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Tending the Roam Garden

Last tended on May 31, 2020
🌱 Budding


Just like any good seventeenth century English garden, this one has two sides to it – the private and the public.

Everything I post here first sprouts in my Roam Research garden.

A screen capture of my system in Roam

If you have never heard of Roam, first stop by Anne-Laure LeCunff's articles on Roam for Metacognition, and the more hands-on The Beginner’s Guide to Roam.

Otherwise the rest of this post will be completely bewildering.


Thanks to the thriving #roamcult community, building and tending my Roam space has become a glorious exercise in knowledge management, experimental workflows, and collective problem solving.

There is no one way to use Roam.

Seeing the wide diversity of systems Roamers build is the whole point. It's a grand communal experiment.

Robert Haisfield has started hosting a series of Roam video tours where Roamers walk through their databases showing all the ways they've adapted the system to their particular needs.

This is essentially a COVID-friendly version of MTV Cribs for personal knowledge management nerds. Conspicuous consumption in the age of sense-making knowledge work.

HT Anna Gat for the insightful comparison

After posting too much on Twitter about the extensive lengths I've gone to Painting Roam with Custom CSS, I got chatting to Rob and ended up doing one of these digital-hipster crib tours.

We had a wonderfully wide-ranging chat on note taxonomies, spaced repetition, the limitations of text-based thought. Enjoy, and forgive the mess in the kitchen...



Patterns of Roam

The workflows and techniques I covered with Rob are essentially an adapted collection of Design Patterns for personal knowledge management.

They're not "mine," but instead a remixed mashup influenced by Andy Matuschak, Malcolm Ocean, Tiago ForteSee my illustrated Building a Second Brain Notes for more on Tiago's system in particular, Nat Eliason, Joel Chan, and many other Roam-esque-thinkers (not all of whom even use Roam).


Page Prefixes

I have a handful of page prefixes that help me distinguish between page types.

  • B: Books
  • C: Courses
  • P: Projects–– Collections of tasks that have a specific end date and clear success criteria.
  • E: Evergreens–– Evergreen Notes modelled off Andy's System (similar to Zettles to the Zettlekasten system)
  • ➽ Original Creations–– Things I'm creating that are/will be public at some point. Essays, digital garden notes, conference talks, video tutorials, and livestream/podcast outlines all fall under this umbrella

These are handy for quickly searching for a certain type of note - the prefix lets you quickly scan through all your books/projects/Evergreen from just the inline search system

It also means you can create multiple pages with the same title, but of different types.

For example, B: Meat Planet and ➽ Meat Planet are two different pages in my database. One is my notes on the book Meat Planet, and the second is a planning and draft-writing space for an illustrated essay I made that took what I learned from the book and expanded it into an original creation.


Keyboard Maestro

Keyboard Maestro is the salt to my digital kitchen. Combining it with anything makes the original better. This holds true for Roam.

It's an app that helps you write macros - tiny automated sequences of events on your machine – within a pleasantly visual interface.

This includes opening applications, typing text, clicking buttons, rearranging windows, etc.

Within the context of Roam, I find it handy for three things:

1. Capturing Links

Whenever I find an article, academic paper, podcast, or video I want to save, I'm able to hit a specific hotkey that snaps up the page title and URL, then formats it into Roam-friendly markdown link.

I also have it set to auto-magically add specific tags to the end based on the type of link. So Ctrl + A tags it with #Article, and Ctrl + V tags it with #Video, etc.


2. Auto-Opening Windows

I have two hotkeys setup that make opening Roam frictionless. One opens it as a new window, and another opens it as a new tab to the right.


3. Templating

To help keep my data base consistent, I have a set of pre-written templates I can pop into different kinds of pages - daily notes, books, projects, evergreen notes, etc.

These add sets of metadata into the front that make it easy for me to query pages later on.

You can use any snippet-expander app for this, such as Alfred, or TextExpander.

Feel free to grab these macros for yourself:


Open Note Streams

I like keeping an open stream that runs from source material to Roam to this digital garden. It's always flowing.

The open stream means the reading, note-taking, reflecting, developing ideas, and publishing process is a continuous repeating cycle. Not a linear pipeline.

Instead of reading a whole book. Then importing the notes. Then highlighting and reflecting on them. Then crafting a summary. Then uploading the "finished work" to the internet, I instead do all of those at once. In very small chunks.

Let's take a book I'm currently reading, Making by Tim Ingold.
My stream of notes on it currently lives in three places simultaneously.

First, Drafts app is where I capture book notes when I'm away from my desk (Roam's quick capture feature isn't its strong suit).

It's nice and simple, and always perfectly syncs between my iOS devices and the desktop app.

I read on my phone (because I'm an awful person). While out walking around (because I'm a truly awful person). Or in the evening on my iPad. All my books are PDFs and I use PDF Expert solely for it's 'reading mode' feature.

I transfer notes from Drafts into Roam every few days. This gives me the chance to link up related concepts, bold key points, highlight really key points, and start collecting Evergreen Notes & Key Concepts at the top of my note.

I've also become a convert to the church of Taking Notes in Your Own Words. I still copy and paste key quotes, but I try to rephrase and rewrite ideas in my own terms as much as possible. Doing this just makes synthesising much easier and faster. It also helps me think. Which is the point of this entire note-taking carnival.

As my Roam notes develop, I transfer chunks of them over to my public notes on the book which you can read here. You will notice they're fairly loose. Every time I add more notes onto the end I lightly clean up the earlier sections and update the "last tended" date.

The idea is that by the time I finish reading a book, I've already done the majority of my thinking, reflecting, writing, and synthesising on it. And created a readable summary n+1 other people might find helpful.

I also like that the system allows me to take my sweet time with a book. I can read it deeply, think about it properly, and let my notes on it mature without ending up with a huge backlog of them.

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Maggie Appleton © 2020