Managing a Zettelkasten using LibreOffice Writer or Microsoft Word

A Zettelkasten is a German word meaning slip box, used as a research support tool and made famous by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998), who created around 90,000 cards to help him with his work. Each card holds a single idea and Luhmann developed a method of numbering notes and cross-referencing that is similar to hypertext today so that collections of cards could help him explore a topic thoroughly.

Modern implementations of a Zettelkasten often use text files to store data and mimic the properties of index cards or slips, arguing that text files are timeless. I have much sympathy with this idea, but recently I’ve taken a look at the Open Document Text (ODT) format, which is used by LibreOffice. ODT is essentially a zipped file containing the content of the document which can be accessed fairly easily. Creating content in LibreOffice has some advantages over text files because you can do things like include images more easily and share the content between systems. You can get the same result with text files, folders of images and links, but it does get a little time consuming – and if you want to spend time writing rather than fiddling with your systems it’s probably better to just get on with the activity of writing rather than building complicated systems. Although the system building is more fun…

Anyway, the question I had was whether you could create a Zettelkasten using LibreOffice Writer (or MS Word if you are so inclined). After some experimentation I came up with an approach that works in Writer fairly well. Set a page format to A5 landscape. Use a heading for each card (pressing Ctrl-2 is a shortcut for heading 2). Make your notes. Press ctrl-enter to insert a page break. Move to the next card. Use a page with heading 1 to create topic sections. Insert a table of contents at the front for easy reference. And for bonus points, highlight specific words that are important and add them to an index that you add to the end of the document so you can quickly find the pages that refer to them. Of course to make that easy, add page numbers and it doesn’t hurt to add a running head.

If this is of interest and you want more details drop a comment and I’ll expand the description.

The reason for this post, however, is that if you search for how to create a Zettelkasten using Microsoft Word or LibreOffice writer on Google you get a number of posts telling you what a Zettelkasten is, and some posts where people ask the question and get told to use text files because they’re better.

Which then raises the question, “What would ChatGPT do?”.

Here’s the answer I got.

How can I create the functions of a Zettelkasten using a single document like a microsoft word or Libreoffice writer file?

Creating a Zettelkasten using a single document in Microsoft Word or LibreOffice Writer can be a bit tricky, but it is possible. Here are some steps to follow:

  1. Start by creating a new document in Microsoft Word or LibreOffice Writer. This document will serve as the foundation for your Zettelkasten.
  2. Begin by creating a table of contents. This will allow you to quickly navigate to different sections of your Zettelkasten. To create a table of contents in Word, go to the References tab and click on Table of Contents. In Writer, go to Insert > Table of Contents.
  3. Divide your document into sections that correspond to specific topics or ideas. Each section should be focused on a single idea, and should contain a brief summary or note about that idea.
  4. Use headers and subheaders to organize your document. Each header should correspond to a major topic, while subheaders can be used to break down those topics into smaller ideas.
  5. Use hyperlinks to connect related ideas within your document. For example, if you mention an idea in one section that is relevant to another section, you can link to that section using a hyperlink.
  6. Consider using tags to categorize your ideas. You can create a list of tags at the beginning or end of your document, and then use those tags to mark relevant sections throughout the document.
  7. Keep your document up-to-date by regularly revisiting and updating your notes. As you learn more about a particular topic or idea, be sure to add those insights to your Zettelkasten.

By following these steps, you can create a functional Zettelkasten using a single document in Microsoft Word or LibreOffice Writer. It may take some time to get used to this approach, but with practice, it can be a highly effective way to organize your thoughts and ideas.

I don’t know whether a similar answer is buried somewhere in the 30,800 results on Google – after all we don’t usually go past the first page. Maybe this is entirely new knowledge – a solution to a problem that the AI has worked out which isn’t documented elsewhere in the same way. It does happen to be very close to the approach that I figured might work for me.

That still doesn’t stop it from being totally amazing.

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