Putting text sources into the Zettelkasten?

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Working with digital texts like ebooks, PDF or resources from the web quickly brings up the question, whether we should store a copy of these texts in our Zettelkasten or not. After reading a digital text, it would be so easy and also intuitive to save that text along with the corresponding Literature Note. And it would be comfortable as well: we would be able to easily get back to the text source whenever we want and need to.


Well, if we proceed like this, we would actually violate the core concept of Literature Notes, which could be condensed to:

  • Read/process a source and make corresponding and relevant notes on each topic wherein – in your own words.
  • These notes should be made in such a way that it is no longer necessary to return to the actual source, even if you later do a new research concerning the same reference.

If our Literature Note meets all of these criteria, there is no longer any need for the actual text source.

On the other hand, having in mind that we could get back to the source at any time contains the risk, that our Literature Notes become incomplete, that we do not write down all ideas that we have in mind while reading its content. In the worst case, we fall back into old habits and just store the read text source, maybe with some annotations and text-highlighting wherein, and skip or procrastinate writing a corresponding Literature Note. This is, however, legitimate, without a doubt – but that’s not how a Zettelkasten works.

Imagine the Literature Note as a kind of mediator, via which we communicate with the source. It becomes our access to the text source, our interpretation and our condensed extraction of its content. The Literature Note is the unit via which the Zettelkasten processes the read literature. It breaks down and compresses a complex content into easy understandable and quickly to recapitulate bits. And these bits are then further processed within the Zettelkasten. Therefore, a pure text source would be an alien element in the Zettelkasten without any further use.

Please, don’t get me wrong. I do not recommend to delete your bought or free ebooks or journal articles after reading them. Also, feel free to keep a record of your read online articles and other website sources. I just recommend not to save them inside the Zettelkasten. You can store them in any secondary database, keep them in the reference manager of your choice, or just put it somewhere on your hard drive. But strictly avoid making it an actual part of your Zettelkasten.


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