Obsidian and the PKM (Personal Knowledge Management) Rabbit Hole

It started with a simple goal:

To create a personal wiki for my book series.

I’m currently putting the finishing touches to book 3, and outlining book 4, so keeping track of all the characters, locations, and plot points across the series is starting to become taxing — more so when I’m only using my memory as a repository.

Enter the personal wiki. I just wanted something basic — a stripped down Wikipedia. Something that I could populate with information, and create links to other documents in the main body of the text. So, for instance, whenever I mention Blaine McCaskill (the main character from my first book), it would actually be a hyperlink that I can click on to take me to Blaine’s very own page. I would use it to capture information that I might otherwise forget, and to go back and reference when I need to.

Easy, right?

And then I remembered that nothing is ever easy.

I hoped to stay in my existing ecosystem of writing tools; either Scrivener (which I use to write my novels) or Ulysses (which I use to write everything else). But both had a less-than-elegant approach to linking other documents — it was possible, but not the seamless Wikipedia-like solution I was hoping for.

And then I stumbled across a piece of software called Obsidian. It’s currently in open beta, but has hugely active developers and communities. And it’s quickly shaping up to be the answer I was looking for.

And a lot more, besides.

You see, in learning the basics of Obsidian, I was also exposed to an entire philosophy that I didn’t even know existed — that of the PKM, or Personal Knowledge Management.

It’s basically a term that refers to a self-managed repository of information. Now this information can be anything — from learning textbook information for an exam, right through to referencing every part of your life. And PKM software like Obsidian (and equivalents such as Roam Research) gives users a way to record, store, and refer to this information.

But perhaps more importantly, a good PKM system also links this information together, which means your sum of total knowledge starts to resemble a spider web of connected ideas and data. Proponents of the PKM methodology say that this encourages entirely new ideas to be discovered, although I’m not deep enough into it yet to be able to confirm nor deny.

(Now that is just my layman definition, so apologies to the PKM purists)

So, I dug into PKM.

Which led me to Zettelkasten — a method of cataloguing information for easy reference.

Which led me to Smart Notes — a method of note-taking based on the Zettelkasten principles.

Which led me to Johnny Decimal — a method of logically grouping information.

And so on, and so on.

In fact, for two straight weeks, my evenings have been filled with hopping from one YouTube video to another, browsing forums and Discord channels, and slowly having my eyes opened to a world I never knew existed. Maybe this kind of thing is taught to school and university students these days — I don’t know. I’m two decades out of higher education. All I do know is that I love learning, and I love knowledge, so I’m like a kid in a candy store thinking of all the enlightenment that these philosophies offer.

But therein lies the challenge — using these systems and methods to aid the practical application of something, and not just getting buried in them for their own sake. The internet is full of cautionary tales of people who spent so much time refining their Johnny Decimal system, or their use of tags and backlinks, that they forgot to actually use these systems to support a greater goal.

So, back to the wiki. It represents my current personal application of Obsidian, and it currently looks like this:



It’s a work in progress, as you can probably tell from the missing data in Blaine’s entry, but already proving itself to be incredibly powerful for cataloguing, well, everything about the Legacy of the Laird series. Thanks to Obsidian, it has a bunch of cool features, such as:

  • Convenient links to other documents (forward links, backlinks and unlinked mentions)
  • A cool graph view showing how each document connects to the others
  • Tags, so I can easily filter characters, places, books etc.

Now I’ll be the first to say I’m probably using only a small fraction of what Obsidian can do — I haven’t even explored the amazing world of community plugins, themes, or the upcoming mobile version (which gets me very hot under the collar).

Obsidian seems so powerful, in fact, that I’m slowly entertaining the idea that it may be able to replace a bunch of other software and subscriptions that I currently have — with a robust mobile solution, I can easily see it replacing Ulysses, for instance.

But that might be a post for another day — right now, I’ve got some Incremental Reading / Writing videos to watch.


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