Gotthard Deutsch (1859–1921) taught at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati from 1891 until his death, where he produced a card index of 70,000 ‘facts’ of Jewish history. This article explores the biography of this artefact of research and poses the following question: Does Deutsch’s index constitute a great unwritten work of history, as some have claimed, or are the cards ultimately useless ‘chips from his workshop’? It may seem a curious relic of positivistic history, but closer examination allows us to interrogate the materiality of scholarly labor. The catalogue constitutes a total archive and highlights memory’s multiple registers, as both a prosthesis for personal recall and a symbol of a ‘human encyclopedia’. The article argues that this mostly forgotten scholar’s work had surprising repercussions: Deutsch’s student Jacob Rader Marcus (1896–1995) brought his teacher’s emphasis on facticity to the field of American Jewish history that he pioneered, catapulting a 19th-century positivism to the threshold of the 21st century. Deutsch’s index was at an inflection point of knowledge production, created as historians were shifting away from ‘facts’ but just before new technologies (also based on cards) enabled ‘big data’ on a larger scale. The article thus excavates a vision of monumentality but proposes we look past these objects as monuments to ‘heroic’ scholarship. Indeed, Deutsch’s index is massive but middling, especially when placed alongside those of Niklas Luhmann, Paul Otlet, or Gershom Scholem. It thus presents a necessary corrective to anointing such indexes as predecessors to the Internet and big data because we must keep their problematic positivism in perspective.
While Mills doesn’t delineate the steps or materials of his method of note taking the way Beatrice Webb, Langlois & Seignobos, Johannes Erich Heyde, Antonin Sertillanges, or many others have done before or Umberto Eco, Gerald Weinberg, Robert Greene/Ryan Holiday, Sönke Ahrens, or Dan Allosso since, he does focus more on the softer portions of his thinking methods and their desired outcomes and provides personal examples of how it works and what his expected outcomes are. Much like Niklas Luhmann describes in Kommunikation mit Zettelkästen (VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 1981), Mills is focusing on the thinking processes and outcomes, but in a more accessible way and with some additional depth.
Because the paper is rather short, but specific in its ideas and methods, those who finish the broad strokes of Ahrens’ book and methods and find themselves somewhat confused will more than profit from the discussion here in Mills. Those looking for a stronger “crash course” might find that the first seven chapters of Allosso (2022) along with this discussion in Mills is a straighter and shorter path.
While Mills doesn’t delineate his specific method in terms of physical materials, he does broadly refer to “files” which can be thought of as in the zettelkasten (slip box) or card index traditions. Scant evidence in the piece indicates that he’s talking about physical file folders and sheets of paper rather than slips or index cards, but this is generally irrelevant to the broader process of thinking or writing. Once can easily replace the instances of the English word “file” with the German concept of zettelkasten and not be confused.
One will note that this paper was written as a manuscript in April 1952 and was later distributed for classroom use in 1955, meaning that some of these methods were being distributed directly from professors to students. The piece was later revised and included as an appendix to Mill’s text The Sociological Imagination which was first published in 1959.
Because there aren’t specifics about Mills’ note structure indicated here, we can’t determine if his system was like that of Niklas Luhmann, but given the historical record one could suppose that it was closer to the commonplace tradition using slips or sheets. One thing becomes more clear however that between the popularity of Webb’s work and this (which was reprinted in 2000 with a 40th anniversary edition), these methods were widespread in the mid-twentieth century and specifically in the field of sociology.
Above and beyond most of these sorts of treatises on note taking method, Mills does spend more time on the thinking portions of the practice and delineates eleven different practices that one can focus on as they actively read/think and take notes as well as afterwards for creating content or writing.
My full notes on the article can be found at https://hypothes.is/users/chrisaldrich?q=url%3Aurn%3Ax-pdf%3A0138200b4bfcde2757a137d61cd65cb8
Brodart is a library services company based in Pennsylvania that supplies materials to institutional libraries that still has a variety of supplies not only for libraries and book lovers alike, but for amateur and professional zettelmacher(in) as well.
Most of their focus is on 3-by-5 inch index card sized material, but maybe with the re-popularization, they might add more support for the 4-by-6 inch card enthusiasts?
Perhaps if the demand for these older systems goes up, they’ll not only have more offerings, but the price will come down through economies of scale?
Let’s look at what they’ve got available.
Cards and Card Guides
On the card side, they’ve got a variety of options that aren’t as readily available at most office supply stores. If you’ve got an old school library card catalog with rods, you’re probably going to want cards with holes pre-punched. Of course they’ve got them in colors as well as without holes too.
With a sizeable card collection you’re likely to want some card guides, so they offer the traditional A-Z 1/5 Cut Card Guides as well as Blank Catalog Card Guides, with those holes pre-punched for convenience.
Most may already have an indexing system built into their system, but if you don’t and want to go with a classic Dewey Decimal set up, they’ve got you covered.
Perhaps you’ve got a sizeable digital card collection already, and have been jonesing to make the jump to analog? They’ve got printable card sheets so you can print out your digital cards relatively easily and continue without losing all that work. Or maybe you’re the mid century/ Umberto Eco purist who wants typewritten cards, but don’t want to retype them all? They’ve got both 4-up and 3-up versions as well.
Let’s say you’ve got a long standing practice of making bibliographic cards. You need some cards to hold not only your meta data about the materials you’re reading, but you want to add your fleeting notes to them the way Luhmann and others have. Brodart has a wide variety of pre-printed cards that could serve this purpose. Some have printed sections which say “Date Loaned” and “Borrowers’s Name”, with sections for data below, but these could just as easily stand for page number and lined space for your important notes.
There are also a number of other versions of this sort of card depending on what you want. Try these or search for the many others which may suit your fancy:
- Brodart White Book Cards with Two Columns and Ruled Top
- Brodart Book Cards with Author, Title, Date Due, and Borrower’s Name
- Brodart Medium-Weight, White Book Cards with Ruled Top, Date, and Issued To
Maybe you haven’t made that slip box purchase yet, but want something shiny and new? Brodart has you covered here as well. They’ve got a few different options for a small desktop slip box or a fully modular system that you can add to over time.
Stand alone boxes
Brodart has at least two desktop boxes, with 12 and 9 drawers respectively.
- Brodart 12-Tray Card Catalog Cabinet with Solid Oak Front
- Brodart Nine-Tray Card Catalog Cabinet with Solid Oak Front
Want to design your own system that’s expandable with your card collection? They’ve got a five drawer wide system with options for 1, 2, or 3 row tall sections that you can build up to suit your needs. Start with their table and legs, add a one or more sections of card files, and then top it off with a cover. If you’d like, they’ve also got an interstitial piece with drawer pulls so that you’ve got a writing surface built into your zettelkasten. Build that system up to your ceiling!
- Brodart Cabinet Bases for Card Catalog Sectional Cabinets
- Brodart 15-Tray Unit for Card Catalog Sectional Cabinet
- Brodart 10-Tray Unit for Card Catalog Sectional Cabinet
- Brodart Five-Tray Unit for Card Catalog Sectional Cabinet
- Brodart Cornice Top for Card Catalog Sectional Cabinet
- Brodart Sliding Reference Shelves for Card Catalog Sectional Cabinet
4-by-6 inch Card Boxes
Brodart is a bit thin on the 4-by-6 inch category, but for the beginning zettelmacher(in), they do have some nice sized, portable, archive quality boxes you might like to start your collection. See their Postcard Boxes.
Of course there are lots of other options in the space. Some of these box systems can become pretty expensive, and for the price you might be as well off purchasing a used card catalog which you can restore or you can find restored ones online. Some of them even go to the level of fine furniture and can quickly go for over $5,000.00.
If you prefer the vintage 20 gauge steel esthetic (you know I do!), you can find lots of used, but still great condition slip boxes online in places like eBay or on Craigslist.
I and others have written some advice about other card storage options on a Reddit community targeted at analog zettelkasten in the past.
What do you use? What do you want to use? Are you going to custom build your own? Have you seen other companies like Brodart that still support the manufacturing of these sorts of tools for thought? Please share your ideas and supplies below.
Originally published in French in 1897 as Introduction aux études historiques and then translated into English by George Godfrey Berry, Henry Holt and Company published Introduction to the Study of History in 1898 by authors Charles Victor Langlois and Charles Seignobos. Along with Ernst Bernheim’s popular Lehrbuch der historischen Methode mit Nachweis der wichtigsten Quellen und Hülfsmittelzum Studium der Geschichte (Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot, 1889), Langlois and Seignobos’ text is one of the first comprehensive manuals discussing the use of scientific techniques in historical research.
Primarily written by Seignobos, Book II, Chapter IV “Critical Classification of Sources” has several sections on the zettelkasten method under the section headings:
- Importance of classification—The first impulse wrong—Thenote-book system not the best—Nor the ledger-system—Nor the “system” of trusting the memory
- The system of slips the best—Its drawbacks—Means ofobviating them—The advantage of good “private librarian-ship”
This section describes a slip method for taking notes which is ostensibly a commonplace book method done using slips of paper (fiches in the original French) instead of notebooks. Their method undergirds portions of the historical method they lay out in the remainder of the book. Seignobos calls the notebook method “utterly wrong” and indicates that similar methods have been “universally condemned” by librarians as a means of storing and maintaining knowledge. Entertainingly he calls the idea of attempting to remember one’s knowledge using pure memory a “barbarous method”.
The slip method is so ubiquitous by the time of his writing in 1897 that he says “Every one admits nowadays that it is advisable to collect materials on separate cards or slips of paper.”
The Slip Method
The book broadly outlines the note taking process:
The notes from each document are entered upon a loose leaf furnished with the precisest possible indications of origin. The advantages of this artifice are obvious : the detachability of the slips enables us to group them at will in a host of different combinations ; if necessary, to change their places : it is easy to bring texts of the same kind together, and to incorporate additions, as they are acquired, in the interior of the groups to which they belong. As for documents which are interesting from several points of view, and which ought to appear in several groups, it is sufficient to enter them several times over on different slips ; or they may be represented, as often as may be required, on reference-slips.
Seignobos further advises, as was generally common, “to use slips of uniform size and tough material” though he subtly added the management and productivity advice “to arrange them at the earliest opportunity in covers or drawers or otherwise.”
In terms of the form of notes, he says
But it will always be well to cultivate the mechanical habits of which professional compilers have learnt the value by experience: to write at the head of every slip its date, if there is occasion for it, and a heading in any case; to multiply cross-references and indices; to keep a record, on a separate set of slips, of all the sources utilised, in order to avoid the danger of having to work a second time through materials already dealt with.
Where the Luhmann fans will see a major diversion for the system compared to his internal branching system is in its organization. They describe a handful of potential organizations based on the types of notes and their potential uses, though many of these use cases specific to historical research are now better effected by databases and spreadsheets. As for the broader classes of more traditional literature-based textual notes, they recommend grouping the slips in alphabetical order of the words chosen as subject headings. Here, even in a French text translated to English, the German word Schlagwörter is used. It can be translated as “headwords”, “catchwords” or “topical headings” though modern note takers, particularly in digital contexts, may be more comfortable with the translation “tags”.
While there are descriptions of cross-linking or cross-referencing cards from one to another, there is no use of alpha-numeric identifiers or direct juxtaposition of ideas on cards as was practiced by Luhmann.
The authors specifically credit Ernst Bernheim’s Lehrbuch der historischen Methode several times in the book. While a lot of the credit is geared toward their broader topic of historical method, Bernheim provides a description of note taking very similar to their method. I’ve found several copies of Bernheim’s text in German, but have yet to find any English translations.
Both Bernheim and Langlois/Seignobos’ work were influential enough in the areas of history specifically and the humanities in general that Beatrice Webb (an influential English sociologist, economist, socialist, labour historian, and social reformer who was a co-founder of the London School of Economics, the Fabian Society, and The New Statesman) cites their work in Appendix C “The Art of Note-Taking” in her 1926 autobiographical work My Apprenticeship, which was incredibly popular and went through multiple reprintings in the nearly full century since its issue. Her personal use of this note taking method would appear to pre-date both books (certainly the Langlois/Seignobos text), however, attesting to its ubiquity in the late 1800s.
What is the “true” zettelkasten method?
Scott Scheper has recently written that personal communication with Luhmann’s youngest son Clemmens Luhmann indicated that Luhmann learned his method in 1951 from the Johannes Erich Heyde text Technik des wissenschaftlichen Arbeitens (with several German editions from 1931 onward). This book’s note taking method is broadly similar to that of the long held commonplace book maintained on index cards as seen in both Langlois/Seignobos (1897) and Webb (1926). One of the few major differences in Heyde was the suggestion to actively make and file multiple copies of the same card under different topical headings potentially using carbon copy paper to speed up the process. While it’s possible that Luhmann may have either learned the modifications of his particular system from someone or modified it himself, it is reasonably obvious that there is a much longer standing tradition as early as Konrad Gessner in 1548 to the middle of the 20th century of a zettelkasten tradition that is more similar to the commonplace book tradition effectuated with index cards (or slips “of a similar size”). Luhmann’s system, while seemingly more popular and talked about since roughly 2013, is by far the exception rather than the rule within the broader history of the “zettelkasten method”. With these facts in mind, we should be talking about a simpler, historical zettelkasten method and a separate, more complex/emergent Luhmann method.
Quill and Fox Design illustrated the cute bookworm, squirrel, rabbit, owl, and, just for fun, a red fox and a beaver holding a quill for these Forest Friends magnetic bookmarks from Galison.
If I’m honest, I get so much value and joy out of annotating online, I should have been the one to send them the care package.
Thanks Hypothes.is! I’ll see you in the margins.
I’ve got an online note collection similar to @JerryMichalski, but mine is more textual and less visual than his: https://hypothes.is/users/chrisaldrich (9:19AM)
If there are folks that want to do collaborative note taking today, here’s a shared etherpad you can use for either raw text or generic wiki markdown if you like: https://etherpad.indieweb.org/ToolsForThinking (09:26AM)
How can companies like @readwise leverage some sort of standardization of text, images, data in the space to more easily provide their services to more platforms? (09:49AM)
Linus Lee’s demo looks a bit like Robin Sloan’s AI Writing experiments https://www.robinsloan.com/notes/writing-with-the-machine/ (12:50PM)
Hypothes.is has methods for establishing document equivalency which archive.org apparently conforms. I did an academic experiment a few years back with an NYT article about books where you’ll see equivalent annotations on the original, the archived version, and a copy on my own site that has a
rel="canonical" link back to the original as well:
I don’t recommend doing the rel-canonical trick on your own site frequently as I have noticed a bug, which I don’t think has been fixed.
The careful technologist with one tool or another, will see that I and a couple others have been occasionally delving into the archive and annotating Manfred Kuehn’s work. (I see at least one annotation from 2016, which was probably native on his original site before it was shut down in 2018.) I’ve found some great gems and leads into some historical work from his old site. In particular, he’s got some translations from German texts that I haven’t seen in other places.
So today I took the plunge and picked up a Singer Business Furniture 20 gauge steel industrial index card filing cabinet. It’s the sort of thing that Niklas Luhmann or Roland Barthes may have only dreamt of.
The monster has 8 sliding platform chassis with 16 removable file drawers. I’ve done a little bit of clean up on it, but it has been well loved over time. Much like my prior furniture refurbishment projects, I expect I’ll bead blast off the original finish and rust and re-enamel it. I’m debating colors or potentially going brushed steel with heavy clear coat, though that’s a lot of work for the size and configuration. I’m initially thinking perhaps gunmetal grey with metallic blue flecked paint to match my desk, or perhaps a fun orange highlight color on the drawer fronts?
Singer Business Furniture, Corry Jamestown index card filing cabinet (114 OB)
- 8 slider chassis with 16 individually (and easily) removeable drawers
- Exterior dimensions: 22 7/8″ wide x 52″ tall x 28 3/4″ deep
- Interior drawer dimensions: 9 3/8″ wide x 4 3/4″ tall x 27 3/8″ deep (or 26 1/8″ deep with the card stops installed)
- Fits cards: 3×5″, 4×6″, 7 3/8 x 3 1/4″ (Hollerinth cards)
- Removable metal slider card stops
- 13 removeable index card rods (3 missing)
- Aluminum drawer pulls
- Aluminum label frames
- Original industrial beige color, chipped and scratched
- 20 gauge steel
I thought about weighing it, but the thing is just too big for any of the nearby scales I’ve got access to. It’s definitely a bear to move even by sliding and required a heavy dolly and at least two people to maneuver. Three or more would be required to pick it up physically. One drawback to the size and weight is that it isn’t easily portable if there were an emergency, but the construction is so solid that it should definitely survive the most dire earthquakes or possibly nuclear bomb blasts. I suspect it’ll be a bit before I have multiple drawers full, so I can always individually remove active drawers.
A quick calculation on the front of an index card—no more backs of envelopes for me!—indicates that packs of relatively standard Oxford index cards should put the capacity of this monster at 55,700 index cards (with the drawer stops in place).
The drawers should be nice and roomy for the 4×6″ index cards I’ve been using, but can also accommodate collections of smaller 3×5″ cards I’ve got.
While the drawers come with index card rods to hold the cards physically in their files, I suspect I won’t be using them. They seem to be of a design that would require custom cards for utilizing this feature anyway. I do quite like the rod design as the thumbscrews on the outside have small nubs on them with a key-like cut out on the drawer front with a compression washer. One then inserts the rod, fits it into the moveable card stop, and pushes it into the keyhole. A quarter or half turn of the rod and thumbscrew locks the rod into the cabinet.
The index card file stops are easily removable and have a simple springloaded clamp mechanism for moving them easily within the drawer.
While used, the entire thing is in generally excellent shape. Almost all the original hardware is still extant and the drawer mechanisms all slide smoothly, so those won’t require much, if any real work.
Because the filing cabinet is so massive and generally immovable, a fun and terrifically convenient feature is that each of the 16 file drawers are individually removable. This allows one to take a particular drawer or two to their desk and work on them before needing to return them to the cabinet when one is done. To make this drawer movement easier, in addition to the explicit handle on the front of each drawer, there’s an oval hole on the back of each drawer which functions as a handle on the other end. This is likely how I’ll use it, at least until I’ve refinished the cabinet and the drawers and move it into my office space permanently.
Because the files are wide and long enough, I might also profitably use the file for holding 8 1/2 x 11″ material stacked up in piles if necessary.
Some have talked about naming their zettelkasten. I’ve been considering calling the whole cabinet “The Ark of Studies” (Arca studiorum) after Thomas Harrison’s invention in the 1640s as it also contains a nod to Hugh of St. Victor’s mnemonic work relating to Noah’s Ark. Perhaps I’ll hame it Stonehenge II, because I’ll rely on it as a “forgetting machine” and it’s almost as big and heavy as a bluestone from the Preseli Hills in Wales—especially if I paint it that color. Beyond this perhaps I might give each individual drawer a name. This leaves sixteen slots, so I’m thinking about naming them after famous figures in the history of note taking and related spaces of intellectual history.
Right now it’ll likely be a subset of Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, Seneca, Boethius, Thomas Aquinas, Desiderius Erasmus, Rodolphus Agricola, Philip Melancthon, Konrad Gessner, John Locke, Carl Linnaeus, Thomas Harrison, Vincentius Placcius, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Niklas Luhmann, Beatrice Webb, Marcel Mauss, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Mortimer J. Adler, Niklas Luhmann, Roland Barthes, Vladimir Nabokov, George Carlin (I’ve got to have a drawer dedicated to comedy right?), Twyla Tharp, and Eminem. Who else am I missing? Who should I consider?
Being a piece of used office furniture, it naturally came with some surplus junk inside. Most of this was of the paperclip and rubber band nature with plenty of dust and lint. There were a full collection of drawer labels with someone’s handwritten numbers for the files the card index once contained. Unexpected finds included some screws, nuts and bolts, part of a hacksaw blade, a rotary saw blade, some drill bits, a socket wrench fitting, and—most puzzling—a live round of ammunition! Every zettelkasten should have one of these right?
So go ahead and bite the bullet! Get your own cabinet, and start your analog zettelkasten today.
If you’ve been following this idea here, it’s time to update your feed.
This week John Borthwick put out a call for Tools for Thinking: People want better tools for thinking — ones that take the mass of notes that you have and organize them, that help extend your second brain into a knowledge or interest graph and that enable open sharing and ownership of the “knowl...
I’ll always maintain that Vannevar Bush really harmed the first few generations of web development by not mentioning the word commonplace book in his conceptualization. Marks heals some of this wound by explicitly tying the idea of memex to that of the zettelkasten however. John Borthwick even mentions the idea of “networked commonplace books”. [I suspect a little birdie may have nudged this perspective as catnip to grab my attention—a ruse which is highly effective.]
Some of Kevin’s conceptualization reminds me a bit of Jerry Michalski’s use of The Brain which provides a specific visual branching of ideas based on the links and their positions on the page: the main idea in the center, parent ideas above it, sibling ideas to the right/left and child ideas below it. I don’t think it’s got the idea of incoming or outgoing links, but having a visual location on the page for incoming links (my own site has incoming ones at the bottom as comments or responses) can be valuable.
I’m also reminded a bit of Kartik Prabhu’s experiments with marginalia and webmention on his website which plays around with these ideas as well as their visual placement on the page in different methods.
It also seems a bit reminiscent of Kevin Mark’s experiments with hovercards in the past as well, which might be an interesting way to do the outgoing links part.
Next up, I’d love to see larger branching visualizations of these sorts of things across multiple sites… Who will show us those “associative trails”?
Another potential framing for what we’re all really doing is building digital versions of Indigenous Australian’s songlines across the web. Perhaps this may help realize Margo Neale and Lynne Kelly’s dream for a “third archive”?