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Zim wiki – More personal information tools

A wiki is a brilliant idea, created by Ward Cunningham when he released his WikiWikiWeb, a system that allowed groups of people to create and edit documents and notes easily and with minimal training.  To create links, it uses the concept of Wikiwords, and exampe being this - WikiWord - with capitalisation in mid-word.  This tells the  system to create a new page.  Similarly, adding bold, italics, headers, tables and other attributes is easily done with simple mark-up.  The result was a web of information that is easy to use, and so powerful that one of the Internet's most popular sites is based on the same principles - Wikipedia. There are interesting cultural connotations to the term wiki, the name originating from an Hawaiian expression meaning "quick". As Cunningham himself noted, "the beauty of Wiki is in the freedom, simplicity, and power it offers." (Source:- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WikiWikiWeb and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiki)

Quite soon people began to realise how useful wiki could be to personal information management.  Computers have traditionally been good at managing structured information, but coping with our brain dumps is a more difficult challenge.  There have been some wonderful attempts to develop software to manage this lack of structure, the best one, in my view, being the short-lived Lotus Agenda. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lotus_Agenda)  Wikis work well, but can be accused of needing to learn quite a lot before the wiki becomes useful.

Zim wiki (http://zim-wiki.org)  resolves many of the issues with web-based wikis regarding having to learn the mark-up language, and is an easy-to-use personal information management tool.  It does not have artificial intelligence capabilities such as (and this worked with Lotus Agenda) typing "Meeting with Susan next Wednesday at 9" resulting in a diary entry for the correct day, an addition to a database entry on "Susan" and so on.  But it does allow you to add a structure to random ideas, add pictures or other media objects, and keep these notes in a simple way, without the use of complex databases.  Zim stores all its information in simple text files, leaving your data always accessible, being easy to back up, and not imposing any limitations.

This is part of the zim wiki I used during my degree:-

Example Zim wiki showing image incorporated in a note
Example Zim wiki showing image incorporated in a note

I have also used a useful journalling capability.  Clicking on a "Today" button in the built-in calendar results in a new page with today's date, and an automatically structured calendar index entry.  The power in this lies in the ability to insert images resulting in a straight forward but very usable journalling system.

It's even possible to have multiple Zim notebooks on the go at the same time.  I separate out my general notes from my journal entries, and during my degree, my UHI notes were in a separate notebook too.

Zim has a plugin architecture which extend its native capability while staying within the principles which make the program so useful.  Mathematicians will enjoy the ability to insert equations, whole musicians can insert music notation using the Lilypond program. Spell checking is done with a plugin, as is version control, if you want it.

When it comes to making use of the notes, the first question is about searching.  Zim is good at this. But it is also possible to export a set of notes as HTML (web) files, which can be uploaded to a web server for wider access. The Zim home page notes that it itself is written using Zim, a delightful bit of recursion. But Zim also has an additional trick up its sleeve. Let's say you're at a conference, and you either want a wider group to access some notes. Zim has a built-in web server, which you can start (it doesn't run automatically - that would not be secure) and allow others to access your Zim notes.

Zim has been under development under the management of its creator, Jaap G Karssenberg, for some years, and is currently at version 0.60. Do not be concerned that it is not yet at version 1.0, as it has been fully usable for quite a few years. Zim is published under the General Public Licence, GPL2, so the source will always be available.   For those using Linux, if you use Debian or Ubuntu, Zim can be installed from the software repositories directly (apt-get install zim). Other Linux users may download the source, which is written in  easily installable python, and run the setup.py script. Windows users can download an installable executable from the link on the downloads page on the zim-wiki.org site.

And one great thing in favour of an information tool like Zim is that it stays within your own control.  You can be sure that no-one will index, search, hand over to a third party, or otherwise abuse your information, which is the default assumption if you place your information with a "cloud" internet-based service.  Keep your information under your own control in these days when trust in third parties must, by their own admission, be so low.