

  3. Ibid. pp. 42 and 44.

  4. Other notes that might be considered permanent are hub notes and Nick Milo's MOCs, which some zettelers have incorporated into their slip-box for the purpose of navigation and exploration.

  5. See: https://writing.bobdoto.computer/dont-throw-away-your-old-notes-an-argument-for-holding-onto-abandoned-ideas/

  6. See: https://writing.bobdoto.computer/what-is-a-literature-note/

  7. See: https://writing.bobdoto.computer/what-is-a-fleeting-note/

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