Index Cards Yesterday, Today, and Forever

Though I have all manner of software available to me, I still prefer to keep a set of index cards related to dissertation research. Cards for all the people who I discuss, card for concepts I’m tracing, cards for this and that. It is easier for me to make connections when I’ve got an actual deck of cards I can lay out, play around with, flip through to jog my memory. Japan is a country that still loves stationery (and fax machines), so my usage of index cards seems less of an affectation here than it might in the States. But I was pleased to see that master writer John McPhee, who does use computers, also still relies on index cards.

McPhee gathers every single scrap of reporting on a given project — every interview, description, stray thought and research tidbit — and types all of it into his computer. He studies that data and comes up with organizing categories: themes, set pieces, characters and so on. Each category is assigned a code. To find the structure of a piece, McPhee makes an index card for each of his codes, sets them on a large table and arranges and rearranges the cards until the sequence seems right. Then he works back through his mass of assembled data, labeling each piece with the relevant code. On the computer, a program called “Structur” arranges these scraps into organized batches, and McPhee then works sequentially, batch by batch, converting all of it into prose. (In the old days, McPhee would manually type out his notes, photocopy them, cut up everything with scissors, and sort it all into coded envelopes. His first computer, he says, was “a five-thousand-dollar pair of scissors.”)

Index cards were, of course, critical to the foundation of information science.

Dewey’s wasn’t the only index card-based classification system over the years. The Library of Congress has its own letter-based system. The number-based Universal Decimal Classification, created by Paul Otlet at the turn of the nineteenth century, is a more detailed version of Dewey’s system. It had to be, considering it was created to catalog everything ever published.

Long before the verb “to google,” Otlet and his friend Henri La Fontaine set out to develop their own search engine in Brussels in 1895. They wanted to create the go-to place for everyone to find information on absolutely anything. It would work just like Google does today—you submit a query and get links to relevant sources of information. In the 1895 version, you’d send queries by mail or telegraph and get index cards with bibliographies in return.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s