If you have a large collection of notes then there will be times when you cannot find the note which you want to find even though you know that it exists somewhere within the collection of documents. This is a problem which has existed for as long as there have been collections of documents. Over the years librarians have come up with many tools for dealing with this problem and many of these tools have been adapted for the digital era. Things like references (links), indexes (tags) and categories have been used in computer programs to ease the location of information.
The art of a good note taking program is providing facilities for the user to be able to locate an item within their notes even though they have forgotten almost everything about it.
So how can you locate an item of information? It is all in the metadata, the information about information. If you have a large corpus of notes without any metadata then they might as well be written in a foreign language for all the good they will be to you. It is worth the time and effort to add a relevant metadata to a note as you create it whilst it is still fresh in your mind. These are the clues which will lead you back to this note in the future. Think of it as having a conversation with your future self. Think of how you would locate this note if you didn’t know where it was, what tags would you search for? What would you expect it to be linked to? What might you search for? Make sure that the terms you might search for appear in the text, if not then include them as a list at the end of the note.
Metadata comes in many forms, not just the obvious ones.
One form of metadata which is often overlooked but always relied upon is location, people navigate to where they last saw the item they are looking for. This is especially useful as it requires less verbal attention and more visual attention, people do it without thinking about it and whilst concentrating on something else which is why it is so often overlooked.
Search is often portrayed as the most useful way of finding things but in my experience it is not used as often as the other methods. Search is less well used than it would be because it involves a break in concentration. If you are in the middle of composing a document or trying to find understanding of some difficult problem then you have to stop concentrating on the problem at hand and think about search terms. In my experience this break in concentration is obtrusive.
Search can be made easier by the use of tags, particularly if the tagging system is hierarchical and has inheritance. Selecting from a list is easier, quicker and less prone to errors than typing search terms. In my opinion InfoQube has the best hierarchical tagging system of any program available at the time of writing, closely followed by ConnectedText. Try to choose tags which distinguish items rather than tags which just describe it’s characteristics.
Links from one note to another are very important. The act of linking from one note to another is arguably the most important aspect of note taking and it should be as quick and easy as possible. ConnectedText is unrivalled in this area. One can insert a link by just putting the [[Page Name]] in square brackets which is much less of a break in concentration whilst you are composing a document. ConnectedText can also automatically convert the names of other pages which occur in a note into links and it can also show which pages link to the current page (backlinks).
Another form of metadata used to locate things is the favourites list.
One form of metadata which has been touted as being new with the digital age is mapping, mind maps and concept maps. However I think that these are not as useful as they are made out to be by many people. The examples which are given to illustrate the usefulness of mapping are usually small and fit on one screen, real uses of mapping would probably be much bigger and consequently less useful.
In the following discussion I will focus on Mind Maps but the points raised are equally as valid for concept maps. A concept map is just a hierarchy where an item may have more than one parent and so may appear in the outline in more than one place.
There is a lot of hype about Mind Maps and their use in navigating data. There are a number of companies who present Mind Maps as being a really wonderful solution to visualising interconnections between data, and for small data sets this is undoubtedly true but it becomes less so for large data sets.
A Mind Map is topologically equivalent to a simple hierarchy which could be expressed as an outline. In my opinion the fact that the outline can be scrolled in one dimension makes the outline more useful in the navigation of data.
In many programs using a mind map you have to arrange the branches in an aesthetically pleasing manner which detracts from the time you can spend on other things. People waste time on the layout of the map rather than thinking about the content of the map. Whereas with an outline there are simple rules which the program follows to automatically arrange the tree.
Once a mind map or concept map has grown as big as the screen on which it is being displayed there arises a problem of how it can grow any further. You could make the branches of the map ever smaller but you eventually have to use a magnifying glass to read the text. A better solution is to only display part of the map.
It seems to me that the conventional way of displaying a mind map has no advantages over the simple outline and has some disadvantages.
One could accept these limitations of mapping and work around them as the outline accepts the limitations of a one dimensional list and works around them. In such a map the layout would be automatic and only the relevant part of the map would be displayed. This would make the map more useful in my opinion.
A good example of what is possible is a program called The Brain (a.k.a Personal Brain). This program only displays a small part of the map at any one time. One item has the focus and the program only displays those items which are linked to it. In practice this is a very good solution.
The developer of this program Harlan Hugh took out software patents on this layout and has aggressively defended them in the past. One can find a list of these patents at https://patents.google.com/?assignee=Thebrain+Tech+Corp .
It seems wrong to me that a company can take out a patent on such a basic idea, a layout which has been used by genealogists for many centuries, one node has the focus, it’s parents are above, children below and siblings to the side. The sole purpose of these patents is to stifle competition from it’s rivals.
The main patent in this list relevant to the automatic layout of maps is US6918096B2 “Method and apparatus for displaying a network of thoughts from a thought’s perspective” however this patent has expired “due to failure to pay maintenance fee” on 12th July 2017.
It seems to me that a map laid out in this way is much more useful than a mind map which tries to display the whole map on one screen. Each item is shown in context and only the items connected to it are displayed. If you move the focus then the map is re-drawn with the focussed node at the centre. The displayed map is always the same size no matter how big the whole map grows, this is mentally more manageable.
This way of displaying a mind map is fundamentally different from an outline and deserves it’s place in note taking programs.