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Kat King on Notes for Learning

“My note-taking changed when I stopped trying to take notes because that’s what good people do.”

Kat King is an information architect who’s “interested in information and how we figure things out.” She replied to one of my Twitter threads about note-taking, and I was intrigued by her approach. I recently saw Kat give a thoughtful presentation at the IA Conference and wanted to find out how she uses notes to learn and teach. So, this conversation focuses on note-taking as a means of learning.

Show notes

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Transcript

Jorge: Kat, welcome to the show.

Kat: Hi! Thanks.

Jorge: I’m glad to have you here, Kat. For folks who are listening in who might not know you, would you mind please telling us about yourself?

About Kat

Kat: Sure! So, I’m Kat King. I work right now as a business intelligence analyst at the University of Michigan library. And I guess I’m interested in information and how we figure things out. And that has accidentally landed me in this job. I went to grad school at U of M getting a degree in information science and then got a job at the library because it was close by. Sort of knew people there… yeah! So, that’s who I am and what I do.

Jorge: I have not heard before of business intelligence in the context of libraries. What does that entail?

Kat: Yeah. So, I don’t think my job exists at other libraries. And the job title was central HR-applied more than the most accurate description of what I do. But I work in operations at the library and I work with operations data. So that’s data about traffic in the library, on the circulation of our physical collections, traffic at the information services desks, things like that. Helping manage that program of collection and how we share that back out to help supervisors make decisions. And I also do things with… like when processes change, mapping out processes to help conversations about what the new process should be. Libraries have a lot of committees. So, I sit on committees, representing operations’ interests and things. And so, in that way, have done some work on things like library search. But I don’t work directly with it. I don’t work with it at all right now but in the past.

Jorge: Would it be fair to describe the role as part of the library’s feedback mechanisms?

Kat: Yeah, I think so. And I think that the purpose really is having a way for processes to be more intentional, to have a layer that’s sort of looking at them and thinking them through.

Kat’s process for writing presentations

Jorge: I’ve heard you give many presentations at the IA Conference, which is a yearly conference that we both frequent, and I’ve always been impressed by the depth of the material that you share. And I was hoping that you would tell us a bit about how you read and make sense of what you read and cohere it into things like the material that you share back to the information architecture community. How do you go about it?

Kat: I wouldn’t say my process is very intentional. Like… so backward, I can look at it and say, “oh, this is what I do,” right? So I took an information architecture class in grad school with Dan Klyn and had a moment of like, “oh, this is interesting. This is what I want to be doing!” But not where I was aiming. And I went to my first IA Conference the next year and gave a talk. And I’ve been giving talks since.

I think one way I’ve described it as sort of like having a crisis in public and trying to sort it out about like, “okay, well I finished school, and now what?” And how do I do it and how do I do it well? And it doesn’t seem like anyone has any good answers that hold up if you push on them. And you know, I don’t have good answers either, but so that was sort of the… the impetus to look into things and do research and figure it out. And then talks actually for me… it’s a hard deadline because I’m not good at organizing and doing things without some sort of… “it’s gotta be done!” external force.

And so signing up to do a talk, you know, when I write the proposal, I think like “what’s stewing around and like what is right there, but I can’t get to it?” That’s what the talk’s going to be. And then if it gets in, then I’ve got it! Well, now you have to do it. So you have to pull together all the things that you thought you had and sort of work it out.

And then, to actually write the talk, it’s a lot of drafting and sort of like trying to make whatever the argument is and then looking at it and thinking well, does that actually make sense? And if it doesn’t make sense, what’s missing, and like, where do I go to find that missing piece? Because somebody has researched whatever part, right? To help answer whatever question it is that I may not have.

Jorge: You used the phrase, “when I finished school,” and that triggered in me a recognition of the idea that there are folks who go to school — perhaps they get an undergraduate degree than a graduate degree, maybe even beyond that — but let’s say like they get an undergraduate degree and then they go into the workforce. And for many of them, they might think that they’re done with learning — like, they’re done with school. Like, somehow I’ve completed my education.

Kat: Yeah.

Jorge: And there are folks who I think are engaged in a project of self-driven perpetual education somehow. And what I’m hearing here — which is what sparks this recognition perhaps of you as a fellow traveler on that path — is that things like conferences give you the opportunity to… it’s an external motivator, right? To further pursue the sort of research that you’re discussing. Is that fair?

Concretizing thoughts

Kat: Yeah, I think so. And I think to concretize it or that’s… I don’t know that that’s a word! Get it out of just the abstract sort of like stuff I’ve encountered and things I’ve been thinking and like… I always worry that my talks are very dense and hard to follow. But if you’re going to ask someone to sit and listen to you for 20 minutes or 40 minutes and leave having understood what you said, then you have to structure it in a different way than if you’re just playing with the ideas in your own head. And then I find it’s ultimately useful to myself to have structured it that way as well. I can just keep wandering with ideas if it’s just me, right? But if I know I’m trying to communicate it to someone else, it needs to get into some sort of order.

Jorge: Yeah. I think that that reflects the idea that one of the best ways to learn a subject is to try to teach it, right?

Kat: Yeah.

Jorge: It forces some kind of internal order that you would not be engaged in if you were just reading for pleasure or just doing it on your own.

Kat: Yes.

Developing a system to remember

Jorge: Are there any methods or practices that you have found useful in this project of self-education? They don’t have to be formal systems; we all have different approaches to doing this stuff. I’m just curious about how you do it.

Kat: Yeah. So, I spent a long time in school because it… you know, I spent an extra two years in high school and then in community college a long time, and then I got a bachelor’s. And at each step, I sort of didn’t know where I was going and got through with good-enough methods, right? So, I never learned to take notes in high school or study because I just sort of… I learned what I learned, it took in what I took in, I did how I did. That’s how it was, you know? And I got a lot of anxiety around doing schoolwork when I went to college because I decided I was going to do this and this is what I should do. And, you know, a lot of insecurity and problems.

So, the methods I have developed are really reactionary to solve problems I was having with doing my work. The first way I took notes in classes was just to pay attention because I get distracted very easily; I have trouble focusing on what’s being said. And so, instead of trying to take notes in ways that I’ve been told are good ways to take notes to study from them, I accepted I wasn’t going to study from the notes. But it would be easier to do better if I paid attention, whether I took notes or not. And taking notes helps me pay attention.

In the same way, when reading… I read on paper. I print out PDFs to read them and I prefer to have my own copies of books. When I take out books from the library, I use post-it notes. But I find that I need to engage with a text while I read it and underline and write in the margins. Again, it’s when paying attention as much as to then go back and read those notes later. And I don’t think I’ve gotten a good practice. This is what I’m trying to develop now for then having notes I could look up later, being able to look it up, other than being like, “oh, it was on the bottom side of a left-hand page, somewhere in the middle,” and then spending a lot of time trying to find it. Which is what I ended up doing then, if I have to sort of pull it all together for a presentation is going back and trying to find it and make sure it’s real.

One thing I do when I take notes like at a lecture or a talk or a workshop or something is I have a second section. And this is, I think one of the things in the tweet that spawned this conversation perhaps, is having a section for my own thoughts. And that was because I’d get confused sometimes later. “Was that something they said or was that an idea I had?” And if it’s just an idea, I had that doesn’t mean that, you know… that’s going to need follow-up before you start asserting it places, right? “Oh, this is just like so-and-so’s work!” I mean, is it? Or you know… that connection is important, but being able to tell the difference later when I go look it up and can’t remember.

So, when I take notes on paper I’ll… ideally it’s a second color, but I can’t rely on myself to always have a second color pen. So it’s the right-hand side of the page is where I’m taking my own thoughts. And I do that in books as well. I find sometimes I’ll do the thing where the author will say something and I’ll circle it and I’ll write a whole thing in the margin and it’d be like, “well, what about blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” and then the very next paragraph they address exactly the situation. It’s not a useful note later, but at the time… well that tells me I was correctly understanding their point. That I had an objection that they also recognized and addressed.

Jorge: Listeners can’t see this, obviously, but I’m, grinning in recognition because I’ve had that experience. And I always get a little rush because it makes me feel like I’m in conversation with the author somehow.

Kat: Yeah. I think that’s a good way to put it — and I do better in conversation. Always in all the ways, then I feel like I do not.

Jorge: I want to call out a couple of distinctions that came up when you were describing how you do it. One is the distinction between taking notes during lectures versus taking notes when reading. And I do think that those are very different. In the one… when I’m doing it — and I’m actually taking notes as we’re talking now — that’s kind of a variant on that. Where I’m trying to set down ideas that are being said and that I want to be able to refer back to later, versus the more reflective type of note taking than one does when annotating a book in the way that you’ve been describing. So that was one distinction.

The other distinction that you brought up that I found very interesting was this distinction between… I’ll use the word highlighting, although you have not mentioned highlighting. But maybe calling attention to points that the author is making versus your interpretations of what you’re reading. And I find this approach of using different colored pens to be really interesting. I had not thought of doing that myself. It also sounds like for you, the position in the book, the position of the sticky notes on the page makes a difference, which I have heard other folks describe as well. But I was wondering if you could say a little bit more about that. You said that they sometimes go on one side of the book versus the other.

Kat: Oh, this is more, if I’m taking notes on a piece of paper.

Jorge: Oh.

Kat: That I put my own thoughts on the right side of a piece of paper and what I’m learning from a text or a lecture or something on the left side, to keep… if I do look at it later, to keep straight what was me and what was not me.

Jorge: Got it. Yeah. And that sounds kind of like a variant of something like Cornell notes, where you divide the page into areas that you dedicate one for setting down the ideas that you’re reading about or listening about, and the other for your interpretations, right?

A system that works with how you work

Kat: And it might… I think someone taught me Cornell notes at some point. It didn’t stick when they did. And I think this is… my notes are pretty messy, honestly. I have trouble with… I think it’s kind of funny to be talking about my notes because I don’t… and maybe this came out earlier.

I don’t think of myself as someone who has good note-taking practices. In part because a lot of my childhood was a lot of people trying to solve problems I was having by saying things like, “well, have you tried writing it down? What if you kept a planner?” And those things just don’t work with the way I work.

I think the idea of like, how you manipulate information for yourself or process. Like, what do you do with the abstractness of information? And that feels like what I’m doing. It’s storing pieces of it in places so I can use it better because my brain will let something go versus… and I think it, it sets people up to be less good at it. You know, if you’re taught through school that there are these ways… and then, you know, for a long time I just didn’t do it and I did fine at school. So, what do you know? But then at some point that doesn’t work anymore and you don’t have any self-knowledge of what you need out of your notes, right? If it was just something you were doing because other people said this is something to have to be doing.

Jorge: Yeah, and I think it’s a particular type of muscle that you have to work. And if you don’t work at it early, you will have to start later, you know?

Kat: I think something I’ve come to in other areas of my life too, is recognition that at some point in my past, I… like I said a moment ago about like rejecting the notes? Sort of like, “the things you’re saying don’t work for me, so I’m not like that.” And so, “there’s no value there for me or I’m not…” And it becomes almost like a defensive, right? Like the way I interact with this as always… there’s friction and the friction feels like it’s making me be the bad person and I don’t accept that. So, I don’t need this. And to get over that in like both the note-taking and other areas too, right? And think that I just needed something different, right? It’s not that taking notes is bad. I don’t know that I ever would have said, “taking notes is bad,” right? But the idea that I would take neat notes or you know… that doesn’t have to be that to still be a useful process.

Jorge: What I’m hearing there is that the notes become symbolic of a particular type of relationship where it’s like you’re telling me that I’m somehow inadequate and that because this is the prescribed remedy then maybe they… they acquire this emotional charge somehow.

Kat: Yeah. And I think that they’re still linked to that idealized… Like the Cornell notes that I would fold my… I do remember being taught Cornell notes. Fold the paper in half, right? So there are the two columns. And then that if I’m not getting those things right, somehow they’re less good as notes. Whereas just getting information on the page that you need on the page to help yourself. That’s the point! Not the structure or the ways of doing it.

And so, the idea of having a notebook… I see you have like a nice Moleskine. I take notes on printer paper because I can always find it. Wherever I am, there’s a piece of paper and I can’t be precious about which piece of paper because I can’t rely on myself to have it if it’s something special and if I don’t have it, then it breaks the ability to do it. And the same with having like a really structured format of notes is then if you’re thinking about, “well, what part should I be putting where?” Then I can spend a lot of time up in my head thinking about it, and now I’m not paying attention anymore, right? I’m thinking about the structure of the notes as their own thing.

And so this has sort of emerged reactionarily, like I said, you know? Having notes and then later being like, “I can’t tell if they said that or I said that!” And then being like, okay, we need to separate. Sometimes if I don’t have another colored pen, just write “me” over it or under it. And yeah. The same with my handwriting is really bad, so I don’t try and make it good. I just try, you know… as I write, I sort of look back and if it’s completely illegible, I’ll rewrite the one word that matters, right? So, some words or the one that you actually are going to need a jog your memory, and I’ll cross it out and write the word neater. Because I just know that I’m not going to ever have neat handwriting. So, I can’t have a system that relies on my notes being legible all of them all the time because then I’m doing the work to fix that instead of just getting on with what I’m trying to do.

Jorge: But are they legible to you?

Kat: Mostly. So I try and process the notes. And this is again why I think I took that workshop with you and Karl, and we’ll see how I transform it. Because I don’t have a good way to permanently take out all the kinds of information. So, functional-like, to do information for my job, I put in calendar events, you know? Right after a meeting, I’ll look at my notes and be like, “okay, what did I have to do?” But that is more — like we’re talking about — the learning or the figuring it all out. I have trouble making it more permanent than the piece of paper it’s on or the margins of whatever books it’s in.

Jorge: I have to circle back to the Moleskine comment because I’m even more precious it than that. And more obnoxious. I actually don’t use Moleskines because I don’t like the paper; it’s too thin. So, this is another brand. I don’t know how to pronounce it. It’s LEUCHTTURM1917.

Kat: Oh, I’ve seen them. Yeah, those are nice; I have a couple.

Jorge: I, probably didn’t pronounce that right. But, yeah. But, which is to say, different people take notes in different ways, right? And this one happens to work for me and I have a whole shelf full of notebooks that look just like this one going back many, many years. But, some people work better with sticky notes or with loose sheets of paper, just like you’re showing. The question that I always have, actually in either case is, what next? So, you take notes, right? Let’s say that you’re in a lecture or reading a book and you’re putting down ideas. Do you ever revisit those pieces of paper? What do you do with those notes?

Where the notes go

Kat: Yeah. I guess it depends on why I took them. I think I lose a lot more notes just to the chaos of the like, I never find them again. And like I was saying earlier, that accepting taking the notes has its own value for paying attention and sort of structuring the things as they’re being said, which is not… you know, it’s not ideal to lose them, but it’s still… it’s okay. The information got in my head better by taking them. But I will collect them in folders, like file folders? Notes sort of on a similar subject or the papers themselves, right? I print out PDFs of papers to try and keep them together and then I’ll have some session or something where I’ll… which is not… I mean, “session” makes it sound like I put time on my calendar.

They’ll just be some moment at which I’ll think about it all and I’ll pull them out and I’ll sort of write to myself on paper or draw some diagrams or try and like get the ideas that are in there to be things that I understand versus just sort of facts I know. Where, “oh, someone said such and such.” But then again, that can be… then what do I do with that? I don’t know! That just lives somewhere to for a while. So, those papers will float around for a while, especially if I’m thinking about one topic a lot. They’ll just sort of be around me, these papers with my scrawled diagrams. And then eventually I throw them away. If I say, okay, that’s, you know, they’re working papers, not, products.

Jorge: Yeah, what you’re saying sounds recognizable to me in that, in doing research for the book, I’ve come to better understand the distinction, which I think many of us grok intuitively just because of how we work, but which I now think of as a thing. And it’s a distinction between taking notes for recalling stuff — notes as a kind of memory augmentation device versus note-taking as a substrate for thinking, right? This whole extended mind thing.

Last year I had a couple of conversations in the podcast when with Annie Murphy Paul, who wrote a book called The Extended Mind and the other with Karl Fast and both of those conversations focused on this idea of embodied cognition. The fact that the mind operates somehow in interaction with the world, right? And what I’m hearing you say is that… well, the first thing you said which I thought was very important is, “it depends.” Which is the information architects’ phrase.

Kat: Yeah.

Jorge: Do you revisit notes? Well, it depends. And it depends on what you’re doing it for, right? Which is totally understandable! If what you’re doing is going out to the grocery store or something, you know, those are going to be fleeting by definition.

Kat: Yeah.

Jorge: But there’s also a value in the act of putting pen to paper itself, right? In some important way that thinking is happening between the meat computer that we have between the ears and the paper, right? There’s some kind of feedback loop happening there that is generating ideas that wouldn’t come about otherwise.

Kat: Yeah. I think my note-taking changed when I stopped trying to take notes because that’s what good people do, right? The right thing to do in this situation is to be taking notes. And there are all these methods that people have for taking notes. And everyone says taking notes would solve the problem. And instead, you know, just thinking of this like, “well, it’s a tool.” Like, what do I need right now from my ability to put information on the piece of paper and how do I use that? And I think this idea of notes extending the mind… there’s… I’m not going to remember the law or the rule, whoever’s, you know, the org chart, the information products of an organization mimic the order.

I think my notes mirror the way my brain works, right? The main sections that I have in my notes are based on the parts of my brain. So, I allow myself to doodle or just write random things that come into my head because that lets my brain let them go, and then I can stay focused on what I’m doing. And so having a section where it’s okay to just write whatever is fine. And then, thinking in that way about what I need from a note right now.

I’ve started taking notes in the past year or two when I’m task switching. So switching between tasks often I can get lost and distracted. And so, you know, if I’m working on something and then I say, “oh, you know what, I need to go look up in the library backend this bar code to see what’s actually going on in the record.” You know, I might write what am I doing when I now open my browser, which has the whole internet and everything on it. And then go to this place because of the number of places I could get distracted in the middle and forget what I’m doing. But that’s like the most fleeting of notes, right? Because as soon as I make three clicks, I don’t need it anymore. But just in case I got lost on the way. What was I trying to do? Yeah.

You know, since you reached out to me, I’ve been trying to think about what are all those different places where notes have emerged as the answer to some problem I was having, right?

Jorge: This, to me, is aligned with what you were saying earlier about our attitudes to education, and again, I felt a lot of resonance… or at least the recognition in myself because I, too, feel like I wasn’t a particularly engaged student when I was undergoing formal education. But I learned to love learning. And I’m always looking for ways of doing it better and have embraced a work discipline that if I had had it when I was in school, I would have had much better grades. But it’s just like now I’m engaged with the subject, you know?

It’s like you were saying, we all find our own ways. We all have different means of doing this. And I just thought that it was a nice circle back to the earlier part of the conversation. So, it feels like a good place to wrap up our conversation today. Where can folks follow up with you?

Closing

Kat: I’m on Twitter. I go by @katalogofchaos. Catalog with a “K,” like my name. That’s probably the best place. Yeah.

Jorge: Fantastic. Well thank you so much, Kat, for talking with me today!

Kat: Thank you, Jorge. It was fun. And helpful to myself to have a reason to think, you know, in a meta way about my own practices.

Jorge: Much like giving presentations.

Kat: Yes. Very much like that.