🗃️ 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…. #ZKLife
The good news is that I’ve traded my expensive notebook/journal habit for a somewhat less expensive card index habit. Now I can spend the difference on more books and fountain pens. 😁
Merchants and traders have a waste book (Sudelbuch, Klitterbuch in German I believe) in which they enter daily everything they purchase and sell, messily, without order. From this, it is transferred to their journal, where everything appears more systematic, and finally to a ledger, in double entry after the Italian manner of bookkeeping, where one settles accounts with each man, once as debtor and then as creditor. This deserves to be imitated by scholars. First it should be entered in a book in which I record everything as I see it or as it is given to me in my thoughts; then it may be entered in another book in which the material is more separated and ordered, and the ledger might then contain, in an ordered expression, the connection sand explanations of the material that flow from it. 
—Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Notebook E, #46, 1775–1776, as translated in Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: Philosophical Writings
In this single paragraph quote from his own notebook, Lichtenberg, using the model of Italian bookkeepers of the 18th century, broadly outlines almost all of the note taking technique suggested by Sönke Ahrens in How to Take Smart Notes.
While he doesn’t use the same terms, he encourages writing down and keeping fleeting notes as well as literature notes. (Keeping academic references would have been commonplace by this time.) He follows up with rewriting and expanding on the original note to create additional “explanations” and even “connections” (links) to create what Ahrens describes as permanent notes or which some would call evergreen notes.
Lichtenberg’s version calls for the permanent notes to be “separated and ordered” and while he may have kept them in book format himself, it’s easy to see from Konrad Gessner’s suggestion at the use of slips centuries before, that one could easily put their permanent notes on index cards (“separated”) and then number and index or categorize them (“ordered”).
The only serious missing piece of Luhmann’s version of a zettelkasten then are:
the ideas of filing related ideas nearby to each other, though the idea of creating connections between notes is immediately adjacent to this, and
his numbering system, which was broadly based on the popularity of Melvil Dewey’s decimal system and early 20th Century German filing practices (Aktenzeichen).
It may bear noticing that John Locke’s indexing system for commonplace books was suggested originally in French in 1685, and later in English in 1706. Given it’s popularity, it is not unlikely that Lichtenberg would have been aware of it.
Further, given that Lichtenberg’s very popular published waste books were known to have influenced Leo Tolstoy, Albert Einstein, Andre Breton, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, it would not be hard to imagine that Niklas Luhmann would have also been aware of them.
This short paragraph certainly says something interesting about the note taking methods of Lichtenberg’s time.
Lichtenberg, Georg Christoph. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: Philosophical Writings. Edited and translated by Steven Tester. SUNY Series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy, 1.0. State University of New York Press, 2012
Lichtenberg, Georg Christoph (2000). The Waste Books. New York: New York Review Books Classics. ISBN 978-0940322509.)
Did Lichtenberg number the entries in his own (original) waste books? This would be early evidence toward the practice of numbering notes for future reference. Based on this text, it’s obvious that the editor numbered the translated notes for this edition, were they also Lichtenberg’s numbering, or added later by other scholars/editors?
Is there evidence that Lichtenberg knew of Locke’s indexing system? Did his waste books have an index?
A photo in which I reveal the generative creativity drawers that Niklas Luhmann’s #zettelkasten was missing… (content warning: Alcohol) 🗃️🥃
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.
Three of the four sections are all similarly made out of oak and appear to be co-contemporaneous in terms of style and materials (solid wood and metal). The final section, a five drawer insert is obviously of later manufacture and while stained brown with what appears to potentially be a mahogany frontispiece, has plastic trays with metal fittings and what appear to be galvanized steel card stops. The other sections comprise a low level table-like support with four legs; a 5×3 drawer section; and a 2 inch thick top which covers the holes in the top of the modular drawer sections and provides a flat surface. The top section also features the traditional Gaylord Bros., Inc. name plate.
Given the subtle intricacies of the construction, I’ll provide some photos of how the pieces dovetail together as well as the smaller mechanics and features in a future post.
Fully assembled the piece is 33″ wide x 17 3/8″ deep and stands 36 1/2″ tall. With internal drawer space of 13 3/4″ for the 15 drawers and 14 1/2″ for the other 5, there should be space for approximately 38,715 index cards.
I’m thrilled that all the fittings seem to be original, and all the drawers have their original card catalog rods. The drawers on the 5×3 drawer section have a spring loaded mechanism under the front of the drawer which when pushed to the left side unlocks the card catalog rods which have beefy brass knobs. The 5×1 drawer section rods are unlocked by pulling up on them slightly from the bottom and then pulling them straight out.
I’ll have to do some more in-depth research of old Gaylord Bros. catalogs, but based on materials, manufacture, and style, I’m going to guess that the older portion of the card catalog dates from the mid-30s to the 1940s, while the newer section is likely late 60s. The overall size and standardized, modular structure allows the pieces to sit together in quite a clever way and were made over a long enough period of time that different pieces from disparate decades still work well together. While the wood grain, stain, and even fittings are all slightly different, the to different styles work fairly well together.
For those who appreciated my recent article Market analysis of library card catalogs in 2023, I’m thrilled to report that I purchased this stunning beauty—one of the prettiest, oldest, and best conditioned catalogs I’ve seen listed—for a very reasonable $250. I suspect the seller, who is a vintage collector, seasoned eBay seller, and is well aware of the market, may have gone even lower, but I was happy to overpay a little. Given the online market, something like this would usually list for between $1,200 and $1,600, but would likely sit unsold and unloved for years.
I love the style and the condition, and it does make for a fantastic little piece of fine furniture with a lovely patina. Unexpectedly, someone else in the house may be even more enamored of it than I, which bodes well for its actual long term care and use. Currently it will serve as an archive storage for some of my 3 x 5″ index card note collection in addition to storage of a partial library card cataloging for some of our physical books. I also have cards from an older rolodex and a small recipe collection that will take up residence. Other empty drawers will house a small wine selection along with several bottles of scotch until they’re pushed out by the growing collection of cards.
Other than general maintenance I don’t think I’ll be doing any other restoration work on it beyond the small fixes I’ve already made.
On the top of the catalog, in addition to space for writing notes, I’ll keep one of my two desktop card indexes and a 1948 Smith-Corona Clipper.
What would you do with a library card catalog?
Kardex: for when your analog #Zettelkasten grows too big for just a few filing cabinets and you’re ready to automate just a little bit of your slip finding work!
I am wholly unsurprised that Harold Innis (1894-1952) maintained a card index (zettelkasten) through his research life, but I am pleased to have found that his literary estate has done some work on it and published it as The Idea File of Harold Adams Innis (University of Toronto Press, 1980). The introduction seems to have some fascinating material on the form and structure as well as decisions on how they decided to present and publish it.
For those unaware of his work, primarily as a political economist, he wrote extensively on media and communication theory including the influential works Empire and Communications (1950) and The Bias of Communication (1951).
While I appreciate the published book nature of the work, it would be quite something to have it excerpted back down to index card form as a piece of material culture to purchase and play around with. Perhaps something in honor of the coming 75th anniversary of his passing?
This quote from Walden becomes even more fascinating when one realizes that the Thoreau family business was manufacturing pencils at John Thoreau & Co., one of the first major pencil companies in the United States. Thoreau’s father was the titular John and Henry David worked in the factory and improved upon the hardness of their graphite.
One might also then say that the man who manufactured pencils naturally should become a writer!
As Prince of Wales, Charles was always ready with an opinion. Now, with his coronation at hand, his job is to have none.