We’re pretty laid back, especially for Saturday mornings, so grab your favorite beverage and join us to talk about reading and intellectual history. If you’re joining late, feel free to stop by and join in knowing that you can catch up as we continue along for the coming month or so.
While doing this, I’ve had a hard target search for available card index files for the better part of two years. I’ve purchased a large metal one and a small handful of open wooden desktop models. I’ve shied away from some of the wooden 2-6 drawer models because they’re listed for exorbitant prices on eBay, Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, and other online retailers where sellers think they’re worth far more than they really are. Hint: you’ll find lots of listings, but you won’t see very many actual sales—a good indication that the market is dramatically overpriced.
However, this past week I saw a reasonable listing for a two drawer quarter sawn Shaw-Walker card index made for 4×6″ index cards for $32.95. Since cardboard boxes sell for almost $20 each, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity, so I made the minimum bid and naturally won the auction uncontested.
The box showed up yesterday afternoon and had roughly the wear I expected it would. It took some serious elbow grease, but I managed to clean about a half century of dirt and grime off of it, and it looks significantly better already. I don’t think I’ll do a full refurbishment of it, preferring to appreciate some of the natural patina. I will probably give it another solid cleaning later this week and then a coating of wax or furniture polish to shine it up. I’m wavering on polishing what I suspect are probably bronze drawer pulls and leaving their dark oxidized beauty.
For a small, solid wooden box, it does bring an inordinate amount of joy.
While showing some wear, particularly to the top, it still has most of its original Shaw-Walker gilded logo. The box is 15 5/8 x 14 11/16 x 6 3/8 inches, 14.6 pounds, and each drawer has 11 3/4 inches of space for cards, so it should comfortably fit about 3,300 index cards. I intend to use it as my day-to-day desktop card index and split the two drawers between my card-based productivity system (based on the Memindex) and my zettelkasten practice. The balance of my notes will go into either my Arca Studiorum or possibly another metal card index I’ve had my eye on for a while, but which needs some significant restoration.
In addition to the thrill of having a new analog piece of office equipment, another unexpected benefit it will impart by being on my desk is that it seems to be just the perfect sort of height for placing my laptop onto so that my camera is just that little bit higher for better video conference call framing. Now I won’t need to drag down the dictionaries or Wolfram’s New Kind of Science off the shelf anymore.
Coda: I just made a purchase of two wooden library card charging trays which will hopefully arrive later this week. More on that after they arrive…
Combined with this there was a resurgence in mid-century design esthetic which had some furniture restorers and designers buying and doing full (and very pretty) expensive restorations of older 20s-40s versions which sold at auctions for $4,500 and up. Given the rarity of some of these older, fine furniture versions along with the work in restoration and the limited market only those who had a tinge of nostalgia and money to burn made purchases which resulted in a limited number of actual sales.
These two factors mean that almost all of the listings for library card catalogs are heavily overvalued on eBay, Facebook Marketplace, Craig’s List, Etsy, etc. The fine furniture restorations have set an artificially high price point which some feel theirs must match as well. The difference in quality however is stark. Because of their size and lack of functionality, there is a relative glut of them on the market which all bear inflated prices. Those who originally spent inordinate amounts for them, feel they will still have that same value to others, so they list them online for inflated prices.
I’ve been closely watching the online “market” for them for over a year and see the same several dozen or more listed across the country usually in the range of about $30-$60 per drawer. Many are listed as local pick up only, which further hampers the overall market. This also brings up the issue of shipping a 60 drawer card catalog which can easily run in the $800-$1,500+ range which usually requires additional shipping logistics involved with freight. Most catalogs are already overpriced, but adding an additional $1000 tax on top is a bridge too far for all but the highest end of the market. Some platforms like Etsy and eBay which take cuts of the final sale also add to the cost of the sale (at least to the owner).
In the year and a half or more that I’ve been watching, I’ve only seen a handful of actual sales, all of which were local, and many of which were in the Los Angeles area. All of these sales have been for listings which eventually were reduced down to the $15 per drawer range. One local sale was in Wisconsin was for $10 per drawer (a 30 drawer file) and another in Los Angeles was for $12.50 per drawer (on a 20 drawer file).
A note on condition
Outside of a small handful of fine furniture listings in the $4,000+ range, most ex-Library card catalogs are generally very well worn and not in great condition which makes them less valuable as decoration pieces. In fact, many are often missing their original card catalog rods, have dents, dings, or other cosmetic issues. Some are missing drawers or have replacement drawers which don’t match. Some may be slightly mismatched having been purchased in different eras as modular pieces and put together. Frequently they have been modified from their original states to include inserts or other material to fill in the holes which where almost standard in the bottoms of the drawers.
If you’re in the market, know that it is tremendously inflated, a fact which most sellers are aware of as they’ve got them listed, some for many years, not resulting in actual sales. If you really want one and find it in a reasonable condition, I highly recommend making an offer for it at about $10 per drawer and potentially go up to $15. Anything higher than that is overpaying based on actual recent market conditions. If you have the money to burn, feel free, but keep in mind that like many others in the past, once the initial nostalgia has passed, you’ve probably got a large piece of relatively non-functional furniture in your home.
It’s not common, but some government auction sites will list card catalogs for auction from time to time. Because they actively want to sell them these can be purchased in the $2-10 per drawer range or less. Often they tend toward the larger 60+ drawer range, aren’t in good condition, or need to be picked up and shipped to your final destination, usually within a few days of purchase as the original owners don’t or explicitly won’t handle shipping. These are likely to need some restoration work to be decorative pieces in many homes.
If you want something brand new, you can check out Brodart, which is the only remaining card catalog manufacturer/sales firm I’m aware of in the United States. Their systems are modular, so you can pick and choose what you’d like to have. The only caveat is that they start at $1,700 for their smallest 9 drawer model and can go up to $11,648 (plus shipping) for a full 60 drawer model. The other potential drawback, for some, is that they are made of a mixture of wood, metal and plastic versus the all wood and metal fittings of older vintage models.
If you’re in the market primarily for nostalgic reasons, then you might also consider looking at some of the older desktop wooden card catalogs which are often much less expensive, take up far less space, and can be wonderfully decorative. Some of the smaller two to six drawer desktop models have the benefit of potentially serving as recipe boxes or paper rolodexes, zettelkasten, or simply small office storage. Here again, the online markets are likely to be heavily overpriced with 2 drawer models being continually listed at $150 and 4 drawer models in the $250-400 range. These sellers know that these prices don’t result in actual sales as they’ve been sitting on them for long periods of time (presumably hoping to get lucky). Here I’d recommend you make offers in the $20-30 per drawer range to see what you can find. Another benefit is that these smaller models are far cheaper to ship across the country. For additional advice on these, see: The Ultimate Guide to Zettelkasten Index Card Storage.
Three of the four sections are all similarly made out of oak and appear to be co-contemporaneous in terms of style and materials (solid wood and metal). The final section, a five drawer insert is obviously of later manufacture and while stained brown with what appears to potentially be a mahogany frontispiece, has plastic trays with metal fittings and what appear to be galvanized steel card stops. The other sections comprise a low level table-like support with four legs; a 5×3 drawer section; and a 2 inch thick top which covers the holes in the top of the modular drawer sections and provides a flat surface. The top section also features the traditional Gaylord Bros., Inc. name plate.
Given the subtle intricacies of the construction, I’ll provide some photos of how the pieces dovetail together as well as the smaller mechanics and features in a future post.
Fully assembled the piece is 33″ wide x 17 3/8″ deep and stands 36 1/2″ tall. With internal drawer space of 13 3/4″ for the 15 drawers and 14 1/2″ for the other 5, there should be space for approximately 38,715 index cards.
I’m thrilled that all the fittings seem to be original, and all the drawers have their original card catalog rods. The drawers on the 5×3 drawer section have a spring loaded mechanism under the front of the drawer which when pushed to the left side unlocks the card catalog rods which have beefy brass knobs. The 5×1 drawer section rods are unlocked by pulling up on them slightly from the bottom and then pulling them straight out.
I’ll have to do some more in-depth research of old Gaylord Bros. catalogs, but based on materials, manufacture, and style, I’m going to guess that the older portion of the card catalog dates from the mid-30s to the 1940s, while the newer section is likely late 60s. The overall size and standardized, modular structure allows the pieces to sit together in quite a clever way and were made over a long enough period of time that different pieces from disparate decades still work well together. While the wood grain, stain, and even fittings are all slightly different, the to different styles work fairly well together.
For those who appreciated my recent article Market analysis of library card catalogs in 2023, I’m thrilled to report that I purchased this stunning beauty—one of the prettiest, oldest, and best conditioned catalogs I’ve seen listed—for a very reasonable $250. I suspect the seller, who is a vintage collector, seasoned eBay seller, and is well aware of the market, may have gone even lower, but I was happy to overpay a little. Given the online market, something like this would usually list for between $1,200 and $1,600, but would likely sit unsold and unloved for years.
I love the style and the condition, and it does make for a fantastic little piece of fine furniture with a lovely patina. Unexpectedly, someone else in the house may be even more enamored of it than I, which bodes well for its actual long term care and use. Currently it will serve as an archive storage for some of my 3 x 5″ index card note collection in addition to storage of a partial library card cataloging for some of our physical books. I also have cards from an older rolodex and a small recipe collection that will take up residence. Other empty drawers will house a small wine selection along with several bottles of scotch until they’re pushed out by the growing collection of cards.
Other than general maintenance I don’t think I’ll be doing any other restoration work on it beyond the small fixes I’ve already made.
On the top of the catalog, in addition to space for writing notes, I’ll keep one of my two desktop card indexes and a 1948 Smith-Corona Clipper.
What would you do with a library card catalog?
Merchants and traders have a waste book (Sudelbuch, Klitterbuch in German I believe) in which they enter daily everything they purchase and sell, messily, without order. From this, it is transferred to their journal, where everything appears more systematic, and finally to a ledger, in double entry after the Italian manner of bookkeeping, where one settles accounts with each man, once as debtor and then as creditor. This deserves to be imitated by scholars. First it should be entered in a book in which I record everything as I see it or as it is given to me in my thoughts; then it may be entered in another book in which the material is more separated and ordered, and the ledger might then contain, in an ordered expression, the connection sand explanations of the material that flow from it. 
—Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Notebook E, #46, 1775–1776, as translated in Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: Philosophical Writings
In this single paragraph quote from his own notebook, Lichtenberg, using the model of Italian bookkeepers of the 18th century, broadly outlines almost all of the note taking technique suggested by Sönke Ahrens in How to Take Smart Notes.
While he doesn’t use the same terms, he encourages writing down and keeping fleeting notes as well as literature notes. (Keeping academic references would have been commonplace by this time.) He follows up with rewriting and expanding on the original note to create additional “explanations” and even “connections” (links) to create what Ahrens describes as permanent notes or which some would call evergreen notes.
Lichtenberg’s version calls for the permanent notes to be “separated and ordered” and while he may have kept them in book format himself, it’s easy to see from Konrad Gessner’s suggestion at the use of slips centuries before, that one could easily put their permanent notes on index cards (“separated”) and then number and index or categorize them (“ordered”).
The only serious missing piece of Luhmann’s version of a zettelkasten then are:
- the ideas of filing related ideas nearby to each other, though the idea of creating connections between notes is immediately adjacent to this, and
- his numbering system, which was broadly based on the popularity of Melvil Dewey’s decimal system and early 20th Century German filing practices (Aktenzeichen).
It may bear noticing that John Locke’s indexing system for commonplace books was suggested originally in French in 1685, and later in English in 1706. Given it’s popularity, it is not unlikely that Lichtenberg would have been aware of it.
Further, given that Lichtenberg’s very popular published waste books were known to have influenced Leo Tolstoy, Albert Einstein, Andre Breton, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, it would not be hard to imagine that Niklas Luhmann would have also been aware of them.
This short paragraph certainly says something interesting about the note taking methods of Lichtenberg’s time.
Lichtenberg, Georg Christoph. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: Philosophical Writings. Edited and translated by Steven Tester. SUNY Series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy, 1.0. State University of New York Press, 2012
Lichtenberg, Georg Christoph (2000). The Waste Books. New York: New York Review Books Classics. ISBN 978-0940322509.)
- Did Lichtenberg number the entries in his own (original) waste books? This would be early evidence toward the practice of numbering notes for future reference. Based on this text, it’s obvious that the editor numbered the translated notes for this edition, were they also Lichtenberg’s numbering, or added later by other scholars/editors?
- Is there evidence that Lichtenberg knew of Locke’s indexing system? Did his waste books have an index?
Buying cards in bulk groups of a 1,000 for the going rate of about 2 cents each, I’m looking at a lifetime index card bill of around $1,700 to fill it all up.
If I look at a 30 year time span, I’m all in for about $2,500 (I’m adding a bit for pens/pencils/ink) versus an annual subscription to Roam Research (currently $165/year) or for Evernote (currently $170/year) both of which would put me at about $5,000 (presuming either is around in 30 years.)
I really ought to be set for a while, but I do have my eye on one or two other stunning pieces…. #ZKLife
The good news is that I’ve traded my expensive notebook/journal habit for a somewhat less expensive card index habit. Now I can spend the difference on more books and fountain pens. 😁
But I would do less than justice to Mr. Adler’s achievement if I left the matter there. The Syntopicon is, in addition to all this, and in addition to being a monument to the industry, devotion, and intelligence of Mr. Adler and his staff, a step forward in the thought of the West. It indicates where we are: where the agreements and disagreements lie; where the problems are; where the work has to be done. It thus helps to keep us from wasting our time through misunderstanding and points to the issues that must be attacked. When the history of the intellectual life of this century is written, the Syntopicon will be regarded as one of the landmarks in it.
—Robert M. Hutchins, p xxvi The Great Conversation: The Substance of a Liberal Education. Volume 1 of The Great Books of the Western World. 1952.
Adler’s Syntopicon has been briefly discussed in the forum.zettelkasten.de space before. However it isn’t just an index compiled into two books which were volumes 2 and 3 of The Great Books of the Western World, it’s physically a topically indexed card index or a grand zettelkasten surveying Western culture. Its value to readers and users is immeasurable and it stands as a fascinating example of what a well-constructed card index might allow one to do even when they don’t have their own yet. For those who have only seen the Syntopicon in book form, you might better appreciate pictures of it in slipbox form prior to being published as two books covering 2,428 pages:
Adler spoke of practicing syntopical reading, but anyone who compiles their own card index (in either analog or digital form) will realize the ultimate value in creating their own syntopical writing or what Robert Hutchins calls participating in “The Great Conversation” across twenty-five centuries of documented human communication. Adler’s version may not have had the internal structure of Luhmann’s zettelkasten, but it definitely served similar sorts of purposes for those who worked on it and published from it.
LIFE. “The 102 Great Ideas: Scholars Complete a Monumental Catalog.” January 26, 1948. https://books.google.com/books?id=p0gEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA92&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=2#v=onepage&q&f=false. Google Books.
Hutchins, Robert M. The Great Conversation: The Substance of a Liberal Education. Edited by Robert M. Hutchins and Mortimer J. Adler. 1st ed. Vol. 1. 54 vols. Great Books of the Western World. Chicago, IL: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1952.
Originally published on July 13, 2023 at 11:24PM
Ryan Holliday is one of the few I’ve seen in the wild who has mentioned custom making cards, usually done on a per-project (book) basis where he’ll put a header title at the top of his note cards. Example: https://www.instagram.com/p/CeWV6xBuZUN/?hl=en
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Other options could include doing custom/personalized stamps. (I have a date stamp handy for quickly stamping the dates of creation/updating in the corner of cards.)
I’m curious what suppliers/manufacturers folks have researched/used? What were your experiences? What sort of templates or printing did you use on them? Paper weight? Did you go Grid, blank, dot, lined, or all of the above? If you were looking to purchase something for yourself, what would you want?