Monday, January 21, 2013

Building a personal Knowledge Base: a follow-up post

So, some time ago I wrote about building your personal knowledge base, and how personal wikis can be nicely employed for this purpose. Here's a follow-up post.

TLDR: I tried several, and settled on the... Microsoft Word =)

I started from the Wikipedia list of personal wikis, and then checked those that looked promising. Namely:

  • Pros: while not exactly a Wiki, you can make wiki-style references there. Also it's extremely pleasant to work with, especially if you are a visual thinker, as I am.
  • Cons: easy to delete your work accidentally (as it's a note-taking tool, not a personal Wiki). Hard to make back-ups. While export to html is available (as a third-party plugin), it doesn't export wiki-style cross-references correctly, and is thus mostly useless.

I ended up using OneNote for note-taking, but not for knowledge building. It's actually a really great tool, a serendipitous discovery that made my life much easier! Yet everything you do there is just a bit too ephemeral to use it for knowledge-base building purposes.

  • Pros: it's a personal wiki that works.
  • Cons: It isn't WYSIWYG, which renders it almost unusable (I'll spend most of time editing the Knowledge Base, not reading it, thus the edit mode should look neat and uncluttered)

  • Pros: Works. Has a nice, simple interface. Allows export to html (which I'd really love to have, both for back-up and compatibility reasons), creating a set of linked html files. Also stores the data in a set of plain txt files, which is good, as theoretically even in the worst case, if the tool crashes permanently, one would still be able to read these txt files one by one.
  • Cons: I managed to crash it twice in my test wiki with 20 entries, which is not good. To tell the truth, it happened while I was renaming entries violently, which is a rather esoteric activity, but anyway. Thus decided not to use.

  • Pros: Works. The interface is even neater, almost conceptual. Does really good on-the-fly linking between entries. Exports to html (in a giant cross-linked file, which I actually like even more than a set of separate html files). Renames links nicely.
  • Cons: Strange way of storing data (machine-readable, but not human-readable). Can do synchronization on its own, but it is also not quite transparent. And as my whole life) will, in a way, depend on this knowledge base I'm building, I'm just afraid to entrust it to a system I don't quite understand. When exporting to html, into this giant html file, it cannot order the entries alphabetically, but puts them in the "tree-crawling order". It is a logical thing to do, but it looks strange. Also you cannot have a word "dogs" link to the entry "dog"; it would be two different entries for Tomboy, as the title of the entry is the link to the entry. There seems to be a plugin to fix it, but I have not tried it.

It's not quite a wiki, but rather a structured tree-like note taking system. Yet it has one major flaw that rendered it perfectly unusable: it doesn't work properly with unicode.

Microsoft Word
(On which I have finally settled, at least for my main Knowledge Base)
  • Pros: In Word you can do cross-referencing within a document, from every word to every title. Thus you can create a one-document Wiki. Also you can use the Draft mode with Outline on the left to work with a tree of entires, thinking about your knowledge in a structured manner. And most importantly: you can save or print your document at any moment, as if it were a plain text.
  • Cons: It takes some time to format a link. Also I'm not sure how fast the processing will be when my document grows a hundred pages long or more (right now it is at ~30 pages, and doesn't seem to have problems, so there's a hope).


  1. Perhaps a bit late, but TiddlyWiki is what I use for a knowledge base and a work log and it is excellent. It is a single, HTML document that can sit in your Dropbox and be accessible everywhere. It unfortunately needs a Firefox plugin (TiddlyFox) to be fully functional due to recent security updates, but otherwise fantastic.

  2. Yubin, I tried some wikis, including, I believe, the TiddlyWiki one. I am kind of scared of this single dynamic HTML for some reason. Maybe it's not warranted at all, but it just looks so... fragile? I don't know.

    As I said, so far I use a giant Word document with a hierarchy of subtitles, and a "structure tree" being always shown on the left. I am not yet sure how well it will scale up as it size grows. Maybe I'll have to break it up into parts and switch into a wiki-style platform after all... We'll see =)

    1. Try to make a master document, it's more handy for heavy database, in my opinion ^^