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  • EPOCH

EPOCH Tutorials – an Introduction to Obsidian

Ed Moore | Lancaster University


Pricing and Availability


Free for personal use with subscription options for publishing and cross-device synchronisation.

Student Discount Available? Yes.

Available on: iOS, Android, Windows, Mac, and Linux.


What is Obsidian?


Obsidian is a powerful note-taking software that helps users to organise their notes. It leverages networks graphs and canvases to help users to identify trends and links, and present notes clearly and concisely. Obsidian uses backlinks, tags, and pages to establish connections between related notes, allowing you to gain deeper insights about the connections between pieces of information. If you are a researcher, or someone who needs to keep track of a lot of information, you will find Obsidian particularly useful. With my own research, Obsidian is incredibly useful for pulling together all the disparate sources of the early medieval period and the interrelated methods of Digital Humanities.


How to use Obsidian


Outline

1)     Making notes in Obsidian

2)     Formatting

3)     Linking

4)     Using Obsidian Network Graphs

5)     Using Obsidian Canvases

6)     Adding in media content

 

Making Notes in Obsidian


A black UI with the Obsidian logo
The Opening Screen of Obsidian. Note: Once a vault is opened the last opened note in that vault appears on start up instead.

The very first thing you’ll be presented with when opening Obsidian is the image above. Obsidian stores its notes in Vaults; these contain your notes, canvases, and images and create the network graphs as you work. All you need to do to create a vault is click the purple Create button, then name and choose a file location for the vault.


Obsidian stores its notes as individual files; these can be created in two ways: through the Icon highlighted in the red box below or by using the shortcut ctrl + N. From here, making notes is relatively straightforward. Like other note-taking tools, Obsidian opens with a heading (which appears on the ribbon on the left of the screen). After that, type as normal!


Obsidian uses two ‘views’: one that allows content editing, and another that only allows for interaction with items you’ve added. The two modes can be switched between by clicking the book icon at the top right of the screen or with the shortcut ctrl + E.


Adding Media Content and Creating Folders


Adding media content to Obsidian is straightforward. Linking to a file will import it to a vault, and files can also be dragged into Obsidian. Only certain file types will visualise beyond a link (pdf, png, webp, jpg, jpeg, gif, bmp, svg, mp3, webm, wav, m4a, ogg, 3gp, flac, mp4, ogv, mov, mkv, and md). By default, media will be uploaded to the same folder as new notes, but this can be changed to any other folder within the vault. To do so, right-click on the intended folder and select ‘Set as attachment folder’. Doing so will ensure that your notes are kept tidy, and your attachments are kept together.


Formatting


Obsidian utilises Markdown syntax to help with formatting notes. While this can present a steep learning curve for more advanced formatting, the basics are easily picked up. The main pieces used for taking research notes are headings, text styling, quotes, and links.


A black UI reading 'No file is open'
The presented view upon creating a new Vault. With the ‘Add New Page’ button highlighted.

Headings are simple. A series of hashes are used for Heading Style 1, with an additional # added for every subsequent heading style. By default, Obsidian has six heading styles. Like heading styles in Microsoft Word, the higher the number, the smaller the text.


A black UI reading 'Heading Styles'
The various heading styles available in Obsidian

The means of styling text may be familiar to those who style their messages in WhatsApp. Different symbols are placed on either side of the text to style the text in different ways.


·        Bold is placed between four asterisks or four underscores – bold or bold

·        Italic is placed between two asterisks or two underscores – italic or italic

·        Strikethrough is placed between four tildes – ~~Strikethrough~~

·        Highlight is placed between four equal signs – ==highlight==

·        Bold and Italic are placed between six asterisks or underscores – ***Bold and italic*** or ___ Bold and italic___


Standard formatting shortcuts, like those in Microsoft Word, also work in Obsidian.

Quotes can be added simply by starting the paragraph with >; this indents the text and gives it a coloured border to the left of the text. This can also be useful for making quotations apparent and in singling out essential paragraphs.


Bullet points (or unordered lists) can be created by adding a dash, asterisk or plus sign before entering your text.


Numbered points (or ordered lists) can be created by adding a number and either a right bracket or full stop after (depending on style preference).


Task lists are also possible in Obsidian; they can be created by starting each list item with a hyphen, space, and another space enclosed within two square brackets ( - [ ] ). The lists can then be checked off, and the text in the paragraph after the square brackets will be struck through. Checking the list can be done in two ways: either by replacing the enclosed space with any character or simply by clicking the box.


Horizontal lines can also be added by placing three or more asterisks, hyphens or underscores on their line. These can be used to separate blocks of text or emphasise certain sections of your notes.


Comments can also be used in Obsidian but are only visible in the edit view. They are created by enclosing the comment text between four per cent signs. Its use in research notes is limited, but it can help place reminders without detracting from overall points.


Footnotes are also possible in Obsidian, but they are only visible as such when in read view. They are best used inline and referred to later in read view. They are created by placing a circumflex before enclosing the desired footnote next in square brackets. Note that it will appear exactly as that when in edit view but will format and function as a footnote when in read view. As Obsidian works on a single page per file, footnotes are more like endnotes than footnotes, appearing at the bottom of the file.


A black UI reading 'Formatting'
Formatting when seen in Edit View
Another black UI with text
Formatting when seen in Read View

There is also a helpful drop-down menu accessed by right-clicking, which allows you to access each of these formatting styles, alter heading styles and insert things like tables, dividing lines and even coding blocks.


Linking


Notes can be linked with links or tags. Links can be either internal or external. Tags function as a way of grouping files and making content more accessible.


Internal links can be created by typing two left square brackets, and selecting a file that appears, you can refine the options by starting to type. Links to headings and paragraphs are created in the same way, except you must add a hash to link to headings, or a circumflex to link to paragraphs. Links are case-insensitive but must not be pluralised – e.g. magazine and Magazine will link to the same file, but Magazine and Magazines will not.


External links can be created by adding an exclamation mark before the square brackets used in a link. This will embed the file into Obsidian. You can interact with this file provided it is an accepted file format (pdf, png, webp, jpg, jpeg, gif, bmp, svg, mp3, webm, wav, m4a, ogg, 3gp, flac, mp4, ogv, mov, mkv, and md).


Images can be added like other external files. By default, Obsidian will import the image as an Obsidian Attachment, which you may wish to sort into a separate folder. Their dimensions can be edited by adding a vertical line followed by width x height; you can also modify the width to maintain the original aspect ratio.


![[EPOCH_LOGO.png |500x100]]

![[EPOCH_LOGO.png |500]]


Links to websites are also possible, but can require some basic HTML coding if you want to embed the webpage into the file. Do not fret; the only part of the coding that changes each time is the URL you want to use. The code you want to use is:


<iframe

               width= 800

               height = 1000

               src=YOUR URL HERE>

</iframe>


The width and height values can also be modified to suit your needs, but the values given here match the width and height of the page in Obsidian (at least on my computer). Most websites need a width of about 1100 to display fully, but this will result in the frame sticking out beyond the text margins of the page. This is due to a default setting in Obsidian that ensures each line is more easily readable, which can be toggled off by going into settings>Editor>Readable line length. I recommend leaving this setting as default.


Some web pages are set up so that embedding is impossible. Links to such websites (and any other) can also be created as inline links. Unlike other link types, the text that will appear is enclosed in a single pair of square brackets, followed by the link enclosed in regular brackets.



All inline links can also be previewed by holding ctrl while hovering over the link, allowing you to see and interact with links easily without opening new windows or leaving your current file.


Obsidian File Properties: Tags and Aliases

 

Obsidian allows you to add several properties that influence how a file interacts with others. File properties can be accessed by using the shortcut ctrl + P and selecting ‘Add File Property’ or by selecting the three-dot icon at the top right of the tab and selecting ‘Add File Property’. Several options are available, including date, time, checklist, and number. We will focus on tags and aliases here as they are the most useful for researchers.


The Obsidian UI with an entry for Harold Godwinson
The properties view of an Obsidian page. Tags and Aliases are the most useful for researchers. Classes are also available to edit here, but they mostly alter appearances.

In Obsidian, tags are a powerful tool for organising your notes. You can assign keywords to your notes to quickly identify them. When you use a tag, you can quickly locate all the notes that share that same tag. Obsidian tags can include any keyword with at least one letter and no spaces. If you need to create a tag with multiple words, you can use a dash or underscore to separate them.


Aliases can simplify creating internal links by allowing you to link to the same file using different terms. This means you can link to the same file using various terms of your choice. For example, if you have a file called "Lancaster University," you could assign it aliases such as "University of Lancaster," "Lancaster Uni," "Lancs Uni," etc.


Using Obsidian Network Graphs

 

Network graphs have long been seen as complicated and inaccessible, so they have often been seen as the purview of data scientists and those studying social networks. Obsidian makes the process of creating network graphs easy. Rather than going through the traditional process of creating node and edge tables, which is time-consuming and often tricky with historical data, Obsidian creates its network graphs through its internal linking system. Obsidian Network Graphs allow users to quickly identify shared connections between sources, notes and attachments by creating a visualisation of the links between each. Like all network graphs, Obsidian’s network graphs are made up of nodes and edges. Nodes are the individual files that you have made, and edges represent the links between your files.


A network graph
An example of a Network Graph made by Obsidian. Note how pages with more links create larger nodes.

Organising these graphs into groups, and using queries to colour each node, allows you to gain deeper insights into how your research notes are linked. This can help you better understand the relationships between your primary and secondary sources, identify individual authors, and even categorise nodes based on where they are stored.


To assign groups in the graph view tab, click on the cogwheel below the three dots icon at the top right corner. Then, select 'Groups' and click on 'New group'. This will open a list of queries that can be used to determine the factor that defines the groups. You can either type in the queries or select from the dropdown list of tags and file paths.


Tags – tag:#INSERT TAG

Paths or File – path:”INSERT FILE PATH/FILE NAME”

Line or heading – line:(INSERT LINE)


The Groups Tab of Obsidian Graphs

Using Obsidian Canvases

 

The most helpful aspect of Obsidian for researchers is its built-in canvas feature, which lets you visualise how your notes work together, create visual plans for your work, and summarise a series of interlinked files. In the past, I have used these canvases for both thesis chapter plans and as a format for storing presentation notes before talks.


Canvases can be created by clicking ‘Create new canvas’ in the toolbar on the far left; it should be the third icon from the top. You will then be presented with a new, empty canvas with three options to add content: add card, add note from vault and add media from vault.


The opening screen of a new Canvas

Within the canvas, there are multiple ways to manipulate the cards. Each card can be personalised with various colours, resized, and repositioned as desired. Furthermore, the cards can be interconnected by dragging a line between the four circles on each card. While this connection is purely visual, it can be helpful when planning and summarising.


A drop down list or flowchart of historical figures
An example of an exported Canvas from Obsidian. The branding logo is fully optional.

Summary


Obsidian has been a gamechanger for storing my own research notes, helping me keep on top of stray references to figures, events and places that are either obscure enough to slip my mind, or that I wrote down so long ago I’ve forgotten about them. A host of advanced features haven’t been included here to present an introduction to the software and its basic principles. Obsidian has a fantastic community who create numerous plugins (additional features), themes and templates for users to take advantage of.


I hope you’ve found this tutorial helpful, keep an eye out for future EPOCH Tutorials!

 

Further tutorials on Obsidian are available on Obsidian’s Website.


 

Ed is a current PhD student at Lancaster University, his research focuses on spatial studies of early medieval stone sculpture of Irish Sea river valleys.


Twitter: @edjgm_

LinkedIn: Ed Moore




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