Listened to The Informed Life: Episode 139 Chris Aldrich on Cybernetic Communications by Jorge ArangoJorge Arango from The Informed Life

Chris Aldrich has the most multi-disciplinary resume I’ve ever seen, with a background that includes biomedics, electrical engineering, entertainment, genetics, theoretical mathematics, and more. Chris describes himself as a modern-day cybernetician, and in this conversation we discuss cybernetics and communications, differences between oral and literary cultures, and indigenous traditions and mnemonics, among many other things.

Show notes and audio transcript available at The Informed Life: Episode 139

A while back, I recorded an episode of The Informed Life with Jorge Arango, and it’s just been released. We had hoped to cover a couple of specific topics, but just as we hit record, our topic agenda took a left turn into some of my recent interests in intellectual history.

Jorge has a great little show which he’s been doing for quite a while. If you’re not already subscribed, take a moment to see what he’s offering in the broad space of tools for thought. I’ve been a long time subscriber and was happy to chat with Jorge directly.

Here’s a version of the timeline of some of the intellectual history I presented today at the PKM Summit in Utrecht. I’m happy to answer any questions, or if you’re impatient, you can also search my online digital repository of notes for any of the people or topics mentioned.

It covers variations of personal knowledge management, commonplace books, zettelkasten, indexing, etc. I wish we’d had time for so much more, but I hope some of the ideas and examples are helpful in giving folks some perspective on what has gone before so that we might expand our own horizons.

The color code of the slides (broadly):

  • orange – intellectual history
  • dark grey – memory, method of loci, memory palaces
  • blue – commonplace books
  • green – index cards, slips, zettelkasten traditions
  • purple – orality
  • light teal – dictionary compilations
  • red – productivity methods

My Reading Practices for Book Club Selections

As part of my reading process, particularly for book club related reading, I’ve lately settled on what seems to be a particularly productive method of reading for my needs. Generally I’ll pull up a short review or two to see what the topic broadly covers as well as to see how others are associating it to their own areas of work. I’ll usually do a quick inspectional flip through the table of contents and index to highlight any thing I think is particularly relevant to me. 

Following this, I’ll check out an audiobook copy of the text from my local library and listen to it at 1.5 to 2x speed. This allows me to highlight/bookmark some of the most interesting portions and gives me a good inspectional read as well as a solid first read through. I can then read either a physical copy of the book or a digital one and more thoroughly mark it up in an analytical read.

Sometimes I don’t manage to get to the analytical portion until after some preliminary discussion for the book club, but the process allows me to be better prepared for our discussion which also helps me to be better informed for the analytical portion of the process. Obviously the more I’m able to do prior to the book club discussion, the better things can potentially go in terms of what I’m able to contribute with respect to the conversation I’ve had with the book to be able to share with others.

When it’s not a particularly dense/interesting text, or it’s fiction, I can easily leave off a full analytical read and still manage to get most of what I feel the book has to offer.

Book Club on Cataloging the World and Index, A History of the

Dan Allosso has been hosting a regular book club for a few years centered around sense making, note taking, and topics like economics, history, and anthropology. Our next iteration over the coming month or so will focus on two relatively recent books in the area of intellectual history and knowledge management:

This iteration of the book club might be fruitful for those interested in note taking, commonplacing, or zettelkasting. If you’re building or designing a note taking application or attempting to create one for yourself using either paper (notebooks, index cards) or digital tools like Obsidian, Logseq, Notion, Bear, TinderBox etc. having some background on the history and use of these sorts of tools for thought may give you some insight about how to best organize a simple, but sustainable digital practice for yourself.

The first session will be on Saturday, February 17 24, 2024 and recur weekly from 8:00 AM – 10:00 Pacific. Our meetings are usually very welcoming and casual conversations over Zoom with the optional beverage of your choice. Most attendees are inveterate note takers, so there’s sure to be discussion of application of the ideas to current practices.

To join and get access to the Zoom links and the shared Obsidian vault we use for notes and community communication, ping Dan Allosso with your email address. 

Happy reading!

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Zettelkasten

It looks like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was using several Weis No. 35 card index boxes, of which a very similar version is still commercially available on Amazon from Globe-Weis/Pendaflex.

I’ve tracked down where most of his card index is hiding at Morehouse College, but it doesn’t appear to be digitized in any fashion. Interested researchers can delve into the Morehouse College Martin Luther King, Jr. Collection: Series 4: Research Notes, Collection Identifier: 0000-0000-0000-0131i 

The following seems to be the bulk of where MLK’s zettelkasten is maintained, in particular:

Who wants to make a road trip to Atlanta to look at some of the most influential index cards of the 20th century?!!

Jillian Hess has recently written a few short notes on MLK’s nachlass and note taking for those interested in some additional insight as well as an example of a quote on one of his 1953 note cards on Amos 5: 21-24 making it into his infamous speech “Normalcy, Never Again” (aka the “I Have a Dream” speech).

I frequently hear students ask if maintaining a zettelkasten for their studies is a worthwhile pursuit. Historically, it was one of the primary uses of the tool, and perhaps this example from one of the 20th century’s greatest orators’ doctoral work at Boston University dating from roughly 1952-1955 will be inspiring. 

A quick survey of academics, teachers, and researchers blogging about note taking practices and zettelkasten-based methods

Frequently newcomers to the note taking space or one of the many tools used within it are curious to see others who are using these methods and writing or blogging about them in public. Because many are students (often undergraduates, masters, or Ph.D.) looking for practical advice, tips, or even public examples which they might follow, I thought I’d put together a quick list focusing on academic use-cases from my own notes.

Individuals

Dan Allosso is a history professor at Bemidji State University who has used Obsidian in his courses in the past. He frequently writes about reading, writing, and research process on his Substack channels or in videos archived on his YouTube channel. In addition to this, Dan has a book on note taking and writing which focuses on using a card index or zettelkasten centric process. Much of his personal use is grounded both in index cards as well as Obsidian.

Shawn Graham has both a blog as well as a prior course on the history of the internet using Obsidian. In the course materials he has compiled significant details and suggestions for setting up an Obsidian vault for students interested in using the tool.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick has a significant blog which covers a variety of topics centered around her work and research. Her current course Peculiar Genres of Academic Writing (2024) focuses on writing, note taking (including Zettelkasten) and encourages students to try out Obsidian, which she’s been using herself. A syllabus for an earlier version of the course includes some big name bloggers in academia whose sites might serve as examples of academic writing in the public. The syllabus also includes a section on being an academic blogger and creating platform as a public intellectual.

Morganeua is a Ph.D. candidate who has a popular YouTube channel on note taking within the academic setting (broadly using Obsidian, though she does touch on other tools from time to time).

Chris Aldrich is independent research who does work at the intersection of intellectual history and note taking methods and practices. He’s got an active website along with a large collection of note taking, zettelkasten, commonplace books, and sense-making related articles. His personal practice is a hybrid one using both analog and digital methods including Obsidian, Hypothes.is, and his own website.

Bob Doto is a teacher and independent researcher who focuses on Luhmann-artig zettelkasten practice and writing. He uses Obsidian and also operates a private Discord server focused on general Zettelkasten practice.

Manfred Kuehn, a professor of philosophy at Boston University, had an influential blog on note taking practices and culture from 2007 to 2018 on Blogspot. While he’s taken the site down, the majority of his work there can be found on the Internet Archive.

Andy Matuschak is an independent researcher who is working at the intersection of learning, knowledge management, reading and related topics. He’s got a PatreonYouTube Channel and a self- built public card-based note collection.

Broader community-based efforts

Here are some tool-specific as well as tool-agnostic web-based fora, chat rooms, etc. which are focused on academic-related note taking and will have a variety of people to follow and interact with.

Obsidian runs a large and diverse Discord server. In addition to many others, they have channels for #Academia and #Academic-tools as well as #Knowledge-management and #zettelkasten.

Tinderbox hosts regular meetups (see their forum for details on upcoming events and how to join). While their events are often product-focused (ways to use it, Q&A, etc.), frequently they’ve got invited speakers who talk about their work, processes, and methods of working. Past recorded sessions can be found on YouTube. While this is tool-specific, much of what is discussed in their meetups can broadly be applied to any tool set. Because Tinderbox has been around since the early 00s and heavily focused on academic use, the majority of participants in the community are highly tech literate academics whose age skews to the over 40 set.

A variety of Zettelkasten practitioners including several current and retired academicians using a variety of platforms can be found at https://forum.zettelkasten.de/.

Boris Mann and others held Tools for Thought meetups which had been regularly held through 2023. They may have some interesting archived material for perusal on both theory, practice, and a wide variety of tools.

Others?

I’ve tried to quickly “tip out” my own zettelkasten on this topic with a focus on larger repositories of active publicly available web-based material with an academic use-case focus. Surely there is a much wider variety of people and resources not listed here, but it should be a reasonable primer for beginners. Feel free to reply with additional suggestions and resources of which you may be aware.

Useful books, articles, and miscellaneous manuals

While many may come to the space by way of Sönke Ahrens’ 2017 book, we should all acknowledge that many of these methods go back centuries, so there is obviously lots of prior art to look at for hints and tricks. There is enough that for many students, you may be able to find a note taking guide written by a famous luminary in your own chosen field of study (especially if you’re in the humanities and studying history, anthropology, or sociology.)

Recommended reading

To help students get up to speed most quickly, based on my own experience and reading I often recommend reading the following (roughly in order) along with one or more of the note taking manuals below (of which I personally most appreciate Umberto Eco, Gerald Weinberg, Jacques Goutor, John Locke, Dan Allosso and S.F. Allosso, and Antonin Sertillanges.)

  • Adler, Mortimer J. “How to Mark a Book.” Saturday Review of Literature, July 6, 1940. https://www.unz.com/print/SaturdayRev-1940jul06-00011/
  • Adler, Mortimer J., and Charles Van Doren. How to Read a Book: The Classical Guide to Intelligent Reading. Revised and Updated ed. edition. 1940. Reprint, Touchstone, 2011.
  • Thomas, Keith. “Diary: Working Methods.” London Review of Books, June 10, 2010. https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v32/n11/keith-thomas/diary
  • Mills, C. Wright. “On Intellectual Craftsmanship (1952).” Society 17, no. 2 (January 1, 1980): 63–70. doi.org/10.1007/BF02700062
  • “They Say / I Say”: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. 3rd ed. 2006. Reprint, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2014.

Bibliography of Note Taking Manuals

Replied to #ENG818 by Kathleen Fitzgerald (kfitz)
I’m a huge advice writing nerd.
One of my favorite but secreted and very subtle bits of writing advice can be found in James Somers’ blogpost “You’re probably using the wrong dictionary“, which gains advantage by prudent counsel from John McPhee’s “Draft No. 4” (The New Yorker, April 29, 2013) along with some useful technology hacks.

Zettelkasten for Course Work

I’m tending to lean more toward telling students to rely more directly on something like Cornell notes while they’re in classes learning the basics of an area. Too many students considering starting a Luhmann-artig zettelkasten think that they ought to write down everything, atomize it, and link it which would take an inordinate amount of time to those new to the process. This is particularly troublesome because most courses (especially introductory ones) are designed such that much of the material should be fully internalized by the time the course is over. When you take a math class you might learn what 2+2 is and make a note about it, but by the time the course is over, that idea should now be so basic that keeping it in your system should be a bit laughable. Spending time to excerpt it from a lecture, make it atomic, and interlink it is a lot of make-work that isn’t likely to be useful either for the learning the thing to begin with, much less remember it in the long run to potentially use it again.

Once one has mastered most of a course, they might profitably skim through their notes at the end to summarize outcomes they saw and find most useful and interesting. Those things along with the summaries of their Cornell notes might then be useful zettels to keep in the long run. A zettelkasten practice like that of Niklas Luhmann is more useful when one already has a strong lay of the land and they’re attempting to do the work of expanding on the boundaries of new areas of knowledge.

If you are a student contemplating creating a zettelkasten, then the bulk of your notes probably ought to be short snippets kept with your bibliography notes and should not be individual zettels. By this I mean specifically that you might have a bibliographic note (reference note or literature note) for each individual lecture with some fleeting notes about it kept with that card. Then if necessary, you’ll probably only have one or two zettels or permanent notes out of each lecture. If you’re attempting to create 30 permanent notes a day and interlink them all, then you’re going to find yourself overworked and overwhelmed within just a few days.

Dr. Mike Miller announced in class last night that in the coming Winter quarter at UCLA Extension he’ll be offering a course on elliptic curves. 

The text for the class will be Rational Points on Elliptic Curves (Springer, Undergraduate Texts in Mathematics) by Joseph H. Silverman and John T. Tate. He expects to follow and rely more on it versus handing out his own specific lecture notes.

He mentioned that while it would suggest a more geometric flavor, which it will certainly have, the class will carry an interesting algebraic component which those not familiar with the topic may not expect.

To register, look for the listing sometime in the coming month or so when the Winter catalog is released.

Read Opinion | Multiple Choice Flunks Out (Published 1988) by Jacques Barzun (New York Times)
Many things have been urged upon the beleaguered public schools: install computers, reduce class size, pay teachers better and respect them more and give them bodyguards, reform teacher training, restore the principal's authority, purge the bureaucracy and reduce paperwork, lengthen the school year, increase homework, stick to the basics, stop ''social promotion,'' kill social studies and bring back history, and (the latest plan) pay kids not to drop out or play truant.
For historians of and , here’s a nice little essay by Jacques Barzun from 1988 which he later published in a book under the title of “Reasons to De-Test the Schools“. The follow up is telling as well.

Scaffolding “Secret” Knowledge: An analogy for teachers of thinkers, creators, readers, and writers

There’s something incredibly important to learn in studying two very similar photographs of Mortimer J. Adler from the middle of the last century. I’ll present them here for reference: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.

Black and white advertisement photo for the Great Books of the Western World featuring a photo of Mortimer J. Adler holding a pipe to his mouth superimposed over an arched display of the 54 books in the series behind him

Adler was a proponent of educational reforms in the form of building on John Erskine’s Great Books programs and went so far as to teach us to read properly before editing and presenting a fantastic collection of books in the form of the Great Books of the Western World by way of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Adler most often suggested consuming a book in increasing levels by marking it up with highlights, annotations and even scaffolding a book’s important material on its end covers. However, when it came to the Great Books project, he and 25 of his colleagues used notes on index cards to index 102 great ideas across a large swath of classical Western literature.

You can see the majority of this indexed collection of knowledge splayed around him in the first photo. These index cards became the raw materials by which he and his team compiled and wrote the impressive Syntopicon which comprised volumes 2 and 3 of the 54 books in the Great Books of the Western World series (1952). Upon its release, the second photo was used extensively in marketing materials to sell the set to the general public over the ensuing decades and several editions of the books.  

Even if one doesn’t look very closely at the photos, once juxtaposed they will probably have already noticed that the photos of Adler himself are the same.  The second photo has obviously had the set of books superimposed around a cropped photo of him from the first photo. While it is a great advertising gimmick, it belies a lot of the serious work involved in building the Syntopicon which hides a tremendous amount of value.

Even Adler’s co-editor extolls the immense value of the Syntopicon:

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. 1952.

However, while the Syntopicon as an end product holds great value, knowing how it was created is potentially even more important. The second photo does a huge disservice to the entire enterprise by way of erasure of the true nature of the Syntopicon. While the first photo may seem dull and esoteric, it holds a huge amount of hidden value for both students and teachers. It is photographic evidence of how the knowledge of the incredibly valuable Syntopicon was actually built. If properly scaffolded for students, following their lead of indexing their ideas, students could have their own personal Syntopicons for learning and exploring.

Scaffolding “Secret” Knowledge

View of the sun setting behind the pyramids at Giza in the background dominating over the edge of the city in the foreground

Photo by Ruben Hanssen on Unsplash

Imagine, if you will, the majesty and awe inspired by the Pyramids of Giza to the people viewing them  from the ground. The Great Pyramid itself is significantly taller than both Big Ben and the Statue of Liberty, and at approximately 45 stories tall is almost half the height of the Eiffel Tower, though obviously with a much more massive base. The entire structure of the Pyramid of Giza is estimated to weigh 5.9 million metric tons comprising 2.3 million blocks of stone averaging weights of about 3 tons each. These rocks were cut and moved only by humans across vast distances of sand. Anyone who has done the intense labor of dragging a cooler and pop up tent across even a few hundred feet of sand to spend a day at the beach will marvel at moving such massive blocks, even with thousands of people to help drag it. Yet they managed to lay 1,764,000 pounds of stone every day for nearly 20 years. How did the ancient Egyptians manage this feat? Curious people have tried for centuries to imagine how they managed to build such spectacular monuments from scratch. But because there is little in the historical record and no remains of scaffolding, anyone who might want to build their own monumental pyramid is left to start their process from scratch. But what if you had a picture of the method or the scaffolding? Perhaps even set of plans, diagrams, or description? That might make all the difference, wouldn’t it? 

I’ll give you a head start and suggest you begin with this image from c. 1880 BCE which was painted on the wall of the tomb of Djehutihotep:

A decaying wall painting of rows of men pulling a sled upon which sits a huge Egyptian statue. At the front of the sled is a man pouring liquid out of a vase.
Photo by Raymond Betz via Osirisnet.

The idea that the statue is being pulled by a large host of people on a sled is relatively obvious. But even if you can’t read the writing, you’ll probably know that that number of people isn’t nearly enough for what must be a tremendous weight. How about the image of the guy almost in the center of the painting? The one standing at the front of the sled who appears to be pouring liquid out? What is he doing? Could we try some experiments to learn what his purpose was? (In some literature he is often called a tribologist.)

Fall, Weber, Pakpour, et. al tried just that and found some surprising results. Pouring water onto sand decreases friction for objects pulled over it, meaning that its much easier for fewer men to pull large weights over sand. Their paper also contains a transcribed picture of the original painting prior to damage which has occurred since the early 1900s.

Just as the painting of our new tribologist friend scaffolds the “secret” behind how one moves large weights over sand in ancient Egypt, the photograph of Adler with his card index provides the answer to the secret behind how one writes a paper, article, thesis, or even a book. It certainly provides a lot more information to the viewer and potential reader of the Syntopicon than the second picture which excerpts Adler’s photo and simply surrounds him with books.

Teachers, including Adler, should prefer to show their work or scaffold their knowledge more often so that students can see how they they did their trick. Too often, like a magician, they perform their prestidigitation and leave out the secret of how it was performed. This certainly impresses the audience temporarily, but it doesn’t provide them with any actual knowledge they can apply for themselves. Teaching patently isn’t meant to be held to the secrecy of the “Magician’s Code”. It should be much more like the techniques of magicians Penn & Teller who frequently not only perform their magic, but then go on to reveal the actual method by which they produced it. It’s nice to enthrall students, but then show them how they might enthrall others. But let’s also not do it to the level of amateur magicians  who will only practice a trick until they get it right once, let’s help them move to the level of professional magicians who continue to practice every day until they never make any mistakes.

Too often in our writing courses we don’t reveal any useful methods by which one might produce interesting research and writing. Simply reading an encyclopedia article, a few beginner magazine articles, and a book or two might be a small enough project for a sixth grader to miraculously produce a three page essay and remember most of what they need to do so. But what is a high schooler or a college student to do when they need to produce theses of 20 pages or longer that go beyond the idea of simply regurgitating the data they’ve read over several months’ time? It’s much harder to remember and maintain the information of dozens of books and journal articles over such a time span. How might they better generate new insights into what their doing? Create new knowledge? And things compound dramatically if a student decides to become a professional researcher, writer, or even academician. 

The better course would be to have a teacher scaffolding how to practice these methods in class with the students as they try their own hand at it. I’ve seen well educated adults struggle with these methods, so I know it’s going to take some practice. 

Of course, not every teacher knows how to do these things themselves(to pass along the secrets, the magician must actually know how to perform the magic first), much less to do them in the most efficient ways. In fact, much like this story of teachers in  the “Reading Wars” who weren’t taught concrete methods of teaching reading, many teachers were never taught how to teach writing at higher technical and creative levels and were never forced to practice it themselves. Some who were forced just muddled their way through as best they could. As a result they teach their students to take the same long and arduous road involving the most work and often some of the worst results. At least in regard to writing, there is a royal road that one might take. 

The photo of Adler’s index cards is the tip of the iceberg that suggests a potential method. I suspect that for some, simply knowing about the index cards and seeing the final form of the two volumes of the Syntopicon could allow one to puzzle out the intervening steps with some minor experimentation. For those who’d like to jump ahead without experimentation or the need to read the hieroglyphs might make the next step with learning about methods shown in an excellent video of Victor Margolin explaining his method of research and writing. Or by reading a short article by Keith Thomas in the London Review of Books. They can then move onto Adler’s introductory How to Mark a Book

For those who appreciated the analogy of quarrying and dragging stone to make the pyramids, Gerald Weinberg’s 2005 book on The Fieldstone Method is sure to be a crowd pleaser. Overwise, similar more advanced methods are spelled out in Umberto Eco’s How to Write a Thesis and Sönke Ahrens’ How to Take Smart Notes. One might place the finishing touches with Adler and van Doren’s How to Read a Book (1972, 2011) and C. Wright Mills’ short paper On Intellectual Craftsmanship.

Conclusion

If you must for the exercise, allow students to drag their building blocks over the sand so they can see how difficult it is. But then reveal the secrets of the tribologists and the prestidigitators so that they can go on to build their own pyramids and make their own magic in life. Be sure not to have them use the method for just one project, but allow it to span several projects or to be used across their lives much the way many greats of history have leveraged the value of commonplace books which falls into a very similar tradition of knowledge management.

Show students how to take small ideas written on index cards and use them as proverbial building blocks to slowly and creatively build up larger arguments, create paragraphs, papers, and books with with them. While it may not seem obvious, variations on these methods were the secrets behind almost every great thinker or writer in history including Boethius, Thomas Aquinas, Desiderius Erasmus, Konrad Gessner, John Locke, Carl Linnaeus, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Niklas Luhmann, Beatrice Webb, Marcel Mauss, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Mortimer J. Adler, Niklas Luhmann, Roland Barthes, Vladimir Nabokov, George Carlin, Phyllis Diller, Twyla Tharp, and yes, even Eminem and Taylor Swift.

References

Adler, Mortimer J. “How to Mark a Book.” Saturday Review of Literature, July 6, 1941.

Adler, Mortimer J., and Charles Van Doren. How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. Revised and Updated edition. 1940. Reprint, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972.

Benderitter, Thierry. “The Tomb of Djehutyhotep ‘Great Chief of the Hare Nome’ Page 2 of 2.” Osirisnet: Tombs of Ancient Egypt, 2006. https://osirisnet.net/tombes/el_bersheh/djehoutyhotep/e_djehoutyhotep_02.htm.

Fall, A., B. Weber, M. Pakpour, N. Lenoir, N. Shahidzadeh, J. Fiscina, C. Wagner, and D. Bonn. “Sliding Friction on Wet and Dry Sand.” Physical Review Letters 112, no. 17 (April 29, 2014): 175502. https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevLett.112.175502.

Heubeck, Elizabeth. “‘I Literally Cried’: Teachers Describe Their Transition to Science-Based Reading Instruction.” Education Week, September 15, 2023, sec. Teaching & Learning, Reading & Literacy. https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/i-literally-cried-teachers-describe-their-transition-to-science-based-reading-instruction/2023/09.

Mills, C. Wright. “On Intellectual Craftsmanship (1952).” Society 17, no. 2 (January 1, 1980): 63–70. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02700062.

Thomas, Keith. “Diary: Working Methods.” London Review of Books, June 10, 2010. https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v32/n11/keith-thomas/diary.

Weinberg, Gerald M. Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method. New York, N.Y: Dorset House, 2005.

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.

The Process of Writing World History of Design, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kxyy0THLfuI.

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?

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.