Leveraging Backlinks in Obsidian and Readwise Export

Resurfacing knowledge with backlinks

One of the promises of the new generation of note taking tools, or Tools for Thought is the ability to resurface related information we captured in the past in our notes with new notes we are developing now.

What are backlinks?

Backlinks are at the core of knowledge resurfacing. Simply put, a backlink is a link from one document to another document. But instead of that link being unidirectional, the Tool for Thought treats a link as bidirectional. Of course, your note taking tool has to support backlinks, and thankfully more and more do.

Obsidian’s visual rendering on connections between notes in one of my vaults

Creating Backlinks

To benefit from this feature, as you take notes your goal is to link more content from one note to another note. This requires some effort, thinking about other notes you have and then creating links to them. The extra effort is an investment in your future self.

My personal notes related to COVID and the yellow dots are Readwise highlights on this subject.

Customizing Readwise export to Obsidian

Readwise supports exporting your reading highlights to a number of Tools for Thought, like Obsidian, Roam and Notion. In this article we are going to customize the default export of Readwise to Obsidian with the goal of increasing the number of links in our Obsidian notes vault.

Requirements

For implementing the technique suggested in this article, you need to have the following:

File name

The first thing to think about is the name of the file Readwise will create for us when it exports highlights for a specific document.

  • Common Probability Errors to Avoid-fs.blog.md
  • Accidental Genius-Mark Levy.md
  • This Image Gets Posted A…-@jasoncrawford on Twitter.md

Sync Notification

Readwise creates a log file with all new highlights imported into your vault. With each each sync after the first sync, Readwise appends to the log file with new highlights you have created while reading recently. We are going to slightly modify the default Readwise configuration to get better links back to the files.

Default sync notification for Readwise
Increasing the linking in the sync notification log
# {{date|date('Y-m-d')}} {{time}} — Synced {{num_highlights}} highlight{{num_highlights|pluralize}} from {{num_books}} document{{num_books|pluralize}}.
{% for book in books %}- [[{{date|date('Y-m-d')}}]]: {{ book.num_highlights_added}} highlights from [[{{book.title}}-{{book.author}}]]
{%endfor %}
- [[{{date|date('Y-m-d')}}]]: {{ book.num_highlights_added}} highlights from [[{{book.title}}-{{book.author}}]]
  • [[{{date|date(‘Y-m-d’)}}]] — first we see that the date is included, surrounded by brackets [[ ]]. This is our first link.
  • {{ book.num_highlights_added}} highlights from — then the number of exported highlights.
  • [[{{book.title}}-{{book.author}}]] — followed by a link to the actual file created by Readwise.

The Results

The following picture is the sync log that Readwise appends to in my Obsidian vault:

Readwise sync log

Toggle on backlinks

To enable the backlinks view in the document, use the options menu while viewing the document and select “Toggle backlinks in document” as shown in the next picture:

Toggling on backlinks in the document

Backlink Power!

As demonstrated in these instructions, we can optimize the export configuration in Readwise to make backlinks work better in Obsidian. By adding a few additional breadcrumbs in the form of links, we improve connectivity between notes and increase the chance for resurfacing these connections later.

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