Steelcase 8 Drawer Steel Card Index Filing Cabinet for 4 x 6 inch cards

Maybe I didn’t have enough filing space for index cards yet? Maybe it was because the price was too alluring to resist? Maybe it was because of the stunning black and grey powder coat? Maybe it was because I didn’t have any serious Steelcase in my atomic era furniture collection yet? Maybe it was the stunning art deco styling touches on the aluminum drawer handles and label frames? Regardless of the reason, the undeniable fact of the matter is that, as of yesterday, I’ve got another card index filing cabinet or zettelkasten. 

The empty frame of the black Steelcase filing cabinet sitting in a corner next to a wooden barrister's bookcase. Eight empty drawers lined up on the floor in a 4x2 matrix makes it easy to see the storage capacity of the Steelcase card index. Close up of one of the 16 aluminum index frames on the exterior of the cabinet featuring several sets of milled lines in each frame giving it an art-deco vibe. Fully assembled Steelcase card index filing cabinet next to a bookcase

This one is is a 20 gauge solid steel behemoth Steelcase in black and silver powder coat and it is in stunning condition with all the hardware. It stands 52 1/4 inches tall, is 14 7/8 inches wide, and 28 1/2 inches deep (without hardware). Each drawer had two rows of card storage space totaling 55 inches. With 8 drawers, this should easily hold 61,000 index cards. 

Close up on a single drawer full of 7,000 cellophane wrapped index cards in blocks of 500.

Sadly, someone has removed all the card following blocks. I’ll keep an eye out for replacements, but I’m unlikely to find some originals, though I could probably also custom design my own. In the meanwhile I find that a nice heavy old fashioned glass or a cellophaned block of 500 index cards serve the same functionality. The drawer dimensions are custom made for 4 x 6 inch index cards, but A6 cards and Exacompta’s 100 x 150mm cards fit comfortably as well. One of the drawers also has a collection of 3.5 x 5.5 inch pocket notebooks (most are Field Notes) which are also easily archivable within it.

Based on the styling, I’m guessing it dates from the 1940s to early 1960s, but there are no markings or indications, and it will take some research to see if I can pin down a more accurate date.

Close up feature of the aluminum handle, index frame, and lock mechanism on the front of the Steelcase drawers. Each features matching milled lines which give an art deco feel to the cabinet.

A few of the indexing label frames on the unit are upside down and one or two are loose, but that’s easily fixed by removing a screw and cover plate in the front of the drawer and making a quick adjustment. I’ve also got a few extra metal clips to fix the loose frames.

Two metal rectangle clips with a small hole punched out of their centers. These would grab onto the posts of the index frames to hold them onto the filing cabinet

Much like my Singer card index, this one has internal sliding metal chassis into which the individual drawers sit. This allows them to be easily slid out of the cabinet individually for use on my desk or away from the cabinet. The drawers come with built-in handles at the back of the drawer for making carrying them around as trays more comfortable. The drawers are 10.6 pounds each, each chassis is 4.6 pounds, and the cabinet itself is probably 120 pounds giving the entire assembly a curb weight of about 240 pounds.

Angle on a Steelcase card index drawer and chassis. The back of the drawer features a hole just large enough to put one's hand through to make carrying the drawer as a tray easier. Card index drawer on the floor in front of a Steelcase filing cabinet with a steel drawer chassis pulled out. The Steelcase card index with a few drawers inserted, but one removed and featuring the silver metal chassis which is pulled out to accept its drawer.

Placed just behind my desk, I notice that the drawer width is just wide enough, that I can pull out the fourth drawer from the bottom and set my Smith-Corona Clipper on top of it. This makes for a lovely makeshift typing desk. The filing cabinet’s black powder coat is a pretty close match to that of the typewriter.

A drawer is pulled out of the filing cabinet and a black typewriter sits on top of it as an impromptu typing desk.

I’ve already moved the majority of my cards into it and plan to use it as my daily driver. This may mean that the Singer becomes overflow storage once I’m done refurbishing it. The Shaw-Walker box, which was just becoming too full and taking up a lot of desk real estate, will find a life in the kitchen or by the bar as my recipe box.

I’ve also noticed that some of my smaller 3 x 5″ wooden card indexes sit quite comfortably into the empty drawers as a means of clearing off some desk space if I wish.

This may be my last box acquisition for a while. Someone said if I were to add any more, I’ll have moved beyond hobbyist collector and into the realm of museum curator.

View of a steel desk with a typewriter on top of it. Behind the desk is a swivel chair, a Steelcase card index, and a barrister bookcase full of books.


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.


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,, 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

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.


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.
  • 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.
  • Mills, C. Wright. “On Intellectual Craftsmanship (1952).” Society 17, no. 2 (January 1, 1980): 63–70.
  • “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

On Cohesion and Coherence of the Zettelkasten: Where Does the Work Reside?

While discussing Chris Rock’s zettelkasten and the related version of Eminem‘s, Sascha Fast argues against them being zettelkasten:

To assume, that Eminem had a Zettelkasten because he had slips and a box is the same assuming that people are just sacks full of meat. The mere presence of parts is not enough to assume that there is a whole.
You can borrow the terms from linguistics: You need cohesion for the formal wholeness of your Zettelkasten (links, separate notes, etc.) and to have a good Zettelkasten, you need coherence (the actual connections between ideas). Eminem’s box has neither cohesion nor coherence. It is almost the perfect example of what a Zettelkasten is not in the presence of its parts. 

The key questions at play here are where is the work of a keeping a zettelkasten done and how is represented? Where is the coherence held? Is the coherence even represented physically? Does it cohere in the box or elsewhere?

The desk in my office (and that of countless others’) can appear to be a hodgepodge of stacks of paper and utter mess. Some might describe it as a disaster area and wonder how I manage to get any work done. However, if asked, I can pull out the exact book, article, paper, or other item required from any of the given piles. This is because internally, I can remember what all the piles represent and, within a reasonable margin of error, what is in each and almost exactly where it is at, or even if it’s filed away in another room. Others, who have no experience with my internal system would be terrifyingly lost in a morass of paper. The system represented by my desk is an extension of my mind, but one which doesn’t need to be directly labeled, classified, or indexed for it to operate properly in my life and various workflows. One could say that the loose categorization of piles is the lowest level of work I could put into the system for it to still be useful for me. However, to those on the outside, this work appears to be wholly missing as they don’t have access to the information and experiences with it that are held only in my brain.

By direct analogy, I suspect that Eminem’s zettelkasten, and that of many others, follows this same pattern. They neither require internal “cohesion nor coherence” in their systems which are direct extensions of their minds where that cohesion and coherence are stored. As far back as Andreas Stübel (1684), many (including Niklas Luhmann) have used variations of the idea “secondary memory” to describe their excerpting and note taking practices. [1][2]  Many in the long tradition of ars excerpendi have created piles of slips which held immense value for them. So much so that they would account for them in their wills to give to others following their deaths. In many cases, these piles were wholly useless to their recipients because they were missing all of the context in which they were made and why. Lacking this context, they literally considered them scrap heaps and often unceremoniously disposed of them.

In the case of Niklas Luhmann’s zettelkasten, he spent the additional time and work to index and file his notes thereby making them more comprehensible and possibly of more direct use to people following his death. For his working style and needs, he surely benefited from this additional work, particularly when taken over the longer horizon of his zettelkasten’s “life” compared to others’.  However, it’s not always the case that others will have those same needs. Some may only want or need to keep theirs for the length of their undergraduate or graduate school careers. Others may use them for short projects like articles or a single book. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t coherence, it may just be held in their memories for the length of time for which they need it. Those who have problems with longer term memory for things like this may be well-advised to follow Luhmann’s example, particularly when they’re working at problems for career-long spans.

In Eminem’s case, given the shape and size of his collection, which includes various sizes, types, and colors of paper and even different pen colors, it may actually be easier for him to have a closer visual relationship with his notes in terms of finding and using them. (“Yes, that’s the scrap I wrote for 8 Mile while I was at that hotel in Paris. Where is the blue envelope with the doggerel I wrote for my daughter?”) It’s also possible that for his creative needs, sifting through bits and pieces may spark additional creative work in addition to the slips of work he’s already created. Cohesion and coherence may not exist in his notes for us as distant viewers of them, but this doesn’t mean that they do not exist for him while using his box of notes.

As an even more complex example, we might look at the zettelkasten of S.D. Goitein. His has a form closer to that of the better known commonplacing practices of Robert Greene and Ryan Holiday. While Goitein had a collection of only 27,000 notes (roughly a third of Luhmann’s), he had a significantly larger written output of books and articles than Luhmann. Additionally, Goitein’s card index has been scanned and continues to circulate amongst scholars in his areas of expertise by means of physical copies rather than a digitized repository the way that Luhmann’s has over the past decade. Despite Goitein’s notes not having the same level of direct cohesion or coherence as Luhmann’s, I suspect that far more researchers are actively and profitably using Goitein’s collection today than are using Luhmann’s.

For those who are more visually inclined, an additional example of the hidden work of cohesion and coherence can be seen in the example of Victor Margolin.

In this case, Margolin is certainly actively creating both cohesion and coherence. The question is where does it reside? Certainly, like many of us, some of it resides internally in his mind and in coordination with the extension of it represented in his note cards, but as he progresses in his work, much of it goes into his larger outlines drawn out on A2 paper, and ultimately accretes into the writing that appears in the final version of his book World History of Design.

As described in his video, Margolin doesn’t appear to be utilizing his slips as lifelong tools for other potential projects, nor is he heavily indexing or categorizing them the way Luhmann and others have done. This doesn’t make his zettelkasten any less valuable to him, it only changes where the representation of the work is located.

Naturally, for those with lifelong uses of and needs for a zettelkasten, it may make more sense for them to put the work into it in such a way that it appears more cohesive and coherent to external viewers as well as for their future selves, but the variety of methods in the broader tradition, make it fairly simple for individual users to pick and choose where they’d personally like to store representations of their work. If you’re like philosopher Gilles Deleuze[3] who said in L’Abécédaire 

And everything that I learn, I learn for a particular task, and once it’s done, I immediately forget it, so that if ten years later, I have to–and this gives me great joy—if I have to get involved with something close to or directly within the same subject, I would have to start again from zero, except in certain very rare cases… 

then perhaps you may wish to have better notes with the work cohered directly to, in, and between your cards? Surely Deleuze didn’t start completely from scratch each time because in reality, he had a lifetime’s worth of experience and study to draw from, but he still had to start from what he could remember and begin writing, arguing, and working from there.

This is why having a lifelong zettelkasten practice is more productive for most: it acts as a knowledge ratchet to prevent having to start from scratch by staring at a blank piece of paper. The benefit is that—based on your personal abilities and preferences—you can start somewhere simple and build from there.

Finally, I’ll mention that in Paper Machines, Markus Krajewski calls Joachim Jungius’ the “first practitioner of nonhierarchical indexing”. In talking about the idiosyncratic nature of Jungius’ zettelkasten for which “There are no aids for access, no apparatus; neither signatures nor a numbering of the cards, neither registers nor indexes, let alone referential systems that guide one to the building blocks of knowledge.” he says[4]:

The architecture of the idiosyncratic scholar’s machine requires no mediation for, or access by, others. In dialog with the machine, an intimate communication is permitted. Only the close and confidential dialog results in the connections that lead an author to new texts. When queried by the uninitiated, the box of paper slips remains silent. It is literally a discreet/discrete machine. 

If this is the case, then Marshall Mathers is surely channeling Jungius’ practices, as I suspect that many are. 

Perhaps in The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare may have just as profitably written: 

Tell me where is knowledge bred?
Or in the box or in the head?

Photo still from Willy Wonka (Warner Bros.,, 1971) with Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka in the center looking away wistfully and Grandpa Joe and Mike TV's mom flanking him with quizzical looks. Underneath is the meme quote: "Where is knowledge bred? In the box or in the head?"
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Warner Bros., 1971) a zettelkasten meme.


[1] Cevolini, Alberto. “Where Does Niklas Luhmann’s Card Index Come From?” Erudition and the Republic of Letters 3, no. 4 (October 24, 2018): 390–420 (401).
[2] Andreas M. Stübel, Exercitatio academica de excerptis adornandis (Leipzig, 1684), 33.
[3] Incidentally, Deleuze has written quite a bit about the concept of a body without organs, which is also relevant to the broader thinking and knowledge space.
[4] Krajewski, Markus. Paper Machines: About Cards & Catalogs, 1548-1929. Translated by Peter Krapp. History and Foundations of Information Science. MIT Press, 2011. pp. 50-51.

FireKing Index Card Filing Cabinet: Rock Solid Zettelkasten Storage for Under 10¢ per card

I’ve just run across what must be one of the largest and most impressive currently manufactured card index filing cabinets on the planet:

FireKing Card, Check & Note File Cabinet, 6 Drawers (6-2552-C)

FireKing International manufactures a 1-hour fire protection filing cabinet with index card inserts, that has options for various locks, is rated for 30 foot drops, and is sealed against potential water damage. They offer both four and six drawer options with the larger clocking in at a massive 863 pounds. With each of the 18 sections on the 6 drawer model capable of 25 15/16″ of storage, this beast should hold about 64,800 index cards.

The rough news is that this king of cabinets, while providing great protection and security for your zettelkasten, runs a fairly steep $6,218.00. Despite the initial sticker shock, keep in mind though, that it should provide a lifetime of secure and worry-free storage for just under 10 cents per card. 

Unless you’re into the older vintage wooden boxes which aren’t very good for protection against fire or water damage, there aren’t too many modern card index filing cabinet manufacturers out there, and this may be the most solid of the group. I’ll add it shortly to the ever-growing list at The Ultimate Guide to Zettelkasten Index Card Storage.

Chris Rock’s zettelkasten output process

In the documentary Kevin Hart & Chris Rock: Headliners Only (Netflix, 2023) while preparing for a portion of their tour, Kevin Hart admires a portion of Chris Rock’s stand up comedy method and calls it “a science”. Chris Rock writes headlines for his jokes on slips of paper and then arranges them on either tables or small bulletin boards to outline his set list for presenting jokes for his performances.

A small bulletin board with about 50 slips of colored paper pinned up on it.

Low level coffee table covered in a grid of about 40 colored slips of paper.

If there are interesting contemporaneous news items which appear, he’ll include a newspaper or other material to represent the related joke for inclusion into his set. This makes a fascinating means of outlining his material and seems to fall within the realm of my search for zettelkasten output processes. Even if Rock doesn’t use index cards to write or store his jokes like comedians in the past have, he’s using a slip-based method for outlining and arranging them as part of his output process.

Chris Rock and Kevin Hart standing up in a green room. Behind them is a small board covered with rainbow colored slips of paper.

Kevin Hart: Chris, I’m so… I’m so, uh blown away by what I’m discovering that is your process.

Chris Rock: My process.

Kevin Hart: This all your shit?

A grid of slips of colored paper with various notes written in black sharpie. Some of the headlines read: Repubs lie/Dems, Fake-Selective Outrage, Black Lives Matter, Biden, Fruit Loops, Addicted to Attention, Neighborhoods.

A grid of slips of colored paper with various notes written in black sharpie. Some of the headlines read: Shortest in Class, Daughter Supreme Court, Hillary, Cops Deliver Babies.

Chris Rock: Well, this here would be, uh, bullet points for tonight. Every card represents a joke or a reference that I choose. I don’t wanna forget. You know what I mean? Like, you can remember all your jokes, but some nights, I’m like, ‘ehhh, I’m not gonna close with this one. I’m gonna close with that one’.

Kevin Hart: You have it down to a science where you can bullet point the time.

Chris Rock: You can. And by the way, sometimes, something happens in the news.

Kevin Hart: You got jokes on the bench.

Chris Rock: I have jokes on the bench.

View of a coffee table covered with slips of paper. Next to them is a broadsheet copy of the New York Post with a big photo of Elon Musk overlaid with the headline "Musk Rat".

Kevin Hart: I’m going to tell you I’m not only impressed by that, but I’m disappointed in myself. Because, uh, whatever I got, got to to fly.

Handwriting and Typecasting PASTA

Typewritten index card that reads: Handwriting and Typecasting PASTA 
I'm slowly coming to realize that handwriting or typecasting to my website means that I am left with a permanent, physical copy of my post which I can archive into a physical card file. I can file them by date to create a version of a diary, and/or I can file them by taxonomy so that I might reuse the ideas at a later date zettelkasten-style. 
The IndieWeb has a pattern for this: Publish Anywhere, Save To (private) Archive (P.A.S.T.A.) 
#typecasts #BlogInABox #MaterialCulture 
DEC 22 2023

Two drawer index card file with tabs for Essays, Writing, and Typecasts behind which is the index card with the title Handwriting and Typecasting PASTA


I’m slowly coming to realize that handwriting or typecasting to my website means that I am left with a permanent, physical copy of my post which I can archive into a physical card file. I can file them by date to create a version of a diary, and/or I can file them by taxonomy so that I might reuse the ideas at a later date zettelkasten-style.

The IndieWeb has a pattern for this: Publish Anywhere, Save To (private) Archive (P.A.S.T.A.)

Library charging trays for vertically oriented 3 x 5″ index cards

Amidst my seemingly ever-growing collection of index card boxes and trays, I’ve been contemplating getting something that would store cards in a vertical orientation rather than the traditional horizontal. As I’ve been watching the market over the past couple of years, nothing had really come up that suited the bill until this past summer. 

That’s when I saw a small handful of what are known as library charging trays pop up. 

What is a library charging tray?

These library charging trays were traditionally used in libraries in the mid to late-twentieth century at the circulation desk. A librarian would remove the book card from the pocket adhered to one of the inside covers of the book. This card would identify the book’s author and title and generally have a list of borrower’s names along with either the due date or the return date, or sometimes both. Once filled out, the card would be placed vertically in the charging tray behind a tab indicating its due date. The librarian would then place a due date card into the empty pocket with a stamped due date on it. Alternately some of these pockets may have been printed with grids into which a due date would be stamped. 

The last page and inside cover of a the library book Webster's Early European History featuring a book card with the author's name and book title along with a list of due dates and borrower's names sitting on top of the book pocket glued to the inside cover. On the last page of the book is a 3x5" slip glued onto the page with a grid of four columns for stamping due dates. There are about six dates stamped in from the early 1980s.

The library would then have in their charging tray an ordered list of checked out books which they could later use to follow up on if they became overdue.

Upon return of the book from the patron, the librarian would then be able to match up the title and stamped due date in the pocket with that from the card in the charging tray and refile the book card into the pocket of the appropriate book before returning it to the shelves for the next patron.

Yellow due date card for the Crowell Public Library which has it's address at the top underneath which appears three rows of black stamped due dates spanning from July 11 2016 to March 24 2018.

Models and Materials

Most charging trays I’ve seen range from 1 row of cards and have gone up to 5 rows. Most common are 2 and 3 row models. 

I’ve yet to see older trays made out of oak. Most seem to be from the 1960s onward and are often constructed of maple. Gaylord Brothers and Remington-Rand seem to have been the primary manufacturers of these, but it’s possible that other companies may have made them as well. 

My charging trays

When I acquired my Shaw-Walker desktop two drawer card index, I mentioned that I had purchased a few charging trays. Let’s take a look at the two of them briefly.

One tray has two rows for cards while the other has three. The double tray is definitely manufactured by Gaylord Bros, Inc. and still has the original manufacturer’s sticker on the bottom. The other is unmarked and is most likely a Gaylord too as Remington-Rand typically put a small metal badge on most of their products. This one not only doesn’t have that traditional badging, but also doesn’t have any telltale nail holes where it may have originally been. The double tray has 12 1/2″ of internal space for cards in each row and the triple has 10 3/4″ in each row which would give them enough space to hold approximately 3,500 and 4,500 index cards respectively.

The double tray seems almost new despite some minor wear. (We all know how rough those librarians can be.) The triple tray shows more signs of wear including some old labeling with handwriting that provides a fun level of patina.

Three column library charging tray sitting on top of a library card catalog.

Side view of a three row charging tray with index cards sitting in it.

View into a charging tray to show the metal follower blocks which hold cards upright.

Close up of the dovetail wooden join on the corner of a library charging tray

New uses for library charging trays

Naturally one could immediately consider using these trays to hold index cards for their note taking and filing practices. This is particularly useful for those who might appreciate a physical zettelkasten form factor for using vertically oriented 3 x 5″ index cards. (I’ve never seen a charging tray made for 4 x 6″ index cards and would suspect they never existed.)

Beyond this, those who are into the idea of maintaining a hipster PDA or who have 3 x 5″ index cards for general productivity purposes would certainly appreciate these boxes for their filing and archiving needs. If you’re unfamiliar with these sorts of practices see my article about The Memindex Method. A charging tray would certainly make an excellent home for a modern day Memindex practice. Pair it with an index card wallet and you’re off to the races as if you were living back in 1903.

What other functions could these trays be upcycled for? I’m curious to hear others’ ideas here.

Finding  Charging Trays

Used/Vintage Charging Trays

With the digitization of most library circulation processes the noble charging tray has generally gone out of fashion. At the height of their use, most libraries didn’t really need many of them, so they were never as ubiquitous in the broader market the way other card index boxes and cabinets were. As a result it’s rarer to see them on the secondary/used market in comparison to their brethren. When you do find them, it’s more likely that you’ll see them incorrectly listed as card index drawers. I suspect it would be incredibly rare that a second hand seller would know what they actually were, but even if they did, the key words in their name mean dramatically different things now which swamp the search engine optimization algorithms with things which patently are not these boxes.

This means long search times and patience to attempt to track them down. I’ve seen several listed as “rare” which they are to some degree, but not as rare as most sellers think they are in terms of pricing. They primarily seem rare because no one knows what to call them and as a result pricing can be all over the map. I’ve seen some two and three drawer versions listed for $300 and up. For a more reasonable reference I got both of mine for a total of $60 and a very modest shipping charge. I’ve seen one or two others sell for $20 to $30 each. A couple of trays I saw in Spring 2023 which listed for several hundred are still gathering dust on vintage store shelves.

Ferris Bueller standing in the bathroom of Chez Quis meme image with the superimposed words: "The Gaylord Bros. Library Charging Tray. It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up."

New Charging Trays

If you don’t have the patience to get something vintage, you might try purchasing new charging trays from Brodart. According to my research, they’re the only player left making and selling them outside of one online retailer in India offering a 5 tray model for for 2″x3″ and 3″x5″ cards for about US$50.

Sadly, Brodart has had some ongoing issues with their online web store this fall, so one would need to download a copy of their catalog and order via email, phone, or fax. In my physical copy of their most recent catalog they appear in the Processing and Circulation section on page 137. They offer both single and double trays in either a light or a darker finish. Prices for them range from US$76.76 to 149.06. The smaller trays will fit 600 cards with the larger trays fitting 1,000 cards each. Given their size, they might make for rather elegant desktop boxes. On that same catalog page Brodart also conveniently offers green pressboard card guides (dividers) which are either plain or labeled with the months of the year in a vertical 5″ tall by 3″ wide configuration. Separately they have some manila dividers with 1/3 cut alphabet tabs (A-Z) for helping you to sort and separate your cards.

For those who might prefer to use these in a zettelkasten practice, Brodart also makes borrower’s cards and book cards in a range of light to medium-weight card stock (similar to index cards) which are pre-printed with a range of metadata fields common to these types of cards (author, title, date loaned, borrower’s name, date returned, date due, room number, etc. Most of these cards are listed on catalog pages 128 and 129. Some of these would be particularly useful for making bibliography cards which would use some of these preprinted data fields. The date and patron portions could then be used to note page numbers and either quotes from the text/one’s own ideas respectively. All these cards are conveniently lined for writing your notes. Naturally one could just as easily use their own 3 x 5″ index cards of choice in a vertical orientation.

Brodart book card featuring two lines at the top for the title of the book and the author followed by a two column lined grid with spaces for Date Due and Borrower's Name
Brodart Book Card Catalog Number 23-242 906