I’ve been watching the secondary market for used card indexes for a while and finally caved and purchased a vintage wooden desk top Shaw-Walker 11 inch card index for 3 x 5″ index cards. It was dusty and dirty and in reasonably good shape, but with some cleaning and some wood polish, it’s in much better shape.
I removed the original tacks on the bottom which appeared to have once held down some red felt. I cut out a new rectangle of green felt and reattached the tacks so that the index won’t scratch up my desktop. The dovetails are in good shape, but it seems like in a year or two some of the joins may need to be re-glued.
In all, for a small $10.00 investment, it’s a stunning addition for my zettelkasten card collection. Compared to some of the cardboard and metal options out there, it was half the price, but is far prettier and infinitely more durable.
Of course I’ve got a strong preference for 4 x 6″, so I’ll be on the look out for something bigger, but this was just too good a deal to pass up. Perhaps I’ll use it like a Memindex or a related productivity tool?
Invariably, when one is starting out on their analog zettelkasten or index-card based commonplace book journey, one of the first questions besides what size and type of cards should I use, is naturally what sort of box should I put them in? This is one of the more frequently asked questions I’ve seen of those who have detailed their systems or especially in online fora.
Generally until you’ve made the commitment to keep up at it beyond a few hundred cards, a simple cardboard box, shoebox, or something sitting around the house will generally do. If a simple box worked so well for Vladimir Nabokov‘s work, surely you might do as well? Eventually you might want to move to something larger or more permanent, or at least something that looks nice on your desk or tucked into a corner. Those who, like Niklas Luhmann, Gotthard Deutsch, Gershom Scholem, Roland Barthe, S.D. Goitein or many others, are in it for the long haul and may need storage for more than 10,000 – 100,000+ cards might prefer something larger and more permanent, or at least something modular that might grow with their collection over time.
Whatever your choices, budget, and ultimate path, it might help to have a list of some of the more common options available to take a look at to see what might work for you now or in the future so you can begin thinking (or if you’re smitten: dreaming) about what your ultimate path might might be. Hopefully this guide will be helpful in that endeavor.
While storage for 3 x 5 inch and 4 x 6 inch index cards are the most ubiquitous and easy to find (with there being a fairly larger market for 3 x 5 inch card storage), one can find larger cards (5 x 8, 6 x 9, etc.) and storage boxes for them, they just may take more searching or cost a bit more. One should keep in mind that the larger the card and box, the harder and more expensive sourcing them will usually become. Your home country may also play a factor in your card size and box choices. I generally wouldn’t recommend that those in the United States opt for the European standards like A4, A5, or A6 cards as they’re slightly harder to source here and there aren’t nearly as many options for the range of storage options unless you’re willing to buy and ship cabinetry from overseas which can become expensive for the more budget conscious. A similar caveat should be noted for those in other countries looking at the standards in the United States. One of the greatest benefits of the A size standard is that larger slips can be folded in half to create the next smaller size down, so for example you could use A4 slips, but fold them in half and have them fit very neatly into your A5 standard box.
Your personal working needs may also play a factor in your choice. Nabokov, mentioned above, may have opted for simple shoebox like boxes because he preferred to be able to work easily on the move. However as seen in the example in Robert Pirsig’s book Lila: An Enquiry into Morals, you might also want to guard against your box tipping over and spilling all over your room. This incidentally is the purpose of the holes in library card catalog cards which are held into their drawers by long metal rods. One should keep in mind that death by zettelkasten as seen in Anatole France’s book L’Île Des Pingouins (1908) is rare, but given the vending machine size and weight of some of the larger index card filing cabinets below, one might consider some care.
My personal preference has been for the 4 x 6 inch form factor, so most of the suggestions below are geared toward that size, though in many cases options for 3 x 5 inch cards are all readily, if not more readily, available. Card storage for larger form factors may not be as readily available for more modern options, but with a little bit of looking, perhaps you’ll find something functional and within your budgetary range. I have definitely seen some lovely storage options for larger cards.
Of course if you go all-in on a gorgeous restored wooden card filing cabinet for something in the $5,000+ range that you intend to use for the next 50 years, the $100/year storage cost over time may seem like a drop in the bucket for something that will help to develop and expand your knowledge and creativity. When you compare this to computers in the $500 – $2,000 range, it’s really not so bad, particularly when you realize that these won’t need replacements or upgrades over time the way your computer might. They also don’t come with the recurring costs for data storage, back up, or software subscriptions that digital zettelkasten methods entail.
One of the few caveats in purchasing a box for your cards is to make sure that they’ll actually fit. While many boxes may advertise that they’re for a specific size and usually those will fit, you may actually want them to be slightly larger. For example, a box may fit your 4 x 6 inch slips, but will it also accommodate the tabbed index cards you use to help organize them? As a result you may actually want something that will accommodate 4.5 – 4.75 inches in height instead of just 4 inches. If you’re shopping for boxes in person, it may behoove you to carry around an index card or two or even a tabbed card to make sure your potential new box will work for you.
DIY and Makeshift Boxes
As I recommended above, your best bet on a first box is something that you have on hand, can upcycle, or that you can make for yourself in DIY fashion. Cardboard boxes, shoeboxes, or even custom cut and glued/taped cardboard can serve as a useful and functional zettelkasten box. One practitioner I’ve encountered swears by her upcycled Sam Edelman shoeboxes which are incredibly sturdy and colorfully handsome boxes which others might spend upwards of $40 on otherwise. Some recycled cardboard and duct tape can give you a custom-sized box for pennies on the dollar and fit anywhere from 500 – 2,000 cards pretty easily.
If you want to go crazy you can decorate your box with stickers, construction paper, or even wrap it with fabric or contact or shelf paper with a variety of patterns and designs. Because they’re cheap, you may as well spend a few dollars and minutes decorating and making your box something you enjoy working with for the coming weeks and months.
Before exploring boxes made specifically for index cards, keep in mind that there are some vendors who make boxes for other purposes, but which will easily accommodate your index cards as well.
While these tend to be relatively small and only hold somewhere from 200 – 1000 cards, they can be excellent starter boxes that allow some portability and more style options than many of the other options on the market. You can easily find these sorts of recipe boxes in online stores like Amazon and Etsy in a variety of styles, colors, and materials (wood, plastic, metal, etc.) A wide variety of these should be easy to find in the $10 – $100 range from such a wide variety of vendors and suppliers that I won’t bother to mention them.
My first box was a small tin, green box that I’m reasonably sure was from the Martha Stewart collection from Macy’s that I repurposed until it outgrew its 300 card capacity.
Library supplies company Brodart has a selection of potential boxes including Microfiche boxes. These should easily fit 4 x 6″ index cards as well as card dividers with taller tabs which commercially don’t often get taller than 4 1/2″. See also their microfiche divider guides which might be used for sectioning one’s work.
Brodart and some other art and photo supply manufacturers make boxes for postcards or photos. (N.B. presuming the 4 1/8″ H dimension of Brodart’s postcard box is even the outer dimension, this means that one can’t easily keep tab cut dividers which often go from 4 3/8″ to 4 1/2″ tall in these boxes with the lids on properly.)
Another subtle difference between Brodart’s postcard and microfiche boxes is that the smaller postcard box is 60-pt paper versus 40-pt for the larger microfiche box, which means that while sturdy, isn’t quite as sturdy. A side benefit in addition to their stackability is that they’re designed for archival storage purposes which may help in long term storage of your collection.
While they’re no longer available, Ryan Holiday has previously indicated in many places that he prefers and uses Cropper Hopper plastic photo boxes to keep his index card-based commonplace book. Though those aren’t around anymore, there are certainly others that will fit the bill well since 4 x 6 inch standard photo size are the same size as many index cards. And of course, if you’ve got a favorite index card or two, why not buy a photo frame to feature it on your desk?
Kuggis is a generic, but fashionable IKEA box with a lid that can be used for card storage. At 7 x 10.25 x 6 inches its a nice size and just about the perfect size for 4 x 6″ index cards. The lid has a slight indent to make it easily stackable. At $5.99 its a nice budget-conscious option.
Surely there are a wide variety of other decorative boxes one might find with a bit of looking. The downside may be that while these might look nice on a desk, they’re less likely to be high capacity, modular, or able to grow beyond a certain point.
Universal Storage Boxes
There are a number of available mass manufactured boxes made for a variety of general use purposes which can be used for zettelkasten containers. Some of these include:
For the more serious zettler, one may prefer to have boxes which are custom made for storing index cards. These usually have some nice refinements for daily use, are more rugged, and come in a variety of colors and styles and are generally meant for easy use in a desk drawer, on one’s desktop, or for easy storage on office shelves. As a result, they’re also generally a bit more expensive than their non-custom brethren.
Acrimetmakes a number of box sizes (3 x 5, 4 x 6, 5 x 8, and 6 x 9) and a variety of colors in metal with plastic lids. They all hold approximately 600 index cards and range from $28.00 – 45.00 depending on the card size they’re meant for. While these are quite beautiful on a desk, their hinged lids don’t lend them to easy stackable accessibility if you have a larger collection. This is what I personally used after making the step up from a recipe box, though I opted for purchasing a few additional plastic dividers for $4.20 each
JUNDUN index card holder can contain 1,200 cards, comes in 3 x 5 and 4 x 6 options with several available colors from $18 – $30. While being portable, these are also lockable and fireproof.
Steelmaster card files manufactured by MMF Industries are one of the more industrial/serious options in this category. Their 263644BLA Index Card File Holds 400 4 x 6 cards with dimensions of 6 3/4 x 4 1/5 x 5 inches. $80- $100.
Library Card Charging Trays
These boxes were originally intended for use in libraries to help librarians keep physical track of the books which were out on loan. Because the 3 x 5″ index cards used in the pockets of library books were primarily used in portrait orientation instead of landscape, these boxes are meant to accommodate that specific size and orientation. These might be an interesting choice if you use a non-standard card orientation or perhaps if you’re recreating the old Memindex card productivity system. A few manufacturers like Brodart still make them or they might be found on the used market as libraries continue computerizing. You’re exceptionally unlikely to find them for larger card sizes. I’ve seen them in 1 to 5 tray styles in a variety of lengths and colors and some even with lids.
Brodart Full-Length Single Charging Tray Intended for desktop use, it holds 1,000 5″H x 3″W cards, has an adjustable steel follower block with automatic lock, and felt pads on tray bottom to protect your desktop.
For the more serious long term zettelers who have rapidly growing collections, there are some options for modular systems that will allow you to easily add additional boxes over time.
Vaultz 2 drawer card file both with/without locks, $69. These are the type used by many in the zettelkasten space including Scott Scheper.
Steelmaster by MMF Industries, mentioned above in a smaller form factor, also manufactures a two drawer modular card cabinet that holds up to 3,000 cards. Their model MMF263F4616DBLA runs in the $75-100 range. If you’re interested in these, they seem to be becoming harder to find, so you may wish to purchase a few up front in case they are discontinued in the coming years, which seems to be the general case for these sturdier metal filing boxes over the past several decades.
Office furniture manufacturer Bisley has a relatively wide variety of small modular boxes in a variety of form factors and vibrant colors. Some of these aren’t as readily sourced in the United States, but can be ordered from their New York offices. They are not only meant to be stackable, but have options for locking them as well.
Tennscois one of the few remaining index card filing cabinet manufacturers left in the United States. They make significantly larger cabinets with a variety of sizes, numbers of drawers and colors. Amazon carries a variety of them as does the aptly named Metal Cabinet Store. For purchasing new card filing cabinets that can hold tens of thousands of cards, this seems to be the only stop. Depending on type, number of drawers, and your particular card size these can range from $1,800 – $2,300 and will store up to 43,400 index cards. On the positive side with such high capacities, two of them will likely to take you a lifetime to fill. I’ve not seen exact specifications for these, but I suspect they’re made of slightly lighter 18 gauge alloy steel which makes them fairly sturdy while still being only about 220 pounds. They’re not quite as industrial as the 20 gauge steel filing cabinets made in the mid-1900s which can much stronger as well as much heavier.
Brodart libary card catalogs. Brodart is one of the few companies still manufacturing library card catalogs, and they’re doing so in a modular way so that you have a bit more selection about how big your filing cabinet is and how it’s configured. Generally you can choose a table base or not, how many sections of drawers you purchase, whether or not it includes writing board sections (for having writing surfaces for quick note taking in front of it), as well as the ability to remove the top and add new sections. The down side here is that they only make them in the 3 x 5 inch form factor. I’ve previously written about them and some of their available supplies in detail in the past here: Brodart Library Supplies for the Analog Zettelkasten Enthusiast.
Commercial demand for card index files has waned dramatically since the advent of commercial computing. Fortunately they were so tremendously ubiquitous from the late 1800s through the mid-to-late 1900s, they can readily be found in acceptable to excellent used condition, and sometimes even in restored condition for a reasonable sum in comparison to purchasing new filing cabinets. Because the market for people looking for these used boxes and filing cabinets is so thin they’re not terribly expensive. The one caveat to this seems to be for larger restored/refinished wooden library card catalogs from the early 1900s in part because they are stunning pieces of nostalgic furniture and can still function as curiosity cabinets or high end wine storage cabinets.
These cabinets can be searched for at specialty office liquidation companies, surplus government/school/library companies, auctions, and vintage and antique stores. However, some of the quickest places to find these on the less expensive side can be your local Craigslist furniture listings, E-bay, Etsy, and even Nextdoor.com. I recommend looking around at all of these venues for the variety of what’s available versus your particular style, taste, and budget level. Looking and waiting can be particularly useful if you’re budget conscious, but I’d also advise that once you know what you want and have fallen in love with something, buy it immediately as you may not come across a particular piece again.
Because some of these cabinets are so large and the demand is so low, many sellers may be motivated to offload them for much less than they list them for. I purchased my own Singer Industrial cabinet for $200.00 while I’ve seen similar ones listed online (and unsold for long periods of time) for over $1,000. Sellers of refinished pieces are much less likely to drop their prices for obvious reasons.
Another factor to consider in purchasing larger cabinets is that in the 200+ pound range, these can be harder to package and ship and may require freight or furniture shipping methods. As a result, shipping can easily cost as much as the piece itself, so when shopping, keep this in mind. If you’re more budget conscious, narrow your search to local sellers which may make pick-up or shipping significantly cheaper.
Once you’ve gotten something, keep in mind that the original wear and tear and potential patina of a piece can be part of the allure and nostalgia. Sadly, second and third hand owners may not realize the functionality of some pieces of these files and as a result they may be missing some hardware like card rods, following blocks, locks, or other pieces which may be hard if not impossible to find or replace.
If you’re inclined, you can either send them out for refinishing or refinish them yourself. Some of the larger metal pieces can run from $500 – $1,500 to bead blast and re-paint or re-enamel, but have the benefit that you can choose which color(s) you’d like them to be to fit into your decor. You may have to search around to find refinishing shops for these, but you might also find that your local auto-repair firm is well set up for stripping, priming, and repainting these as well (some of them are almost as large as a car, but without wheels and engines.)
Cabinets in the late 1800s and early 1900s were primarily manufactured out of wood. Many were made with quarter sawn oak, which can often be a useful key search term for finding them. Sometimes it can also be useful to search for the key phrase “apothecary cabinet” as many who have these either don’t understand the difference or add it to increase their search exposure for potential buyers who seemingly no longer desire to store large quantities of index cards.
While a number of manufacturers focused on the library card catalog space with catalogs containing 10-30 or more drawers almost exclusively for the 3 x 5 inch index card, many also made file card furniture for business use and these can usually be found with 1-10 drawers in size. Possibly most common are the two drawer files which can often be stacked in a modular way to allow for growth of one’s desktop system. In these areas it is more common to find 3 x 5 inch and 4 x 6 inch form factors, but often larger card sized furniture was built and distributed, though these are rarer on the second hand market.
With some searching, one can also find combination cabinets that have drawers not only for index cards, but also contain standard hanging file drawers for 8.5 x 11 inch files and paper filing purposes.
Some of the more common manufacturers for wood card catalog files include:
Library Bureau (Ilion, NY) (1876), Sometimes listed as “Library Bureau Sole Makers”
Yawman & Erbe
Gaylord Bros. Inc. (Syracuse, NY and Stockton, CA) (1896)
Weis (Monroe, Michigan)
Tucker File & Cabinet Co. (Ilion, NY)
The Fred Macey Company, Ltd. (Grand Rapids, Michigan) aka Macey
In addition to the more standard run-of-the-mill card files in single or multi-box form, you might also find some rarer combination furniture like the Satelite Combination Card Index Cabinet and Telephone Stand (circa 1906), though something like this could also be used as a semi-portable or movable piece of furniture that one could place as a small writing surface next to their favorite reading chair to write and file notes away on a leisurely evening.
As the 20th century progressed, many manufacturers switched from wood to steel as their material of choice. Most library card catalogs continued to be made of wood though a few can be found in steel. The larger proportion of steel filing cabinets cabinets were manufactured by companies that also manufactured desks and other industrial use filing cabinets.
Again, here desktop two drawer modular/stackable cabinets abound though 8 – 10 drawer and even larger free-standing filing cabinets can be found. Many of these include tab and slot features to lock them together for safer stacking. A good example of a modularly built collection can be seen in this photo from a 2017 New York Times article of Joan Rivers’ collection of index cards with 36 drawers of 4-by-6-inch index cards containing jokes she’d accumulated over her lifetime of work.
Somewhat rarer, but findable, one may encounter filing cabinets meant for Hollerinth or punch cards which eventually standardized at 3.25 x 7.375 inches, which was also the standard size for paper currency of 1862–1923. Often these will have drawers high enough to accommodate 4 x 6 inch cards, but one should double check this prior to purchase.
Some of the more common steel cabinet makers include:
Yawman & Erbe
All-Steel Equipment, Inc. (ASE) (Aurora, Illinois)
They seem to have ceased manufacturing them some time around 2016
The smaller 1 to 3 drawer vintage metal card files are readily available on a variety of online shopping sites usually between $15 and $40. This isn’t bad given how expensive new files can run. Many were made with small fittings that allow them to be stackable. Usually these are sturdy, but light enough for relatively inexpensive shipping. If they’re in bad shape, they can usually be easily cleaned up and primed and repainted in more modern colors to suit your taste and style.
The larger multi-drawer full cabinets can often run from $200 to over $1,000, but their bigger issue is that they’re so large and heavy that they can be in the range of $800 or more to ship anywhere. If you want something like this, your best bet is to try to find something local that you can drive to and pick up locally.
If you’re into 4 x 6 inch cards, double check with the seller to make sure that they’ll fit as most sellers won’t list the card sizes for drawers since they don’t expect them to actually still be used as card indexes and they’ll neglect to not additional clearances for tabbed cards. Keep in mind that often even the somewhat larger cabinets are a 1/4″ too short for 4 x 6 inch cards, much less the slightly taller tabbed cards (A-Z) you might use for separating sections.
A while back I personally picked up a large Singer Business Furniture card index which I’ve written a fair bit about. Some of the information there may help to provide some more context about these larger cabinets.
Of course given all this selection, you still may not have found the right box for your taste or your working style. In this case you may want to have something custom made. Given this, however, it may still behoove you and your designer to be aware of what has existed in the past when designing something specific for your needs.
Some common features you might find useful in either designing or choosing your own cabinets include:
follow blocks to bunch cards to the front of the drawer and hold them upright or at a slight angle without falling over;
bail stops, a mechanism to keep the drawer from being accidentally pulled completely out of the case and dropping your cards everywhere;
card rods as often seen in library card catalogs which insert from the front to the back of the bottom of drawers to prevent accidental card spillage.
I don’t have many examples of custom made set ups, but I’ll add links to what I find below and some individuals may add others in the comments section below as well.
Particularly missing from this collection is a wide array of European standard furniture and boxes for A4, A5, A6 etc. cards. There are some great German, Russian, and other cultural design specific pieces I’ve not included, in part because they’re not as readily available in my market and I haven’t yet had the time to delve into their histories. If you’ve got experience here, I’d love to hear what’s available.
In addition to the A-standard types mentioned above, surely I’ve missed some boxes and cabinets along the way, though this may be one of the more complete collections of boxes I’ve seen compiled. If I’ve missed any that should be included, or you have an example (your own perhaps?) that I can feature or link to, please let me know in the comments or via a reply in social media. Particularly appreciated are examples of non-standard boxes in use as zettelkasten or custom made examples, particularly if they include photos and/or DIY instructions for construction.
Remember that you shouldn’t have to settle for your zettel… Happy zettel casting!
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