Knowledge management practices on romantic display in George Eliot’s Middlemarch

Given that George Eliot had her own commonplace book, it’s fascinating but not surprising to see a section of prose about note taking and indexing practices in Middlemarch (set in 1829 to 1832 and published in 1871-1872) literally as the romance story is just beginning to brew. [Naturally a romance with index cards at its heart is just my cup of tea, n’cest pas?] Presently it’s not surprising to see the romance of an independent thinking woman stem out of an intellectual practice (dominated heavily by men at the time) that was fairly common in its day, but for it’s time such an incongruous juxtaposition may have been jarring to some readers.

In chapter two Mr. Brooke, the uncle, asks for advice about arranging notes as he has tried pigeon holes as a method but has the common issue of multiple storage and can’t remember under which letter he’s filed his particular note. [At the time, many academics would employ secretarial staff to copy their note cards multiple times so that a note that needed to be classified under “hope” and “liberty”, as an example, could be filed under both. Individuals working privately without the support of an amanuensis or additional indexing techniques would have had more difficulty with filing material in the same manner Mr Brooke did. Digital note takers using platforms like Obsidian or Logseq don’t have to worry about such issues now.]

Mr. Casaubon indicates that he uses pigeon-holes which was a popular method of filing, particularly in Britain where John Murray and the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary were using a similar method to build their dictionary at the time.

Our heroine Dorothea Brooke mentions that she knows how to properly index papers so that they might be searched for and found later. She is likely aware of John Locke’s indexing method from 1685 (or in English in 1706) and in the same passage—and almost the same breath—compares Mr. Casaubon’s appearance favorably to that of Locke as “one of the most distinguished-looking men I ever saw.”

In some sense here, we should be reading the budding romance, not just as one based on beautiful appearance or one’s station or even class, but one of intellectual stature and equality. One wants a mate not only as distinguished and handsome as Locke, but one with the beauty of mind as well. Without the subtextual understanding of knowledge management during this time period, this crucial component of the romance would be missed though Eliot later hints at it by many other means. Still, in the opening blushes of love, it is there on prominent display.

For those without their copies close at hand, here’s the excerpted passage:

“I made a great study of theology at one time,” said Mr Brooke, as if to explain the insight just manifested. “I know something of all schools. I knew Wilberforce in his best days. Do you know Wilberforce?
“Mr Casaubon said, “No.”
“Well, Wilberforce was perhaps not enough of a thinker; but if I went into Parliament, as I have been asked to do, I should sit on the independent bench, as Wilberforce did, and work at philanthropy.”
Mr Casaubon bowed, and observed that it was a wide field.
“Yes,” said Mr Brooke, with an easy smile, “but I have documents. I began a long while ago to collect documents. They want arranging, but when a question has struck me, I have written to somebody and got an answer. I have documents at my back. But now, how do you arrange your documents?”
“In pigeon-holes partly,” said Mr Casaubon, with rather a startled air of effort.
“Ah, pigeon-holes will not do. I have tried pigeon-holes, but everything getsmixed in pigeon-holes: I never know whether a paper is in A or Z.”
“I wish you would let me sort your papers for you, uncle,” said Dorothea. “I would letter them all, and then make a list of subjects under each letter.
“Mr Casaubon gravely smiled approval, and said to Mr Brooke, “You have an excellent secretary at hand, you perceive.”
“No, no,” said Mr Brooke, shaking his head; “I cannot let young ladies meddle with my documents. Young ladies are too flighty.
“Dorothea felt hurt. Mr Casaubon would think that her uncle had some special reason for delivering this opinion, whereas the remark lay in his mind as lightly as the broken wing of an insect among all the other fragments there, and a chance current had sent it alighting on her.
When the two girls were in the drawing-room alone, Celia said—
“How very ugly Mr Casaubon is!”
“Celia! He is one of the most distinguished-looking men I ever saw. He is remarkably like the portrait of Locke. He has the same deep eye-sockets.”

—George Eliot in Middlemarch (Norton Critical Edition, 2nd edition, Bert G. Hornback ed., 2000), Book I, Chapter 2, p13.

Quoted a post by Letterform Archive ( Archive ( (
This box of 600+ specimen cards holds a complete snapshot of the last metal type foundries in Germany. Produced 1958–1971, the Schriftenkartei (Typeface Index) represents the final effort to catalog all the country’s typefaces in production at the time. The cards are useful for researchers and designers as they share a common format and show complete glyph sets. Thanks to Michael Wörgötter, a set of these cards is now in our collection, and his high-res scans are online.

This Schriftenkartei represents a fascinating example of a card index (#zettelkasten) as a database. This one obviously had a very narrow range of topics.

+ = winning!

Anne Frank’s Zettelkasten 🗃️

Slipped in between paragraphs about being worried that her family’s hiding place will be discovered by a new building owner and the fairness of rationing butter, Anne Frank mentions being gifted a zettelkasten to track her reading:

Father emptied a card file for Margot and me and filled it with index cards that are blank on one side. This is to become our reading file, in which Margot and I are supposed to note down the books we’ve read, the author and the date.
—Anne Frank (1929-1945), diary entry dated Saturday, February 27, 1943 (age 13)

Niklas Luhmann (December 8, 1927-1998), famous for his own 90,000+ slip reading file was a year and a half older than Anne Frank (June 12, 1929-1945) who received her first card index file in February 1943 (likely between the 27th, the date of her diary entry mentioning it and the prior diary entry on February 5th). It was given to her by her father at the age of 13. As would have been commonplace, she was intended to use it as a “reading file” to note down the books she’d read along with the author and the date.

One can only wonder at how many entries she would have made over the span of her life had it not come to such an abrupt end.

Frank, Anne. The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition. Edited by Otto H. Frank and Mirjam Pressler. Translated by Susan Massotty. 1947. Reprint, New York: Bantam, 1997.

But lo! men have become the tools of their tools. The man who independently plucked the fruits when he was hungry is become a farmer; and he who stood under a tree for shelter, a housekeeper.
—Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods (Ticknor and Fields, 1854, p. 41)

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!

This quote also bears some interesting resemblance to quotes about tools which shape us by Winston Churchill and John M. Culkin. see:

A multi-layered statement, but let’s reflect for a moment on how the West wholly misses out on a hidden personal knowledge management technique inherent in orality.

Quote card featuring part of the indigenous art-inspired cover of the book Songlines by Margo Neale and Lynne Kelly with the quote "Inuit man Dempsey Bob said, ‘The trouble with whitefellas is that they keep all their brains in books.’"

Annotated Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto EcoUmberto Eco (Secker & Warburg)
No piece of information is superior to any other. Power lies in having them all on file and then finding the connections. There are always connections; you have only to want to find them.
If you’re not sure how to start the first card in your zettelkasten, simply write this quote down on an index card, put a number in the corner, and go…
Liked a tweet by @geonz (Twitter)
Similar to my own aphorism: “Not everyone can be me, but at least I try.”
Annotated About by Mandy BrownMandy Brown (A Working Library)
books are a means of listening to the thoughts of others so that you can hear your own thoughts more clearly. 
to which I might add:

And annotation helps you save those thoughts, share them with others, and further refine them.

We’re Not All That: High School is America in miniature

High school is just a bunch of scared people pretending they’re not.
—Cameron Kweller portrayed by Tanner Buchanan in He’s All That (Netflix, 2021)

While not exact, this quote is incredibly similar in tone to a quote from a columnist in June 1928, which has been oft repeated and slightly modified since including versions by Will Rogers and in Fight Club.

Americanism: Using money you haven’t earned to buy things you don’t need to impress people you don’t like.
—Robert Quillen, The Detroit Free Press, Page 6, Column 4, Detroit, Michigan. June 4, 1928

It’s all about image and being what we’re not.

Apparently the message of the original film She’s All That was completely lost. I’m not sure the current incarnation of this remake will be an inflection point either.

Quoted Shape: The Hidden Geometry of Information, Biology, Strategy, Democracy, and Everything Else by Jordan Ellenberg (Penguin Press)
You don’t make a bagel by first baking a bialy and then punching out the center. No—you roll out a snake of dough and join the ends together to form the bagel. If you denied that a bagel has a hole, you’d be laughed out of New York City, Montreal, and any self-respecting deli worldwide. I consider this final.
Not exactly a QED sort of proof, but I’ll take it as an axiom. 🙂