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Five must-read books to build your perfect personal knowledge management system

Here are the best books to help you build a personal knowledge management system. From atomic notes to Zettelkasten, these books will teach you how to build a digital note taking system.

Elizabeth Butler
Elizabeth Butler
11 min read
Five must-read books to build your perfect personal knowledge management system
Photo by Sincerely Media / Unsplash

Table of Contents

Exploring the world of personal knowledge management, and want go deeper? If you learn best by reading, you might be looking for the best books on personal knowledge management so you can figure out how to implement a more effective and efficient note taking strategy in your daily workflow.

A quick hello - I’m Elizabeth Butler, MD, PhD, creator of the Calmer Notes method for personal knowledge management (aka personal knowledge management for busy people). I’ve spent nearly two decades discovering the best strategies for personal knowledge management and note taking during my academic and medical career. I really enjoy the philosophy of note taking as well as the practical process. So I’m delighted to help point you in the direction of some excellent books on note taking and personal knowledge management to help inspire you to grow or refine your own PKM system.

Here are some personal knowledge management (PKM) books to get you started.


How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens

How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens

What this book offers

One of the best-known books in the personal knowledge management space, written by a professor in the Philosophy of Education. Dr. Sönke Ahrens walks through the process of setting up a Zettelkasten personal knowledge management system based on “atomic notes” aka the smallest available pieces of information, then linking them together. His work is strongly influenced by Niklas Luhmann’s original Zettelkasten system, as reflected in Luhmann’s essay Communicating with Slip Boxes: An Empirical Account. If you’re interested in the philosophy of the Zettelkasten method, this is the place to start.

Author’s description of Taking Smart Notes

Take Smart Notes is a project dedicated to helping students, academics and nonfiction writers get more done - ideally with more fun and less effort. I never found a book on how to organize academic and nonfiction writing convincing enough that I felt good about recommending it to my students.

There are great books on time- and self-management in general, like David Allen’s “Getting Things Done,” but they usually don’t work for an open-ended process like research. Specific books on academic writing, on the other hand, are usually more collections of tips and tricks and not systematic enough to make a real difference.

I spent a lot of time trying out different note-taking systems and started four times over with different slip-boxes: Two on different sizes of paper and one in HTML before I settled with Lüdecke’s Zettelkasten. I learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t. As someone said: Learning from experience is the best way to learn - especially if it is the experience of others.

[description from author Sönke Ahrens]

Further reading about Taking Smart Notes

How to Take Smart Notes: A Step-by-Step Guide - Nat Eliason
My guide on how you can use the “smart notes” or “zettlekasten” method to get more out of every book you read, and turn that knowledge into your own creative works.
How to take smart notes
While there are hundreds of thousands of books on the generic topic of writing, very few concerns themselves with note-taking—perhaps because it’s not considered an intellectually challenging task by many, or perhaps because many people don’t realise how bad they are at taking notes. Looking at a bl…
How To Take Smart Notes: 10 Principles to Revolutionize Your Note-Taking and Writing - Forte Labs
I long ago stopped reading books on note-taking. They were always too vague and boring, full of platitudes that had little to do with the world outside
How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens: Book Summary
This book transformed my relationship with note-taking. It’s the best (English) introduction to the Zettelkasten (slip-box) method.

Taking Smart Notes with DEVONthink by Kourosh Dini

Taking Smart Notes with DEVONthink by Kourosh Dini

What this book offers

If you’d like to implement a smart notes approach in DEVONthink, you’ll appreciate this guide from psychiatrist, productivity expert, author, and musician Dr. Kourosh Dini. You'll implement the philosophy in the Smart Notes approach in DEVONthink, making the most of the AI technology available. If you're a Mac user interested in using DEVONthink for note taking and building a Zettelkasten, this handbook is what you're looking for.

Author’s description of Taking Smart Notes with DEVONthink

Taking Smart Notes with DEVONthink gives you the foundation build your ideas and store your digital stuff with the powerful data manager, DEVONthink. Taking Smart Notes with DEVONthink takes you from the basics to advanced uses one step at a time.

Build an idea system so you can get to them when and where you want. Use DEVONthink’s powerful AI to discover connections between ideas, references, and more. Learn how DEVONthink can manage a wide array of file types, including texts, emails, videos, PDFs, RSS feeds, and more. Build smart groups to hone in on what you want. Create a foundation of notes and their connections.

[description from author Kourosh Dini]

Further reading about Taking Smart Notes with DEVONthink

DEVONtechnologies | New Book: Taking Smart Notes
DEVONtechnologies develops DEVONthink, DEVONagent, and other Mac and iOS apps for document and information management and web research.
Kourosh Dini on DEVONthink
“You want the ideas to be able to come to you when and where they are useful to you”
Taking Smart Notes with DEVONthink - MacSparky
Kourosh Dini has a new book, Taking Smart Notes with DEVONthink, that covers the basics of DEVONthink in the context of building your own Zettelkasten (or Slip-Note) note-taking database. I’ve heard the term Zettelkasten thrown around a lot as of late and I’m eager to learn more about Kourosh’s appr…

Digital Zettelkasten: Principles, Methods, and Examples by David Kadavy

Digital Zettelkasten by David Kadavy

Author, podcaster, and self-publishing coach David Kadavy was inspired to write his “short read” book on digital zettelkasten after writing a popular blog post on the topic of Zettelkasten. In his post about the book on Reddit, he reports that he appreciated the philosophy and “why” of other articles and books on Zettelkasten, but wished he’d had a clearer path on “how” to build a digital zettelkasten.

Author’s description of Digital Zettelkasten

When I first started using the Zettelkasten method I was very frustrated with the information out there. But, as a nonfiction author, I had already had false starts with other note-taking methods, such as the “commonplace book” Ryan Holiday espouses. So, I was motivated to persevere and get a good first-principles understanding of how best to construct a Zettelkasten for my workflow.

For sure, How to Take Smart Notes was the best resource I came across, but I still had a lot to figure out after reading it. So, I wrote and just released a short book (about 80 pages), full of everything I wish I could have known from the start. It’s called Digital Zettelkasten: Principles, Methods, & Examples.

It’s a guide that helps you think through building your digital Zettelkasten in a way that will turn your computer into a “bicycle for the mind.” And – something I always had trouble finding – it has real-world examples.. I hope my short book helps some zettlers get started faster than I did.

[description from author David Kadavy]

Further reading and viewing about Digital Zettelkasten

r/Zettelkasten - I wrote the book I wish I had when I started Zettelkasten
166 votes and 42 comments so far on Reddit

Effective Notetaking by Fiona McPherson

Effective Notetaking by Fiona McPherson

This insight-packed book has plenty of practical, actionable steps you can take to make your note-taking richer and more effective. The book was written for university students, but has applicable tips and tutorials for lifelong learners, too. Dr. McPherson uses an evidence-based, research-grounded approach to help improve your note-taking and retention skills.

Author’s description of Effective Notetaking

This workbook looks at the most important group of study strategies – how to take notes (with advice on how to read a textbook and how to prepare for a lecture).

You’ll be shown how to format your notes; use headings and highlighting; how to write different types of text summaries and pictorial ones, including concept maps and mind maps (you'll find out the difference, and the pros and cons of each); ask the right questions; make the right connections; review your notes; and, evaluate text to work out which strategy is appropriate.

There's advice on individual differences and learning styles, and on how to choose the strategies that are right for both you and the situation. Using effective notetaking strategies will help you remember what you read. It will help you understand more, and set you on the road to becoming an expert (or at least getting good grades!).

Successful studying isn’t about hours put in, it’s about spending your time wisely. You want to study smarter not harder. As always with the Mempowered books, this thorough (and fully referenced) workbook doesn't re-hash the same tired advice that's been peddled for so long. Rather, Effective Notetaking builds on the latest cognitive and educational research to help you study for success.

[description from author Fiona McPherson]

Further reading about Effective Notetaking

Effective Notetaking
You can predict how well a student will do simply on the basis of their use of effective study strategies. Effective notetaking is for ...
r/Zettelkasten - Probably noob questions before starting Zettelkasten
11 votes and 14 comments so far on Reddit

How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren

Want to learn how to be a better, more nuanced reader? Want to get more insights and wisdom out of every book you read? This classic book walks you through how to read with better attention to detail. You'll learn the different levels of reading (elementary, systematic skimming, inspectional, speed reading) and the times when you should use each approach. You'll learn how to process and extract the best from every book you read, and take better notes as you do it.

Publisher's description of How to Read a Book

With half a million copies in print, How to Read a Book is the best and most successful guide to reading comprehension for the general reader, completely rewritten and updated with new material.

Originally published in 1940, this book is a rare phenomenon, a living classic that introduces and elucidates the various levels of reading and how to achieve them—from elementary reading, through systematic skimming and inspectional reading, to speed reading. Readers will learn when and how to “judge a book by its cover,” and also how to X-ray it, read critically, and extract the author’s message from the text.

Also included is instruction in the different techniques that work best for reading particular genres, such as practical books, imaginative literature, plays, poetry, history, science and mathematics, philosophy and social science works.

Finally, the authors offer a recommended reading list and supply reading tests you can use measure your own progress in reading skills, comprehension, and speed.

Further reading about How to Read a Book

How To Read A Book by Mortimer Adler – Book Notes, Summary, Review
You might think you know how to read a book but you’re probably not remembering much of what you’re reading. That’s where this book comes in. It describes the different levels of reading and how you can get much more out of the books you read.
How to read a book
How to read a book is an age old question. How can you gain a deep understanding of a book? How can you form your own informed opinion when reading?
Book Notes: “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren
SummaryHow to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren (1972 edition) is a book about a subject that we book-readers consider all too infrequently—the very act of reading books. The authors identify three main types of reading: reading for
How to Read a Book: The Ultimate Guide by Mortimer Adler - Farnam Street
In How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler teaches us the four levels of reading to become a more effective reader. Learning how to read is more than just picking up a book and starting to read.

Want to create a personal knowledge management system that fits your life? Try the Calmer Notes method

Calmer Notes: Personal Knowledge Management for Busy People by Elizabeth Butler

If you're a reader who is searching for a better approach to personal knowledge management, Calmer Notes might be just what you've been looking for.

The Calmer Notes method will take you through the process of creating and maintaining a tailored, mindfully-designed personal knowledge management system to organize your digital notes and files. This self-paced course (which includes digital book + workbook + PKM app database) is now available for purchase at Gumroad.

I've created Calmer Notes: Personal Knowledge Management for Busy People based on my own two-decade experience of applying personal knowledge management in academia, consulting, and medicine. If you'd like to learn more, check out an overview of the Calmer Notes approach.

Wishing you all the best on your personal knowledge management journey!

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Book Notes & Reading NotesPersonal Knowledge Management

Elizabeth Butler Twitter

Your guide to the world of note taking and mindful productivity. Creator of the Calmer Notes method for personal knowledge management. Physician, PhD, parent, tea drinker.


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