I was recently reminded of the analog life I lead and how that’s evolved over the years since I first wrote about the topic. After some review and reading I can safely say: that’s a different topic. What I did notice is that I’ve never discussed just how I manage inflows of information and manage things I want to retain long term.
In this post I’m happy to present: My personal knowledge base / wiki setup. Interestingly this setup was started 25 years ago (ish) and hasn’t changed much outside of being contained within different apps or ‘silos’ at different times. The overall structure and what’s contained within has been pretty consistent this whole time.
Before getting too deep into my setup I’d like to point out I’ve used each of the following systems over the years and each has merit and may actually work for you. Please check them out and give them consideration if you find yourself looking for better knowledge base setups.
In no particular order:
There are a ton of options and I recommend looking at a few before making deep commitments.
Over the years my needs for a digital knowledge base can be distilled down to
- Good plain text support
- If markup is an option, data must be plain text and markup either org-mode or markdown syntax
- Image support, preferably inline (viewing stuff inline primarily)
I got here by trying a purely stylus setup (OneNote), a purely text+attachments approach (Evernote/Joplin) and a few other setups like TiddlyWiki and org-mode over multiple decades. I may love my pen and paper but I find that in my knowledge base I care a lot more about just having an image I drew inline. I really don’t care if it’s ’native’ drawing inline with the text or an image attachment.
The discovery of a stylus being not a primary need really changed my dynamics and put me squarely in the ‘folders and files and pure text’ world of knowledge base systems. I also must have offline support so a ‘proper wiki’ like MoinMoin (link) is not an option for me.
Things To Watch For
Before I get to describing my personal setup I’d like to point out some things that helped me find a system that worked best for me.
When building your setup think about how you manage information and group topics. A knowledge base that doesn’t organize similar to your mind will be very difficult to use and manage over time. Even if your mind behaves like squirrels on MDMA at a rave, model this after how you actually think. You can tune and adjust and shift later but you need to be naturally using the system or it won’t do anything for you other than cause pain and frustration.
Many systems provide tagging and search functionality. Initially I had a hard time putting these to use but ultimately realized I was trying to project order on chaos. My tags initially were very rigidly defined and started looking like folders unto themselves. After some trial and error I was able to find a broad yet specific way of describing notes such that my brain can find them again later. This took effort but I was able to find tags that worked for me.
I had a similar problem with search. I was trying to think of words to plug into a popular search engine online instead of the words I naturally use in my personal writings. Once I stopped forcing a model upon my information it started to work for me instead of against me. I still have a hard time finding some information but I have tags in use that help me narrow focus if I have to slog through a lot of information to find what I need.
Watch flow states as well. How is the information moving? Does it line up with your natural tendencies for thinking? What about creative? Is it free form enough to facilitate or does it not work? Not working is valid too, maybe paper is best for free form? I discovered that I can not use a computer for free form mind mapping, I have to do it on paper. Same for any diagram or secondary detail I may want to attach to a note.
Remember: this is not an organizer first. It’s a mind and memory augmentation. Think scrapbook, not planner.
Things I Catalog
For important context, I’d like to layout what I keep in my personal knowledge base. This is important as it sets the tone of the knowledge base. You may need and/or want to store different information. I strongly recommend adapting anything from my setup and/or borrowing only small pieces. My knowledge base of the following information is likely going to be different than yours.
- Technical info I need to remember (which command formats a hard drive again?)
- Technical documentation snippets (cheat sheet basically)
- ALL of my digital health information (Test results, referrals, EOBs, scanned invoices, etc)
- All governmental records I need for the minimum time I need to keep them (taxes, vehicle registration, etc)
- All bills that are related to utilities or debt obligations (mortgage, credit card, power company, etc)
- Art project notes, information and details about finished works (my photography books from creation through completion)
- Notes and ideas of things I’ve done previously and want to document (how did i create that oragami crane again?)
- Various links to external websites, files on disk and more
As you can see it’s a lot of augmented information I tend not to need day to day or directly. There are ‘active’ areas and notes when I’m figuring out something new like self-hosting my blog. I take my notes in my knowledge base and keep the overall progress and finer detail in this note despite having a to do item in my organizer.
How I Organize
My knowledge base looks very similar to Wikipedia and operates very similarly. It’s an index page, some pages with topics as links and a lot of tags and search capability. I have zones for tech, photography, analog life, blog posts (current, past, future posts), notes with books attached, checklists I use as templates in my organizer and a hell of a lot more.
The trick for me is I literally think of this as a set of folders and plain text files (think Wikipedia page URL + actual info files). It’s painfully simple and I group things naturally by folders (high level tags for tag folk) like
Tech and others. Inside those folders I’ll have files called things like
Photobook Projects.org and
Server_Notes.org that have my information. Each of the text files is organized into sections with tags at the section level (granular tags) so I can find things by both folder and tag alongside my text searches.
I’m also fairly judicious about my use of ‘attachments’ (aka: inline links to files in the same folder as the text file). I draw things on paper and scan/photograph to attach to my note. I’ve got video how-tos attached to my textual notes, books attached to notes that I’m taking as I read, you see where this goes. I also use any number of open source, commerical or no longer existing tools over time. A lot of the attachments I have are created in duplicate: the native program file format and an open format, the longer it’s survived, the better. I have data going back 20 years that’s still wholly usable because of this. The interesting thing is both proprietary and open data formats can no longer be read from my archive. Thankfully I stored both forms and can at least see what was stored.
I also can not use a computer or digital medium reliably for free-form thought mind mapping. For whatever reason my brain needs paper, writing stick and a place to spread out to make free form or mind mapping type work amenable to my mind. Because of this I normally do this kind of work inside a notebook (assuming it’s a dense topic like macrame) or on loose paper I then import into my digital notes as attachments. There are other ways of working this way and I strongly recommend looking into them if you prefer more free form/web like structures for your information management.
For software I’ve used a lot of systems over the years and always end up using a text editor, a simple markup language and files+folders at the filesystem level. I’m currently using a tuned emacs as a text editor and org-mode for syntax. Previously I used Markdown but the org-mode syntax is more featureful and it integrates into a lot of environments built for managing knowledge data. I especially like this apprach as I’ve been known to transfer my data onto a phone or usb disk and just use whatever text editor and filesytem browser I have available to me for editing the data. It can be a really nice ui like emacs with all the org-mode tuning you want or very much a command line text editor and simple file navigation. It’s wildly adaptable and I’ve yet to have trouble accessing my core information (notes). Yes, some attachments can no longer be opened and text files could stop being usable. Fortunately if we lose our ability to read these text files we’ve likely lost our ability to compute this way. It’s very future proof compared to a binary format like OneNote or Evernote.
If you want to see exactly how I have this setup inside emacs with org-mode my code is up on my personal Gitea here (link).
As you can tell, I’m pretty boring in my setup. However, the way I use it adapts nicely to a variety of different systems and could be a good use case for many. I would caution though: stick to how you think, if you do this you will succeed.
Also keep in mind some folks can not use digital knowledge bases. I’ve met quite a few over the years and they all seem to think they are broken. They are not, they just think in ways that a computer cannot reasonably model or interact with in a way that allows proper transfer of information. That is valid too!