Zotero to Obsidian

I’ve been dipping into my White Pine Zotero folder and doing a bit of reading over the last couple of weeks. Highlighting and commenting in the Preview app, which is the default app the pdf attached to a citation opens in. Once I’ve read and highlighted a document, I open an Obsidian window next to the highlighted document and make my Reading Notes. I open the “Lumber” folder as a vault, so that all the additional pages I make for links will be saved in that folder rather than in my alphabetical list in the main vault.

I’m resisting the temptation to add bibliographical cards into the Obsidian vault. Niklas Luhmann, you may recall, had a set of cards in his zettelkasten that were source citations. I don’t get the impression from reading his descriptions of his process or Schmidt’s research into it, that these were really an active part of the network of ideas in the boxes, which seem to have been based on his digested reactions to sources. This is similar to the distinction between quoting and paraphrasing that I think is important in making the ideas I put into the vault my own. I’m going to try to split the citations out into the Zotero folder and keep all my pdfs attached. I have begun citing the source documents in the Obsidian pages, using the publication year and author name. This should allow me to locate the source immediately in Zotero.

I don’t think I need to link them any more closely than that. I’m thinking here of the function in MarginNote 3 which would allow me to create a link that would take me directly to the highlighted text in MN3. I think this is an impressive piece of technical magic, but in the year since I’ve known about it, I haven’t really used this capability. I think it’s relatively rare that I’ll want to regularly return to a document I’ve already processed. So I’m not going to do more, right now, than citing the source and then mentioning page numbers when I summarize or comment on a particular fact or point I’m adding to the Reading Note.

I’ve been enjoying the process of adding the notes into Obsidian and making links to other notes in the vault or to new ideas. It’s satisfying connecting a new point from a new source to a body if information I’m building up on a particular idea. Often these are places like my home town of Glens Falls. I’ve been noting passages that talk about this lumber center. So now I can create a page for the city, add source citations, and link other mentions. I can return to the page later and add my own notes. This will be an iterative process, as I discover new sources and add information from them. Over time, I’ll discover how Glens Falls fits into my story.

Sometimes I come across new ideas and make pages for them. A couple of the new things I found when I was looking at accounts of the early years of the Ottawa River lumber industry were timber slides and squared timber. Timber slides were built beginning in 1829 to make it easier to float “cribs” of timber over rapids or waterfalls. And the earliest form that the British preferred for Canadian lumber was in the form of “squared timbers”, so when trees were cut in the woods, before being transported, the logs were squared off using broad axes. This was incredibly wasteful: typically a third of the wood was wasted from the logs that were transported. This is not a feature of the later, US lumber industry. So I’m going to dig into it a bit and see where it takes me.

Although it’s probably totally uncool for a professional historian to admit this, one of my first sources of info on a new topic I discover is Wikipedia. It’s not my only source, of course. But it’s usually a good place to get a basic clue about the topic and often to discover some links to additional information. A lot of people have put a lot of hours into contributing information to this public encyclopedia (I’ve edited a couple of pages myself), and there’s a very active community checking to make sure sources are cited to validate just about everything on a page. And the images people have found and have made available in creative commons-licensed forms are often really useful. As are the links to further information and the bibliography at the bottom. This isn’t the end of a search for useful information. But it’s a great beginning.

A final thing I can do, to preserve a trail when my research takes me to online sources, is to use Hypothesis to highlight and annotate. I don’t have to do this in public — instead I’ve created a private group called “Research” that I alone have access to. This allows me to annotate these public pages to my heart’s content without leaving a trail. And then to use my Hypothesis home page as a place I can easily return to, to either review my highlights and notes or to return to the texts I highlighted. This is another free tool, so I’m going to be sure to feature it when I teach my students how to do all this.

Also available as a video: https://youtu.be/SpATF9Q_nKQ

One thought on “Zotero to Obsidian

  1. Hi Dan,

    I just wan to share my overall work flow with you. As I often refer to it in my comments you can navigate my thinking easier, I hope.

    I use tags to define the type of note and also a tag for status. Then I can move the notes through my workflow by searching for them and work on the notes until they are finally filed.

    Med vänlig hälsning/With kind regards



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