Anyone have experience using Zotero as a slip box, zettelkasten, or smart notes?

edited March 4, 2020
I am looking for a good note taking system and came across the concept of Zettelkasten or slip box or sometimes referred to as smart notes. The basic premise is that when you have notes you put them on an index card and label them in such a way that they're not really categorized, but more hierarchical and linear in terms of your thought pattern. One important aspect is that you can link them like a wiki would. I'm still learning about it so my apologies if I kind of butchered that explanation.

My initial thought is to have separate collections, one for the "slip box" which would function like a digital note card box and another collection for the citations of books, articles, etc. I read with their note attached directly to them. I would then eventually move or rewrite those notes in away that fits the slip box method and put them in that collection. I like Zotero because I can tag and use the "Related" function to link back to other notes and sources, like the entire system wants you to do.

When I've looked online for practical examples of this method in Zotero, I only find examples of people using it for their literature citations and notes, not as the actual slip box to collect notes without necessarily having a citation to go with it. I'm wondering why? Does anyone have some experience or long term use regarding something like this? Thanks!

Edit: I should also say that I would probably keep my short term notes that are more temporary in something like Google Keep. If they prove worthwhile long term, I'll add them to my slip box. I also spend most of my time working in Google Chrome and Google Apps like Drive and Docs. That's why I like Zotero.
  • This website mentions Zotero:
    So I guess there is a way.
  • it does, but it is referring to citation management again. That is one of the sites that then asks you to use some other software for your slip box instead of Zotero. Practically, it doesn't seem like you would need a separate software and so I'm wondering why it doesn't seem like anyone uses Zotero as their slip box.
  • I’m still trying to learn both so maybe I don’t understand enough yet but wouldn’t skip box require something more hierarchical? Zotero doesn’t seem to support that from what I’ve seen
  • If your smart note program can produce links to the notes, you can attach those to the Zotero items. Similarly, you can use the Zutilo plugin to “copy Zotero select links” and paste them in your notes. That will take you from the notes to the Zotero item.
  • Severamj, the heirarchy would come in the naming of the notes. I've been using a "YYYYMMDDHHMN - Title" format so they go in order as they've been created. Other than that, I've not been concerned with hierarchy as I have a search and can use the Related notes and Tagging to create deeper relationships and connectivity between the notes.
  • beiernik, I've been switching between using Google Drive as the slip box using the same naming structure I listed above and then just linking each doc to each other that are related. I've also been using the "Description" field in Google Drive that's available for every file to put tags in. It works, but I think I like Zotero's overall presentation of notes and such better. It feels more like a note box than Google Drive does.
  • One other issue I'm a little concerned about is if you can access your text notes from Zotero on your computer. I would rather you could so I had a backup plan in case for some reason I couldn't use the software any more, I could still open the file directory and navigate to the notes themselves. Preferably, they'd be in plain text.
  • edited April 22, 2021
    As you say, Adam, a major downside is that notes in Zotero are not plain text.

    Zotero has some advantages such as

    Open-source and cross-platform. Works very well on Linux, Mac, and Windows.
    Integration with LibreOffice, LyX, Word, and Google Docs.
    Automatically senses research on the web. One-click download.
    Tag suggestions from existing list; tag pane to find related items.
    Manual addition of related items (links between notes and backlinks).
    Foldable collections, nested collections, and sub-collections of parent items.
    Multiple criteria for sorting standalone notes or along with parent items.
    Excellent advanced search including full text of pdfs with Zotxt plugin, and smart saved searches.
    Zotero is highly customizable and has a number of high quality, very useful add-ons or plug-ins, especially Zotfile, Zotxt, Zutilo, Report Customizer and BetterBibTeX.
    Group library (incl. Notes and, optionally, files) can be created by drag and drop from your Library or collections and shared with collaborators using’s free service.
    Database (and notes) can be synced across devices using your account on’s free server.
    Import and export entire database to and from a wide range of formats.
    Excellent documentation and support, and continuous development.

    Many of these strengths, though, do not relate to Zotero's note-taking capabilities. A number of sites list Zotero as note-taking software, but, since it was not specifically designed for that purpose, it lacks some features that are common in dedicated note-taking apps. In particular, Zotero lacks support for adding timestamps, reordering items and notes within its collections tree, and exporting notes (and their metadata).

    However, with Zotero you can set up a workflow to satisfy the main requirements that enable efficient note-taking: atomicity, unique naming, links to other notes, and tags or keywords, and being able to find notes easily and organize them usefully.

    Here is a link to a guide I wrote describing the workflow and workarounds I developed to use Zotero for slip-box or zettelkasten style note-taking. You may find that Apple's internal timestamp shortcut is out of date, but I have described how to make your own. If you find them of use, you will probably want to customize the templates I provided.

    There is also a link to my guide for note-taking with zotero-5.0.97-beta

  • Thank you for the reply and PDF cjpoor. It was interesting to go through and see your process on this. Since my original post, I've tried some different options out. I went and used Google Drive entirely, creating 2 separate folders - 1 for the notes and 1 for the sources. I'd use Zotero to create the citation and then I'd create a Google Doc with the citation at the top and then list all the notes I made from that source. Each of those notes would be in the other folder and each would be a separate Google Doc. The nice thing about this is that Google Docs linking capabilities to other documents in your Google Drive is really quite good. You can highlight text you want to link and search for the doc you want to link to right from the doc you are currently in without leaving it which makes it very handy. Plus, Drive doesn't charge your for space when you're Google Doc formats and they can be downloaded in a multitude of formats including plaintext.

    I also tried Google Keep but didn't like how the notes were displayed a the lack of linking on mobile was an issue as well. It just wasn't conducive to me though it is possible. I mainly use Google Keep now to store short terms notes, reminders, and to handle my DVD, Book, and Music collections so when I'm out shopping or find new things I want, I can quickly see if I have it and/or add it to a wishlist. It functions more like a pocket notebook for me to jot down quick ideas and notes until I can get to them later.

    This past couple weeks I've found myself back in Zotero with my notes. I felt that using Google Drive and Docs was fairly time intensive linking and the lack of tagging in Drive was a problem too. I had to create an Index doc and using headers for my tags, put the note titles under each header they belonged. It was taking some time to add new notes. So I'm back to Zotero and finding your post here was insightful. I still am not sure how I feel about keeping my notes in Zotero since they are not plain text. I thought about using something like Simplenote since it is markdown and can be exported in plain text and has a mobile and web application. However, I find I prefer keeping my bibliography/sources and my notes in one spot. It is just so much nicer in my opinion to have piece of software to go to. For the time being, I am really going to focus on just using Zotero (I switch software far too often and spend too much time moving notes and setting up a process than I do actually doing research and learning). I'll back up my Zotero database and everything I can and go from there. I'm sure your document will be helpful as I learn more about using Zotero for note taking and my sources. Thanks!
  • All the best with you note-taking, Adam.
  • There is also ZettelGeist (, a command-line program. In development, though functional.
  • Thanks for the PDF cjpoor. I am slightly amused that when I import your document into Zotero, Zotfile renames it as Poor_Research Note-Taking with Zotero.pdf
  • @AndrewRRM one of many amusing side-effects of the name. BTW I will soon start working on an updated note-taking guide to take into account the new pdf reader and note editor features currently in beta.
  • I look forward to it.
  • edited April 22, 2021
    @AndrewRRM I have posted the guide to note-taking with Zotero-5.0.97-beta.
  • The link doesn't work for me.
  • @malev Please try again. I had to replace the file and you may have tried while it was temporarily removed from my site.
  • Yes ! Thanks for your great job!
  • Great, thanks.
  • edited June 2, 2021
    For what it's worth, I tried to use Zotero as both a citation manager and a zettelkasten, but could never get it to work properly. So, I use Zotero as a citation manager -- which is after all what it is designed for -- and a separate application that can easily (and that is important) utilise the information in the citation manager in ways that are useful. This separation seemed like a bug when I started to do it, but it turns out to be a feature, because of the logical separation of workflow that it produces.

    In the end, I went with Zettlr which is primarily a Markdown editor that can also function quite well as a zettelkasten. The advantage is that the files are text-based so can be edited by any text editor. Zettlr just happens to also have nice features for rendering and exporting the text to various formats. It can also look at the output of Zotero to gather in and use the citation info. Primarily, the Citation Key provides the key piece of info to link the two applications.

    I do this by using Better BibTex (BBT), which can not only generate citation keys but also export to various formats. Zettlr can use JSON or BibTeX - I use BibTeX due to a long association with LaTeX (30+ years; I even wrote my own .fmt back in the day...). The key point is that BBT can keep the BibTeX (or JSON) files updated so that Zettlr always works with the latest info. So, BBT auto-updates a single .bib file that both my LaTeX and Zettlr implementations can look at, while full control of the citation info stays in Zotero.

    It's an extra step, but the logical clarity of using applications doing what they were designed to do is well worth it.

    Just my $0.02.
  • Obsidian is a note-taking program devoted to Zettelkasten with a lively community, and it can be integrated with Zotero
  • Yep Zettlr ftw. You can easily try out both Obsidian and Zettlr (and probably other Zettelkasten software) by pointing both programs to the same 'vault' / file directory / folder.
  • According to Luhmann’s own notes as Anke Sohrens writes in his book, “How to take notes”, one is best advised not to mix between literature notes (for which Zotero is the best tool), fleeting notes (fleeting zettels), for which you can find many tools that can capture anything (so they should be universal, best examples are Evernote and Notion), and permanent zettels which are linearly organised set of notes with forward and backlinks. There are numerous Mac based tools, fewer with Windows and Linux, but you can make Obsidian and Logseq work well, I also recommend totally web based tools that have forward and backlink capacity: Craft is great, as is Mem. Of all these, Logseq and Obsidian are the best tools. Best avoid Zotero for your permanent zettels, and as far as I understand, Luhmann’s system is about permanent zettel management. He used a slip box, we have digital tools. Of course, the best is if you can invest in paper slips and a wooden slip box.
  • Update: I have started using Obsidian, since it is also based on plain Markdown, and so not subject to app lock-in. I do like the files view down the left side, and the linking is very smooth indeed.

    I now use Zettlr for writing longer pieces, while Obsidian is the new Digital ZK. And yes, as @AndrewRRM noted, both can look at the same directory of flat .md files, which is very nice indeed.
  • O zotero serve bem como slip box. Dá para criar notas autônomas e liga-las com as notas relacionadas.
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