At a high level, I had three main requirements when I was looking for a note-taking app. I wanted an app that:
- Uses plain text files: first because they are accessible anywhere and require no special or proprietary software to access; and second because they are essentially future-proof.
- Does not require a cloud service or SaaS to use. Such a service could be optional, for syncing notes between devices, for instance, but the core functionality of the app does not require this.
- Has the ability to link between text files.
There are plenty of text editors in the world. Notepad on Windows and Vi/Vim in Unix environments, which have been around for decades, can read and edit text files. There are plenty of apps that are based on cloud services: Evernote is one example. Obsidian met all three of these requirements, but the one that really impressed me was its implementation of note-linking. So today, I’m going to focus on that and discuss six aspects of note linking that I find incredibly useful in Obsidian.
1. Creating links between notes
Anyone who has used Obsidian knows how easy it is to create a link to another note. You just tap the link key twice and begin typing the name of the note you want to link to. Once you have it, you hit enter, and your note is now linked. The ability to be able to link between notes is something I’d wanted in a text editor for a long time. Of course, it is possible to do this in a rudimentary way in other tools, like Evernote and OneNote, but neither tool uses plain text files locally on your computer, and neither links notes with the power that Obidian does. Two examples of that power that I find incredibly useful:
I can link and not worry about losing the connection. Obsidian handles any updates to links between notes behind the scenes. That is, if I have file A linked to file B and I move file B, the link between the notes remains in tact because Obsidian is keeping it up-to-date with any changes. The same is true if I rename the note.
I can link to any section within a note. In addition to being able to link to a note, I can link to any section within a note. I use this frequently in my daily notes file. Each top-level heading represents a single day, and if I want to link to a day in my daily notes file, I can do it using a link like this
2. Using note aliases
Another powerful feature of linking that I use is note aliases. A note alias is piece of YAML frontmatter that allows you to refer to a note by a different name. I use this for notes about people. I have, in my vault, notes related to family members which act as a place to see where I have mentioned them. For instance, suppose I have a note for James Bond. Anytime I refer to Bond in a note, I do so with a link to the note.
Now, because I want the list of people to appear alphabetically by last name, I name the people notes using the format “Last Name, First Name.” Bond’s note, therefore, is titled “Bond, James.”
Within the YAML frontmatter of the note, however, I have an alias setup that allows me to refer to the note as “James Bond” which looks better inside the text of a note.
The alias allows me to refer to a note either way: “Bond, James” or “James Bond” by automatically adding an alias to the note link when I insert it. Either alias points to the same note file underneath.
When I use the alias as a link, Obsidian automatically inserts the note alias into my note link so that it appears as “James Bond” in my note, even though it links to “Bond, James.”
I can think of all kinds of uses for note aliases, but this is a very practical one that I’ve been using quite a bit.
3. Linking to dates in daily notes
Last week I wrote about how I use my daily notes as an index to my life. In that post, I described how I use a single file for my daily notes rather than one-note-per-day the way the out-of-box behavior for daily notes is setup in Obsidian. One of the advantages of the one-note-per-day form of daily notes is that the title of the note is a date and the natural language date plug-in can create links based on a date, which is an easy way to link back to a daily noet for a given day.
It turns out, however, that this is easy to do using a single file for daily notes, and I’ve been doing this more and more. If I have a note that refers to a date, I’ll create the date in a link and the link will link back to the section of my daily notes file for the day in question. For example:
I’m writing this on January 28, 2022. I draft all of these posts in Obsidian so by using a note link for the date in this link, I am connecting back to my daily notes file as a backlink to that file. The date link itself looks like this:
[[Daily#2022-01-28 Fri]]. If I now go look at my daily notes, I’ll see the backlink to this draft because I’ve linked to the section of my daily notes file containing the date in question:
I can do this for dates (sections) that already exist in my daily notes file, or I can do it for a future date. Once that future date appears in my daily notes file, the backlink to the referenced note will appear as well.
One feature I’d like to see added to Obsidian related to backlinks is the ability to indicate which section of the note file the link appears in. In addition to showing the note from which the backlink comes, it would show the path to the section in the note. So if the reference took place in a section of the document under an H1 head called “Posts” and an H2 heading called “Series”, the backlink would indicate the document name followed by something like “Posts > Series.” That would be a useful improvement.
4. The Power of Backlinks
Backlinks provide additional context for a note I am looking at. I’ve come to rely on backlinks quite a bit. As I demonstrated in the previous section, a backlink is a link to the current note from another note. By referencing other notes using links, I can easily get a summary of activity, for instance on a particular note, or see how that notes relates to other notes, ideas, or thoughts.
For instance, I recently had to change the battery in the car fob for our car. I’ve done this before and had instructions written for it. Not long after that, I had to replace the battery in Kelly’s fob. Looking at the instruction note with the backlinks, I can see references to changing the battery in my daily notes file:
If I click on the backlinks, I can see the exact date on which I replaced these batteries. When I replace them again, I’ll know how long they last. This is also an example of where I think it would be useful for a backlink should also indicate the section of the note the link appears in. If this feature were available, I could see the dates directly in the backlink because I use dates as a section header in my daily notes file.
5. Placeholder links
Sometimes, when writing notes, I find it convenient to add placeholder links while I am typing, and come back to them later to fill them in. Obsidian makes this easy. I can just create a note link as I would for any other note, and move on. Clicking on the link will create the note, but I don’t have to create it first and then link to it later. This has advantages because I may not want to lose a train-of-thought. It helps me to organize thoughts at a high-level , creating a pseudo-structure. I tend to use placeholder links in two scenarios:
- When writing thoughts on something I’ve read, and trying to see how that fits in with other things I’ve read or thought about.
- When referring to future dates. Linking to a future date means the link will work once that date section appears in my daily notes file.
I can see these placeholder links the graph view. They are the dimmer dots. This provides an easy way to see all these “to-be-created” notes at a high level:
![[Pasted image 20220201174346.png]]
6. Auto-link title plug-in for external links
My notes frequently link outside of my vault–that is, to web links to other sites. One plug-in that has saved me a ton of time for these external sites is the “Auto-link title” plug-in. I can grab a link from my browser and when I paste the link into Obsidian, it automatically goes out to the site, extracts the title of the page, and creates an Obsidian link that includes the title so that it renders cleaner in my notes
For instance, if I paste in a link to the list of books I’ve read since 1996, the plug-in will grab the title of that page and convert it to a nicely formatted link in my note:
In next week’s post, I’ll talk about how I organize my notes in Obsidian (so far). See you back here then!
Written on January 28-February 1, 2022.
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