Custom Zettelkasten Stationery?

For those who have a significant paper-based zettelkasten practice, have you considered commissioning custom made cards? There are a variety of stationers who do custom work and one could also purchase directly from Chinese manufacturers to get costs down by buying in bulk.

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:

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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?

Mortimer J. Adler’s Syntopicon: a topically arranged collaborative slipbox

Robert Hutchins, former dean of Yale Law School (1927–1929), president (1929–1945) and chancellor (1945–1951) of the University of Chicago, closes his preface to his grand project with Mortimer J. Adler by giving pride of place to Adler’s Syntopicon. It touches on the unreasonable value of building and maintaining a zettelkasten:

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 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:

Two page spread of Life Magazine article with the title "The 102 Great Ideas" featuring a photo of 26 people (including Mortimer J. Adler) behind 102 card indexes with categorized topical labels from Angel to Will.

Mortimer J. Adler holding a pipe in his left hand and mouth posing in front of dozens of boxes of index cards with topic headwords including "law", "love", "life", "sin", "art", "democracy", "citizen", "fate", etc.

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. 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

🗃️ I just did a quick calculation and I’ve purchased 2 large card index cabinets, and 5 small indexes (which includes some small desktop trays and a 2 drawer wooden index) for a total of $636.52. It gives me about 65 linear feet of index card space which should hold approximately 108,000 index cards. In physical storage cost (just for the cabinet, not for the square footage), it comes out to spending about 6/10 of a cent per card. 

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….

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. 😁

A One Paragraph Summary of Ahrens’ How to Take Smart notes from 1775-76

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. [46]
—Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Notebook E, , 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.)

Open questions

  • 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?

Midcentury Gaylord Bros., Inc. Oak Modular Library Card Catalog Acquisition

In a quest to expand on my analog office practices, last Saturday, I drove out to Rancho Cucamonga to purchase a spectacular midcentury Gaylord Bros., Inc. modular library card catalog. I spent parts of the week making some minor tweaks (gluing some broken wood rails) and cleaning it up in the garage. Last night, as a present and to celebrate the start of Autumn, I brought it into the house to reassemble it. It now lives in the dining room adjacent to the the office and near both the bar as well as the library that others in the household prefer to call our formal living room. I honestly didn’t pre-plan it this way, but given our floorplan, it is sitting in the “heart” of our home.

Multi-sectional 20 drawer wooden library card catalog in the corner of a room with white walls and a hardwood floor. Oblique view of Gaylord Bros. library card catalog in the corner of a room with colorful paintings hanging on the opposing walls.

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.

Metal name plate nailed into oak. It features the company name Gaylord Bros., Inc. (in a large stylized script) below which reads "Syracuse, N. Y. - Stockton, Calif." and next to which appears a circular logo with entwined letters G and B around which is written "Established 1896".

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.

View of the bottom of a card catalog drawer with a finger actuating a spring loaded metal lever to unlock the card catalog's metal rod. Close up view of the metal bracket for holding a card catalog rod. The rod is missing so that one can look into the hole to see the internal locking mechanism.

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.

Library card cabinet drawer with a metal drawer pull labeled with a tiny red heart

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. 

Oblique angle of a bottle of Glenmorangie scotch and two crystal old fashioned glasses in open adjoining drawers of a library card catalog
Surely this is what Hemingway would have done?!

Angle on a row of five library card catalog drawers open with bottles of wine displayed in each.

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

Close up of Gaylord Bros. library card catalog with a smaller desktop card index and black Smith-Corona Clipper typewriter on top

What would you do with a library card catalog?

Market analysis of library card catalogs in 2023

As card catalogs lost their functionality in libraries and were de-acquisitioned there was a wave of nostalgia which caused people to purchase them, often in auctions, at higher than expected prices. Once they had them, most of these purchasers realized that they didn’t have functional uses in their homes for them (beyond wine or liquor bottle storage, small crafts, or use as a zettelkasten, which seem to be the only reasonable upcycling use cases I’ve seen and the last seems to be very rare and niche). They sit and take up space for very little value in return beyond some esthetic beauty and nostalgia. As a result many soured on their ownership. Most owners naturally want to recoup their original purchase price thinking that relative rarity will save them.

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 bottle of red wine nestled into a drawer of a library card catalog

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.

A two drawer wooden card index sitting on a wooden table

Shaw-Walker Two Drawer Quarter Sawn Wooden Card Index File for 4 x 6″ Cards

Many may recall that I’ve been refinishing vintage mid-century furniture for over a decade now. I’ve also been more cognizant of converting my commonplace book practice into a more Luhmann-artig zettelkasten one

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.[1][2] 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.

Side view of a two drawer Shaw-Walker card index with the drawers slightly opened.

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.

Two drawers pulled slightly open on a 2 drawer card index showing the tab dividers and index cards inside

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.

A close up of the worn gold and black painted Shaw-Walker label on the top of a wooden card index

Dirty white rag with a variety of black spots on it from cleaning a wooden card index

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…

I’m in a book club (comprised of academics, historians, inveterate note takers, commonplacers, zettelkasten users, and lifelong learners) that is just starting the 1972 (or later) revised edition of Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren’s How to Read a Book. Our first Zoom session covering chapters 1-5 is Saturday, September 9th at 8:00 am (Pacific). Email Dan with the details at the original listing to get the details for joining or DM me directly.

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.

A year of Bullet Journaling on Index Cards inspired by the Memindex Method

I’m just wrapping up a year of maintaining my bullet journal practice using index cards instead of the more popular notebook form factor. It’s heavily inspired by the century+ old Memindex method.


Sample bullet journal using index cards featuring a daily card with schedule and to do list items sitting next to a card index and a Pilot Hi-Tec C Coleto multipen

Card index daily journal and planner with 4 x 6" index cards separated by divider tabs labeled from Aug through Jul of following year.

Green canvas Flatty Works canvas envelope-style case with a clear plastic front through which one can see a handful of 4 x 6" index card dividers and index cards.

Vocabulary notebooks, Criminally Insane Asylum Patients, Zettelkasten, the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, and Digital Dictionaries

A Sixth Grade Vocabulary Notebook

The sixth grade language arts class at the school in Altadena, CA, which my daughter attends, has a weekly set of vocabulary exercises which they keep in a simple composition notebook. Each week the teacher picks two vocabulary words (eg: passage, intelligent) and throughout the week the students fill in bits of knowledge about the word itself. On Monday they write down the word, a preliminary definition of it in their own words, a quick sketch or drawing of their perception of the word, and any prior knowledge they have of it. On Tuesday they revisit the words and look up dictionary definitions and write them down in their notebooks. On Wednesday they compose an original sentence using the words. Thursday finds them filling in spaces under each word with their morphologies, and variations with prefixes and suffixes. Finally on Friday they complete the weekly exercise by writing down synonyms and antonyms for the week’s words.

When I saw their notebooks at a recent open house night, it immediately reminded me of a now partially forgotten lexicographer’s and grammarian’s practices of excerpting (ars excerpendi) and collecting examples of sentences and words on slips of paper. Examples of this can be seen in the editing and creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae (Latin for Thesaurus of the Latin Language), and the Wörterbuch der ägyptischen Sprache (German for Dictionary of the Egyptian Language).

I first became aware of the practice when reading Simon Winchester’s entertaining book The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. In the book , Winchester describes the pigeonhole and slip system that Oxford professor James Murray and collaborators used to create the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The editors of the dictionary put out a call to readers to note down interesting everyday words they found in their reading along with example sentences and source references. They then collected these words alphabetically into pigeonholes and from here were able to collectively compile their magisterial dictionary which uses the collected example sentences. While tangentially about the creation of the OED, the heart of the fascinating story in the book focuses on Dr. William C. Minor, a Civil War veteran and a convicted murderer living in Britain in the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, who began a long written correspondence with James Murray by sending in over ten thousand slips with words from his personal reading. Many years went by between the two men before the dictionary editor realized that his collaborator was in an insane asylum. The 1998 book was ultimately turned into the 2019 movie starring Mel Gibson and Sean Penn.

Movie poster for The Professor and the Madman featuring large period photos of both Sean Penn and Mel Gibson comprising most of the image with a silhouette of a large castle-like sanitorium with a sun setting below them.

Thesaurus Linguae Latinae

Somewhat similar to the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary which predated it is the ongoing compilation of the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae (TLL). An academic research project begun in 1894 and projected to be finished by a team of international scholars sometime around 2050, the TLL is a massive dictionary written entirely in Latin which contains every instance of every known Latin word in every known medium (manuscripts, scrolls, artworks, coins, buildings, monuments, graffiti, etc.) from the beginning of the language down to the 2nd century CE and from then on, every lexicographically significant instance from that time until the 6th century CE.

The Thesaurus Linguae Latinae used the Meusel system for creating zettel (a German word meaning slip) by utilizing double folio sheets onto which they copied text in hectographic ink which can be reproduced by lithography before cutting them up into individual slips. It took approximately five years of collecting and excerpting material before the researchers of the TLL began writing “articles”, by which they mean individual entries in their dictionary of Latin words. Because of the time-consuming work to research and write individual articles, researchers are individually credited within the Thesaurus for their work on individual words.

Between the 2nd and 6th centuries CE, the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae doesn’t excerpt every single word in written Latin, just what the researchers thought was lexicographically significant. As an example, they didn’t excerpt all of Saint Augustine’s works because if they had, the collection would have been approximately 50% larger because Augustine was such a prolific writer.

The magisterial zettelkasten (German for slip box) which powers the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae is befittingly housed on the top floors of the Residenz, the former palace of the Bavarian royal family, now a part of the Bavarian Academy (Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften) in Munich, Germany.

slip for the word sentio
An example slip in the TLL for the word “sentio”.

The slips in the TLL’s collection are organized alphabetically by headword (or catchword) in a box in the top right hand side of the card and then secondarily by their appearance or publication in chronological time, which is indicated in a box on the top left of each slip. The number of copies of each slip is written in the bottom left hand corner and circled. Within the text excerpts on the cards themselves, occurrences of the word are underlined in red.

Basic statistics regarding the Thesaurus:

  • comprised of approximately 55,000 ancient Latin vocabulary words
    • 10,000,000+ slips
    • stored in about 6,500 boxes
    • with approximately 1,500 slips per box
  • excerpted from a library of 32,000 volumes
  • contributors: 375 scholars from 20 different countries, with:
    • 12 Indo-European language specialists
    • 8 romance language specialists
    • 100 proof-readers
  • approximately 44,000 words published in their dictionary already
    • published content: 70% of the entire vocabulary
    • print run: 1,350 copies
    • Publisher: consortium of 35 academies from 27 countries on 5 continents
  • Longest remaining words which remain to be compiled into the dictionary
    • non / 37 boxes of ca. 55,500 slips
    • qui, quae, quod / 65 boxes of ca. 96,000 slips
    • sum, esse, fui / 54.5 boxes of ca. 81,750 slips
    • ut / 35 boxes of ca. 52,500 slips

As a point of comparison, the upper end of prolific academic researchers and note takers who use index card collections for their lifelong research (25-40 year careers) have compiled collections of 90,000 (Niklas Luhmann), 70,000+ (Gotthard Deutsch), 30,000 (Hans Blumenberg), 27,000+ (S.D. Goitein) and 12,500 slips (Roland Barthes). This means that there are individual Latin words in the TLL have more slips than these researchers produced in their research lifetimes.

A sample of the note cards being used to compile the TLL. Courtesy of Samuel Beckelhymer.

Living languages

While many think of Latin as a “dead language”, something one notices quickly about the articles in the TLL is that words changed meanings over the span of time which they were in use. Linguists call this change in word meaning over time semantic shift. Many articles focus on these subtle changes and different meanings over time. Often words with only a few hundred attestations in the corpus of the language will be quoted and cited in articles about them with every example of use along with their contexts to help highlight these subtleties. Just like people had the choice of which words to use in the ancient world, we have those same choices today and this is where the use of modern dictionaries and thesauruses can make our words and word choices more exciting.

Normally, a dictionary just tells you what words mean—and of course we do that—but the scale of the project gives us the space and opportunity to say what we’re not sure of too. This is important because it leaves the door open for further scholarship and it gives the reader choices rather than dictating to them what to think. The dictionary can be a catalyst for more research and this is what makes the dictionary a living thing.—⁠⁠Adam Gitner, a TLL scholar

Slip box for the word ‘requiro’ © Adam Gitner
TLL slip archive © Adam Gitner

For those interested in more details on the TLL, Kathleen Coleman’s presentation on YouTube is a fantastic resource and primer on what is in it, how they built it and current work:

TLL Podcast and the Wordhord

Based on the history and usage of the Latin word horreum, which is featured in the first episode of the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae podcast, I can’t help but think that not only is the word ever so apropos for an introduction to some of the TLL, but it does quite make an excellent word for translating the idea of card index in English or Zettelkasten from German into Latin: “My horreum is a storehouse or treasury for my thoughts and ideas which nourishes my desire to discover and build upon my knowledge.” One might also notice that the Latin word horreum is also cognate with the fun Old English word “wordhord” that one encounters in classics like Beowulf and which roughly translates as one’s brain or their memory, especially for words.

Wörterbuch der ägyptischen Sprache (A Dictionary of the Egyptian Language)

Like the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae the Wörterbuch der ägyptischen Sprache was an international collaborative zettelkasten project. Started in 1897, it was finally published as five volumes in 1926.

The structure of the filing system for the Wörterbuch der ägyptischen Sprache (Wb) was designed based on the work done for the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae started three years earlier. Texts in the collection were roughly divided into passages of about 30 words and written in hieroglyphic form on postcard-sized slips of paper. The heading contained the designation of the text and the body included the texts’ context (inscriptions, etc.) as well as a preliminary translation of the passage.

These passages were then cross-referenced with other occurrences of the hieroglyphics to provide better progressive translations which ultimately appeared in the final manuscript. As a result some of the translations on the cards were incomplete as work proceeded and cross-comparisons of individual words were puzzled out.

A slip showing a passage of text from the victory stele of Sesostris III at the Nubian fortress of Semna. The handwriting is that of project leader Adolf Erman, who had “already struggled with the text as a high school student”.

With support from the German Research Foundation, the 1.5 million sheets of the Wörterbuch der ägyptischen Sprache began to be digitized and put online in 1997. The Digitized Card Archive (DZA) of the Dictionary of the Egyptian Language (Wörterbuch der ägyptischen Sprache) has been available on the Internet since 1999. The archive can be searched at: Since 2004, the materials and query functions have been integrated into the larger Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae project at

Wörterbuch der ägyptischen Sprache by Adolph Erman and Hermann Grapow can be viewed online using the Wb. browser at Links from reference points within the dictionary go directly to corresponding slips of paper in the digitized slip archive.

Although he’s a fictional character, given one could suppose that given his areas of specialization in archaeology, Indiana Jones would certainly have been aware of the Wörterbuch, would likely have used it, and may even have worked on it as a young college student.

The method used for indexing the Wörterbuch der ägyptischen Sprache and the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae is now generally known as a key word in context (KWIC) index. The design of these sorts of indices is now a subject within the realm of computer science and database design. Given that the work on the TLL has taken over 100 years, could it be possible that digital versions might speed up the process of excerpting, collating, and writing articles in the future? Perhaps these examples might be used for compiling other languages in the future.

Modern day practice: Wordnik and

Having looked at some historical word and idea collecting practices, how might one do this sort of work in a modern, digital world? A similar word collecting scheme is currently happening on the internet now, though perhaps with a bit more focus on interesting neologisms (and hopefully without many insane asylum patients.) The lovely folks at the online dictionary Wordnik have been using the digital annotation tool to collect examples of words as they happen in the wild. One can create a free account on the service and quickly and easily begin collecting words for their dictionary efforts by highlighting example sentences and tagging them with “wordnik” and “hw-[InsertFoundWordHere]”.

So for example, I was reading about the clever new animations in the language app Duolingo and came across a curious new word (at least to me): viseme.

To create accurate animations, we generate the speech, run it through our in-house speech recognition and pronunciation models, and get the timing for each word and phoneme (speech sound). Each sound is mapped onto a visual representation, or viseme, in a set we designed based on linguistic features.

So I clicked on my handy browser extension for, highlighted the sentence with a bit of context, and tagged it with “wordnik” and “hw-viseme”. The “hw-” prefix ostensibly means “head word” which is how lexicographers refer to the words you see defined in dictionaries.

Then the fine folks at Wordnik are able to access the public annotations matching the tag Wordnik, and use’ API to pull in the collections of new words for inclusion into their ever-growing corpus of examples. Lexicographers can then use examples of words appearing in context to define, study, and research their meanings and their shifts in meaning over time.

Since I’ve collected interesting new words and neologisms for ages anyway, this has been a quick and easy method of helping out other like-minded wordhoarders along the way. (Note how this last sentence has brought wordhord back into more active usage with a tinge of shift?!) In addition to the ability to help out others, a side benefit of the process is that the collected words are all publicly available for reading and using in daily life! You can not only find the public page for Wordnik words on, but you can subscribe to it via RSS to see all the clever and interesting neologisms appearing in the English language as collected in real time! So if you’re the sort who enjoys touting new words at cocktail parties, a rabid cruciverbalist who refuses to be stumped by this week’s puzzle, or a budding lexicographer yourself, you’ve now got a fantastic new resource! I’ve found it to be far more entertaining and intriguing than any ten other word-of-the-day efforts I’ve seen in published calendar or internet form.

If you like, there’s also a special group you can apply to join to more easily aid in the effort. Want to know more about Wordnik and their mission, check out their informative Kickstarter page.

Expanding the sixth grade practice

The basic pedagogic exercise I’ve described above is an incredibly solid base for nearly any school-aged child. But with some of the historical context we’ve explored, the weekly word notebook exercise could be expanded. Some could be done during the week while others could be done at a later date/time, which could serve as potential (spaced repetition) reminders to students as they see words throughout the year potentially for bonus points.

What is the earliest attestation (evidence or proof of existence) of a word?

Can students find attestations of their words during their weekly reading or reading later in the year?

What is the word’s etymology? What other words sound like it or are related to it? What words are cognate to it in other languages they might be studying/learning? These could be collected too.

What new and interesting words are students coming across that they haven’t seen before in their own reading? Bonus points for doing additional words they find themselves, or add them to the queue of the words the teacher assigns on future weeks.

Double bonus points for finding new words in their reading that are neologisms which aren’t in the dictionary yet. Can they find and add words to the Wordnik dictionary using

Instead of using a notebook for their supplemental wordhord, students might try the older practice of keeping their words on index cards and storing them in a zettelkasten just like the OED, the TLL, or the Wb. A shoebox works nicely and can be fun to decorate, but there are fancier boxes out there. Here they might also be used as flashcards for occasional review. Students can index them alphabetically and perhaps their example sentences may come in handy later in life while they’re doing their own writing (see Draft No. 4 and boxing words.) Perhaps their collections will come in handy at the end of high school when they take the SAT or the ACT tests? Might their collections rival those of famed academics like Niklas Luhmann, Gotthard Deutsch, Hans Blumenberg, S.D. Goitein or Roland Barthes? Maybe they’ll become professional lexicographers and help to finish up work on the TLL later in life?

For a fun math exercise, can students calculate how long it would take them (individually or as a class) to copy out 10,000,000 slips for their words at the pace of two or three words a week? How many notebooks would this require? Would they fit into their classroom? their house, their library, or their school?

What other ideas might one add to such a classroom exercise?


Forschung: Der Thesaurus linguae Latinae. Munich, Germany: Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2019.

Kathleen Coleman, “The Thesaurus Linguae Latinae” Paideia Lectures 2022, 2022.

Pinkerton, Byrd. “The Ultimate Latin Dictionary: After 122 Years, Still At Work On The Letter ‘N.’” NPR, May 14, 2016, sec. Parallels.

The Professor and the Madman. 35mm film, Biography, Drama, History. Voltage Pictures, Fábrica de Cine, Definition Films, 2019.

Smith, Chris. “Thesaurus Linguae Latinae: How the World’s Largest Latin Lexicon Is Brought to Life.” De Gruyter Conversations, July 5, 2021.

Winchester, Simon. The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. 1st ed. New York: Harper, 1998.

Twitter is being rebranded as X. So, if one “tweets” on Twitter, will one then be “eX-iting” posts on X?
I think it’s a perfect time to eXit the entire platform.

Index cards provide freedom from notebook perfection

I’ve heard many people mention their issues with writing in new notebooks or coming up with ideas for what to put in their ever-growing collections of multiple brand new notebooks. Some feel like they’re just notebook collectors who appreciate the look and feel of a new notebook, pregnant with so much possibility. Others are frozen by the need for perfection and can’t bring themselves to write on a page. One writer told me that he purposely mars the first page in every new notebook, just to force himself to get over the fear of the newness and perfection—something he picked up from his dad who dinged with a hammer on day one every new car he bought to get over the preciousness of the new.

This is why I like having stacks of index cards at hand. They’re beautiful and lovely, but if you screw up or make a mistake, it’s just one card. Copy it and throw the imperfect one out if you need to. (Though I find in practice I don’t ever do this.) Because they’re not bound together, you’re also not bound by what you write on one card needing to fit in with what you write on any of the others. There’s no worrying about what subject you’re going to write on this one card tying you to something the way writing in a single subject notebook might. Did this sort of fear exist in the users of 17th century commonplace notebooks, or was it something that evolved in the 20th century with the idea of single subject school notebooks?

My nicest index cards don’t carry the same baggage as my nicest notebooks.