The innovations in personal knowledge management are sparse and far between, is a phrase that has circulated in my mind the past three weeks. Chris Aldrich in his online presentation at PKM Summit expressed that notion while taking us through an interesting timeline of personal knowledge management related practices. As his talk followed that timeline, it didn’t highlight the key innovations as an overview in itself. I had arranged the session because I wanted to raise awareness that many practices we now associate with 20th century or digital origins, in fact are much older. It’s just that we tend to forget we’re standing on many shoulders, taking a recent highly visible example as original source and our historic horizon. Increased historic awareness is however something different than stating there has been hardly any notable innovation in this space over the course of millennia. Because that leads to things like asking what then are the current adjacent possible innovations, what branches might be developed further?

It all starts with a question I have for Chris however: What are the innovations you were thinking of when you said that?

Below I list some of the things that I think are real innovations in the context of personal knowledge management, in roughly chronological order. This is a list from the top of my head and notes, plus some very brief search on whether what I regard as origin of a practice is actually a more recent incarnation. I have left out most of the things regarding oral traditions, as it is not the context of my practices.

  • Narration, prehistory
  • Songlines, prehistory
  • Writing, ending prehistory
  • Annotation, classical antiquity
  • Loci method, memory palaces, classical antiquity
  • Argument analysis, classical antiquity
  • Tagging, classical antiquity
  • Concept mapping, 3rd century
  • Indexes, Middle Ages
  • Letterpress printing, renaissance
  • Paper notebooks, renaissance
  • Commonplace books, renaissance
  • Singular snippets / slips, 16th century
  • Stammbuch/Album Amicorum, 16th century
  • Pre-printed notebooks, 19th century
  • Argument mapping, 19th century
  • Standard sized index cards, 19th century
  • Sociograms/social graphs, early 20th century
  • Linking, 20th century (predigital and digital)
  • Knowledge graphs, late 20th century (1980s)
  • Digital full text search, late 20th century

Chris, what would be your list of key innovations?

A pkm practitioner working on his notes. Erasmus as painted by Holbein, public domain image.

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