The Less-Sad State of Personal Knowledgebases

A few years ago (2015) I wrote about the sad state of personal knowedgebases (PKBs). This is a quick check in 6 years later to see how we’re doing. First of all though, what is a PKB?

Personal knowledgebase:
Software that lets you store all your thoughts, research, bookmarks, etc. in a single organized place. It’s different from a normal notes app in that:

  • Notes should have a hierarchical relationship to each other. There should be a visual representation of the hierarchy.
  • Cross-note links, wiki style, should be simple to create and first-class citizens.
  • Sync should provide access to notes across devices.
  • Search should be excellent.

That’s the basics anyway. Almost every true contender for a first-class PKB will have lots of other features.

My PKB of choice remains The Brain. I’ve been using it for about 15 years now and haven’t come across anything that wants to make me switch. I love it.

My section on Personal Knowledgebases in The Brain

It’s not for everyone though, and that’s fine. In my last post, I lamented the lack of options. Fortunately since then some new contenders have arisen and competition is heating up.

My favorites are Obsidian and Roam Research. They’re very similar and I’m not particularly qualified to discuss their specific pros and cons. The main difference seems to be that Obsidian is free (at least for personal use with no sync) and Roam is commercial. Both models have their upsides and downsides.

In addition to these, there are some less traditional options like Notion and Zim that, while they don’t satisfy the requirement of having hierarchy visualization, are still close enough to qualify as a PKB.

It’s nice to see renewed interest in what, for me, has been an essential tool. Hopefully competition will continue to spur innovation.

2 replies on “The Less-Sad State of Personal Knowledgebases”

I’m glad you wrote a sequel to your previous 2015 post “The Sad State of Personal Knowledgebases”, the title of which aptly summarized the state of affairs at the time. I thought of that older post today, for the same reason that you wrote your sequel: the state of affairs has changed considerably recently. Then I discovered this accurate sequel to your previous post.

Obsidian, which you mentioned, strikes me as an especially impressive recent app in this space: it is free and cross-platform, it does not require the cloud but has end-to-end encryption for those who want it, it has powerful linking and link-visualization features, there are third-party plug-ins, and its pace of development is amazing, to name a few of its virtues. As one enthusiast said recently, “Obsidian Is Going to Eat Everyone’s Lunch” (but that blog post also notes that there are alternative app niches where other products could thrive without directly competing with Obsidian). I have not adopted Obsidian, but I have tried it, and I appreciate how it is advancing the state of personal knowledgebases.

An important feature of Obsidian, a feature that it shares with some other apps, is that the content of the knowledgebase is just files in your computer’s filesystem. I consider this to be an important design principle that was well expressed by Douglas Barone in his 2009 blog post “File System Infobase Manager”. When you consider your computing devices’ operating systems (including their filesystems) to be the foundation for your personal knowledgebase, instead of only a single app, then you can use a variety of best-in-class apps as well as features of the operating system (such as tags and Spotlight search in macOS) together as part of a suite of tools.

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