“Nowadays, each family produces writings, and every person has a collection. <…> The texts of old pile up high, with more texts being produced ceaselessly. A person raises a foot and walks down the road of learning, and yet, even when one’s hair turns white, one will not have exhausted everything” complained a sixth-century Chinese prince Xiao Yi 蕭繹 about having too many texts to read as he was compiling the Jinlouzi 金樓子 treatise (Tian, 132). Since then, we have lost many but produced incomparably more texts. Our hopes to exhaust all learning within one lifetime are long gone – and are replaced by the hopes to at least manage knowledge related to a single domain.
Every person has a different system to do so – as demonstrated in many of the previous posts in Digital Orientalist – and I have created mine with the help of Notion.
Notion is an app that offers extremely flexible organization of user content, which can in most cases be achieved by dragging and dropping things around. There is, of course, a certain learning curve involved, and one has to gain familiarity with the design choices made by the developers. Notion is a multitool that can turn into a to-do list, a kanban board, a database, and even a personal webpage – all of which can be quite intimidating.
And yet, I have abandoned every single other app and keep sticking to this one: I manage several projects with multiple participants in it; I use it for tracking bugs in my code; to write down first drafts of my papers; or again to manage courses I teach, etc. etc. To give you an idea of how heavily I rely on it, see the screenshot of the list of most used pages in my account:
The most important part of it all was creating and maintaining my personal knowledge base that contains notes on all things I find useful for my research. In this post, I will give a short guide to it in case you find it useful for your own work.
There are two main parts to the system I created. The first one is several databases with notes for source books, secondary literature, historical figures and terminology. These databases are essentially tables that contain links to user-created pages filled with notes, and columns with additional information and tags that allow sorting and filtering. The picture below is a snapshot of a table I created for primary sources I am interested in: for each page with notes I did about a source text I chose to add columns with information on authors and editors, a rough period of creation, and tags that in most cases reflect the genre of the primary source.
The table below shows a similar table I keep in English: here too I chose to mark authors, topics, and types of materials. Each entry is associated with a Notion subpage that has my short summary of a book or an article.
The second type of entries I have is a wiki: that is, a collection of notes arranged by topic rather than the source. This collection is much more chaotic and has notes on any possible topics I am interested in, including programming tips, instructions on how to write a cover letter and, of course, all the notes on China I feel are important to preserve. They are not particularly organized or exhaustive (Sinologists will surely notice the missing lines in the list below), but they grow steadily and get better with time.
Here is an example of how my page on Chinese history looks like, with subpages according to ruling dynasties, where I write whatever I feel is important to remember.
This, of course, takes time, but once one starts linking the pages within the app, magic starts to happen. Have a look at my notes on one of the secondary sources:
The underlined sections of the text are links to other pages within Notion: two are references to the source texts from the database mentioned above; one – to another Notion page listing researchers; one – to one of the pages on historical periods in China that I keep in the wiki. And the pop-up window above is a list of pages that reference this one (or that link back to it, hence, backlinks). This has truly been a great time saver for me: to link pages within the app one only needs to type ‘@’ followed by the name of the page to link.
Automatically created backlinks allow me to review and summarise what I’ve read on a specific subject quickly: whenever I need to find a list of books that discuss a specific topic or a time period, I just look up the backlink section of a page within the wiki I created. Since I try to do the same for important terminology, I can always pull up a list of works from my database that use a word I am focusing on – and through this, a list of researchers who have discussed it.
There are some other things that I like about Notion:
- The content can be easily exported as HTML, Markdown or PDF. This means that I can regularly download and back up my notes on my private drive instead of solely relying on Notion’s own cloud servers.
- I am yet to learn how to synchronize Notion with Zotero, but there is an existing plugin that does it.
- It can save webpages just like Evernote does
- There is a large community of people who design page templates
All in all, although it does not provide some interesting features that other apps have (for example, Logseq uses NLP to enhance user search and answer user questions instead of looking for hits in the content, Obsidian creates beautiful knowledge graphs), Notion remains a good solution for those who like to create note-taking systems that are just right for them personally and don’t mind spending some time to set things up.
Tian Xiaofei. “Literary Learning: Encyclopedias and Epitomes”. In: Denecke, Wiebke, Li, Wai-Yee and Tian, Xiaofei (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Classical Chinese Literature (1000 BCE–900 CE), New York: Oxford University Press, 2017, pp.132–46