What is “knowledge” to you?

I’ve learned that knowledge (as in personal knowledge management) means different things to different people.
I always thought of it as related to a topic of study, as in an academic pursuit - perhaps linear algebra, for example.
In our recent zettelkasten self-support group call, I learned people have different ideas and uses for the K in PKM.

If I may ask, what is the knowledge in your personal knowledge management?

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For our contemplations…


The best a computer can give me is turning data into information. To transform that into knowledge requires study and concentration on my part. Information resides externally, knowledge is internal to me.

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Question @ibuys, what if you publish that internal knowledge publicly? Does that change what it is called? To you? To others?


One way I find useful to think about the nature of knowledge is as the relationships between pieces of information that facilitate “usefulness” of that information.

  • I do not use a single app. I use several.

  • Some items I also keep/use in hard copy.

  • Recipes

  • Software notes/blog posts/Web pages

  • Software documentation

  • Scholarly articles/Web pages/blog posts/annotated URLs

  • Email

  • Personal life data (contacts, financial data, medical data, insurance data, contracts, navigational data)

  • Bibliographic data

  • Manuscript images

  • Personal photos

  • My own notes (teaching notes, study notes, reading notes, ur-versions of rough drafts)

  • In-process writing/drafts/outlines, annotated texts and translations

I keep personal, work, and scholarly data fairly segregated

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You have woken the etymology nerd.

Never forget that text, textile and technology all have a common root -teks.


This is an intentionally narrow definition, but in the context of PKM, I would say knowledge is any of the information in it that you know reasonably well. The percentage of knowledge of the data in personal systems varies from person to person.

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That’s how I think of it. I read the Sönke Ahrens book a couple of times, with great interest, and I’ve played around with Obsidian and read Khourosh Dini’s book about using DevonThink for a slip box. But for me it wouldn’t make much sense to put any of that into practice unless I needed to produce something like a research paper or a book based on a line of research.

I make my living writing and editing and producing content for my employer, and I have my own system/methods for collecting information and making sure it’s where I need it when I need it. But none of what I’ve lately come to understand as PKM would help me with that work, unless you consider GTD a form of PKM, which I believe some do. There are certainly some similarities.

In fact I realized a while ago that much of the PKM discussion here is based on a definition of K and its purposes that is different from mine. I’m not surprised that you encountered a variety of definitions in the call.

I have been trying to use some of what I’ve learned about PKM to help me read more intentionally and get more bang for my K buck. If you saw a list of most of what I read in my spare time, you might get the impression that I’m engaged in some kind of a project involving a particular line of thought. But the only real purpose is to try to stay curious and informed about what interests me so that my mind doesn’t rot.


You’ve asked two questions I think, but I can’t tell if you want both answered. You’ve asked what knowledge means to us, and what knowledge we have in our PKMs. The former question is scary and probably a bit circular since I’m guessing we won’t come to an agreement on it. I like the latter question though, and my answer is: everything :joy:

Since that’s terribly unhelpful, and also I probably should exclude all my “record keeping” even though I maintain a DT database for it, my answer in broad strokes is:

  • Ecology stuff (my field, so let’s call this “the knowledge people pay me for”)
  • Work things, e.g. how to use the HR system, etc. (“knowledge I have to have to function in my workplace”)
  • Philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, brain stuff (a passion I have, so “knowledge as a hobby”)
  • Small collections of random topics that I’ve arbitrarily decided not to list on their own, e.g. history, chess, gardening (“knowledge that advances my hobbies”)
  • Poetry and quotes (“other people’s knowledge and wisdom that makes life better”)

I wrote this without much consideration, but I think this is quite a good broad sweep of the types of knowledge I “collect”.


I’ve got one system for PIM—Personal Information Management—and another for PKM—Personal Knowledge Management.

My PIM system is there to help me find, retrieve, and analyze the information we need to manage the administrative aspects of life and routine domestic tasks—things like filing our taxes, managing our finances, renewing licenses, sending birthday greetings, etc.

My PKM system is more akin to a syllabus with active links to both the things to be read / watched / seen / listened to and to my notes and thoughts about those things. There’s a different syllabus for each distinct area of investigation.

Sometimes the PIM system bumps up against the PKM system. For instance, I’m on the board of a non-profit. A carve-out in my PIM system is where I store organization-specific board meeting minutes, financial statements, legal & tax documents, press releases, etc. But I also have a carve-out in my PKM system for a repository of materials on non-profit management generally that contains things like documents covering non-profit accounting standards; IRS publications relating to non-profits; any state and local rules and regulations governing non-profits; reference materials and think-pieces on non-profit management or issues related to the field, etc. The PKM carve-out is where I go to solve problems or brainstorm; the PIM carve-out is where I go when someone asks me what our EIN is or the amount of the most recent grant from a particular funder.


“Only” purpose? That’s the BEST purpose!


To me “PKM” = “buzzword”. It means whatever a software (or book) vendor wants it to mean. At the end of the day, store what you want where you want.

I’m sure it’s considered helpful for people to be on the ‘same page’ by means of buzzwords, but inherently they do a worse job than just describing the problem to be (or being) solved. :man_shrugging:

I’d not even heard of “PKM” before I read this thread, and “PIM” is a term I stopped using when my Casio digital diary became obsolete.

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Not to me. It’s still something that I know, but to other people it’s just information until they learn it too.


What do you (or others) consider knowledge?

What do you make note of?

To me, knowledge is something that I can recall, or at the very least know that I can recall it with a little bit of help from my own notes. I have a ton of stuff in my notes systems that I thought would be knowledge, but I would have no idea that it’s there unless I stumbled upon it or just searched randomly. To me, that’s not knowledge that is just information on a machine.

I was just thinking about Google and I had a realization that I think I was trying to index my brain, like Google indexes the web. Trying to develop that skill and putting that much effort into retaining information I found got in the way of gaining knowledge. Then I found I’m really knowledgeable about some things, but does that need to go onto my note taking system?

Here is an example, The Wiggles. I am fascinated about their brand. I’m excited how they’ve brought music to tons of kids. I think their history is amazing and I did a whole podcast episode on them. My knowledge is more than most, but like that won’t go into my note taking system.

I think I have found freedom in accepting that not everything has to go into a system of knowledge or information retention. Sure there will be some things and hobbies that I will go deeper into and want to refer back to manuals or instructions of some sort, but if I let go of the feeling that I have to retain all of the information, I won’t feel guilty that I would not have put in a random bit of information. If I don’t feel guilty that I’m not documenting all of my information, I will enjoy the hobby that much more.


There’s a whole branch of philosophy for this, so the kindest construction one could put on my feints at an answer is “incomplete.”

I make a distinction between “knowing how to” and “understanding.” In my case, that distinction applies to math. I know how to solve a calculus problem using, say, the chain rule—i.e., I know how to march through a sequence of steps that someone has taught me—but my understanding of what calculus IS, how to use it creatively, and how it fits into math writ large is humiliatingly shallow.

I know how to solve a basic calculus problem one might find in a textbook, but I’d consider my actual calculus knowledge non-existent.


The question is very broad. To try to pinpoint. Hopefully this structure can keep it simple.

Knowledge = Information
That knowledge/information is accessed/stored via a plethora of ‘tools’ (your mind, software, notebook)

Let’s use the example of ‘comics’, I have a folder in DevonThink about it.
How does that look like?

Several layers of what knowledge means in this scenario

In my mind

  • I know the characters and story arcs that are my favorite
  • I can passionately talk about the story arcs, symbols, etc

In DevonThink

  • The details of issue number stored in DT
  • The chronological reading order stored in DT

When you are passionate about a topic: be it movies, comics, apps, software, religion, academia, etc, you will find yourself accessing and speaking about the information with little preparation. But when you want that singular focus and you want to go in deeper study/depth, you save the brain space, and store that in your second brain.

Another cheesy example to illustrate using Knowledge would be my personal usage of Keynote. The slides display knowledge 2 to 3 main points, quotes or excerpts that will be expanded on from my own personal notes (that are not displayed) which are in the Keynote (or from my iPad next to me)

I think “knowledge” is a very broad term. “Personal knowledge” adds another broad term. I like @Jeremy’s take, that knowledge is what I know. Most of the stuff I record in software like KeepIt or Apple Notes is stuff I know I will forget. Whether any of it is “personal” is a whole different thing.

How I set up my web server is arguably personal, because it’s my web server and others would do some things differently. But really, all of it came from others’ public writings, so it’s just the collection that’s personal to me. I could also argue that the way I did it is a great way for anyone with the same needs and I could publish that on my blog. Is that personal?

I really do think that being prescriptive with such terms is not solving any problems. Unless, perhaps, you are trying to market a product that claims to do “the thing”.

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