How the Index Card Cataloged the World
December 13, 2017 4:29 AM   Subscribe

Yet it never occurred to me, as I rehearsed my talking points more than a decade ago, that my index cards belonged to the very European history I was studying. The index card was a product of the Enlightenment, conceived by one of its towering figures: Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, physician, and the father of modern taxonomy. But like all information systems, the index card had unexpected political implications, too: It helped set the stage for categorizing people, and for the prejudice and violence that comes along with such classification.
posted by ellieBOA (15 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
Yes! Thanks for posting this!
posted by carter at 5:46 AM on December 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Digging into the Object Lessons site too, there's a ton of cool stuff there.
posted by carter at 5:54 AM on December 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

See also:

Paper Machines: About Cards & Catalogs, 1548-1929 by Markus Krajewski
posted by mfoight at 6:03 AM on December 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

And if you are interested in classifications and social categories:
Geof Bowker and Susan Leigh Star, Sorting Things Out.
posted by carter at 6:20 AM on December 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

posted by leotrotsky at 6:31 AM on December 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

This is why I just store my books all higgledy-piggledy. Sure I can never find anything, but it's the principle of the thing.
posted by happyroach at 6:33 AM on December 13, 2017 [6 favorites]

"To be governed is to be at every operation, at every transaction noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished."
- Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
posted by jcrcarter at 7:03 AM on December 13, 2017

It's interesting, and perhaps a bit disturbing, how technology changes the way we think and behave. We like to imagine that our minds are our own, formed by our own will, but really they're quite plastic and we can learn new modes of thought surprisingly quickly.

That said, I'm not sure it's really quite fair to blame the index card for racism. It was merely a tool that helped Linnaeus develop taxonomy. It was that, a systemic approach to taxonomy that really set things up for racism. A mental tool rather than a physical tool.
posted by sotonohito at 7:20 AM on December 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

I didn't know that the inventor of the modern system of biological taxonomy also invented the card catalogue. It's as if, I don't know, the guy who invented Linux also came up with, let's say, a source-code control system or something.
posted by acb at 7:41 AM on December 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

posted by Fizz at 8:06 AM on December 13, 2017

Strange that these appeared around the same time as punched cards. Could it have been that paper (in Europe¹) finally became cheap enough around the end of the 18th century that you could use it for something ephemeral?

¹: not so much in North America, apparently. Lack of paper mills + New England thrift likely meant missing out letters to save paper became the right thing to do, then Noah Webster uhoh …
posted by scruss at 8:21 AM on December 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

I was just wondering the other day about the origins of the card catalog. Thank you for the answer.
posted by Orlop at 9:42 AM on December 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

Regarding the digitization of paper and ink card catalogs, we owe much to pioneer Henriette Davidson Avram (October 7, 1919 – April 22, 2006):
...a computer programmer and systems analyst who developed the MARC format (Machine Readable Cataloging), the international data standard for bibliographic and holdings information in libraries. Avram's development of the MARC format in the late 1960s and early 1970s at the Library of Congress had a revolutionizing effect on the practice of librarianship, making possible the automation of many library functions and the sharing of bibliographic information electronically between libraries using pre-existing cataloging standards.
From NDI Talk at Collections as Data, October 12, 2016 by Kate Zwaard:
...Henriette and her team created the MARC format, a structure to contain bibliographic information for all forms of materials. This format was the keystone that made a revolution in information science possible. Because of her work, we can, with a few keystrokes, search the treasures of a library on the other lside of the earth.

...Ms. Avram herself combined two complex fields, computer programming and intricate cataloging practices to create a sea-change in how the public and scholars access library collections. Many of you who sit here may not remember using card catalogs, but this work was transformational. It made finding things much, much easier and allowed remote access to resources. I miss the smell of a card catalog, don’t you? But I don’t miss much else.
From Henriette's obituary at the Library of Congress:
The MARC format was in use at the Library of Congress by 1970, and within a decade most larger libraries in the country had converted to the automated system, abandoning their manual card files. Avram's innovations enabled libraries to exchange information more quickly, and in greater depth, than ever before. Interlibrary loans grew more common, as people could instantly learn where documents and other items were housed.

The current generation of the system, MARC 21, is the basis for library catalogs around the world, in more than a dozen languages. It remains essentially the same program that Avram designed four decades ago.
Bits and bytes aside, The Librarian of Congress Weighs In on Why Card Catalogs Matter by Erin Blakemore, Smithsonian, May 19, 2017 (note photo gallery at bottom of article):
Many of us who remember going to libraries and using the card catalog connect it with a sense of discovery. I have memories of flipping through the cards by subject and finding all the different books or other materials that had the kind of information I was looking for and those were always fun “eureka!” moments.

But it is not just about nostalgia. The card catalog was a revolutionary tool for organizing information. It was really the first search engine, so I think for younger generations it is an eye-opener to think about the written catalog and how far we have come in organizing data and making it findable.
Pick a card, any card.
posted by cenoxo at 3:00 PM on December 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Found Poetry Department:

I used card catalogues at my college in the early 70's to generate found poems. Some of them were pretty good. I'm sure you could do it on the internet these days, somehow, but finding text from the wooden drawers of library index cards and copying them by hand in a spiral notebook was analoguishly wonderful.
posted by kozad at 8:00 PM on December 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

I've always admired the kind of people who could use notebooks. My late poet mentor/antagonist was fond of those speckled composition books, and I have artist friends who are able to successfully use the variations on Moleskines and their less-pricey knock-offs, but there's a commitment to a fixed sequence of things inherent in the bound book that I find mortifying. I need some of my ideas and thoughts to go away forever, not stay locked to the bindings of a concrete progression of thoughts on paper, and so I live by the index card.

As a performer and a writer, I love being able to atomize big ideas into collections of smaller units on cards, to have the freedom to shuffle for the inspiration that comes from chance processes, or to just order, then ponder, then reorder, then ponder, until I arrive at a flow that feels right.

These days, as I've drifted away from doing fully scripted spoken word performances to more natural (to me) hybrids of familiar elements within a framework of a narrative order that helps me to channel stories that just sort of emerge in a stream while still striking waypoints on the path to a complete unit of story, I've found that a single 3x5 card covered completely with keywords and turning places covers 21-25 minutes of on-stage story. I rarely use the card(s) in the glare of the stage lights, because the process of writing out and rewriting the cards to get the points covered is itself a focusing ritual, but knowing that there's a road map there on which I can find myself if a momentary tangent goes a hair too far off the beaten path frees me from the anxiety that I'll get lost or go long or wander into something random and uninteresting to an audience...and this has made performing almost completely effortless for me, so I perform anytime and anywhere someone offers me slot in a program.

So much of my life is energized and organized (for the better) by the digital realm, and relying on digital tools to cover the when, where, and who aspects of my existence has improved how I function as a human being, but when it comes to the grit and grime in the workshop of ideas, nothing will do but a stack of little paper cards and a pencil with a good eraser, because the physical act of synaesthesia to transmute the internal lightning storms of thinking into something that can be shared and communicated seems, for me, to require an interim medium that is as easily shuffled as ideas.

So there's always a little stack in my pocket, neatly bound with a single extra-small binder clip, and all the stories in the world left to be transcribed and organized.
posted by sonascope at 7:11 AM on December 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

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