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: https://hypothes.is/a/6Znx6MiMEeu3ljcVBsKNOw

1948 Smith-Corona “Clipper”

Childhood Typewriters

I’ve had a hollow space in my chest where a typewriter wanted to be. I’d had a few inexpensive plastic ones in my childhood before having a really spectacular Smith-Corona, but I thought that through many moves it had been long lost. Until, that is, I visited my parents on spring break this past week. While going through some old papers and boxes, I ran across a dusty, but stunning old jewel from my youth. 

Hiding in a corner of memorabilia was a hard black box which I immediately recognized as my old portable typewriter! I recall my parents having purchased it at a yard sale and bringing it home for us kids to use in 1984. It took a while back then to clean it up, but I used it for a variety of school projects and papers for several years until its use for school papers was later taken over by an electronic Panasonic word processor. Despite the newer technology I still preferred that old typewriter for composing and noodling around.

Ooh, my little pretty one, my pretty one

So, what is this fantastic jewel? It’s a 1948 Smith-Corona “Clipper” 4C (serial number 4C-242370). It’s still in spectacular shape. I had to re-connect the letter “A”s linkage joint, but all the keys still work well, and it’s going to need a new ribbon. The interior is a bit dusty and needs some cleaning and oiling, but a short afternoon of tinkering should make quick work of any issues. 

Oblique angle down on the top of a black Smith-Corona Clipper sitting on a brown wooden tabletop.

What’s fascinating is that all of the parts and functionalities of the machine came back to me instantaneously when I touched it. I knew all the small subtleties of sliding in a sheet of paper and aligning it to perfection. All the small niceties like the single/double space switch, the margin adjustments, the lovely bell, the ribbon direction adjustment switch, and even the centering mechanism were right there at my fingertips.

Rear view angle of the carriage return on the Smith-Corona Clipper with a view into the internals featuring the bell. The apparatus could be cleaner and features some use and dust build up on the oiled metal.

Sadly the original key wasn’t with the typewriter’s lock, but it was easily pickable. I’m reasonably sure the key will turn up as I dig through my other childhood memorabilia in the near future. At the worst, I can probably print a new key using a recipe I’ve already found online. I even unearthed a roughly contemporaneous typewriter manual for the Smith-Corona Clipper model

And the best part is that a young 12 year old was drawn to it and immediately wanted to use it and take it home with us, so the typewriter obsession may go on for at least another generation.

I can’t wait to begin using my new (old) tool for thought in my zettelkasten practice. I’m curious to see what the slow down effect of a manual typewriter has on my writing and thinking work. Perhaps the composition of my cards at the end of the day will have the added satisfaction of punching the keys of a fantastic typewriter.

Typed 3 x 5 inch index card. The top title in red ink reads "The Power of Information" with the following quotation: 
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. --- Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum

If nothing else, the Clipper does look quite nice next to my Shaw-Walker card index which is from the same era.

Desk level view of the front of a Shaw-Walker wooden card index tray next to a black typewriter.

Ultra-luxury of the “Clipper”

Just where does the Smith-Corona “Clipper” sit in the pantheon of typewriters? A variety of writers in the 21st century still talk about their love and nostalgia of specific typewriters mentioning the design esthetic of the Olivetti, a remembrance of an old Underwood, or their fondness of a Remington, but I think Tom Hanks sums things up pretty well:

This is what I would suggest: if you wanted the perfect typewriter that will last forever that would be a great conversation piece, I’d say get the Smith-Corona Clipper. That will be as satisfying a typing experience as you will ever have.
—Tom Hanks, actor, producer, typewriter enthusiast and collector, author of Uncommon Type on CBS Sunday Morning: “Tom Hanks, Typewriter Enthusiast” [00:07:30]

Close up of the Clipper logo on a Smith-Corona typewriter. It features a red outline of the small single wing, four engine airplane with the word "Clipper" underneath it  underlined with red waves so as to make the plane appear to be flying over water.

Of course Hanks comes by this analysis naturally as the Clipper typewriter’s namesake is the Boeing 314 Clipper, which appears prominently on the front left panel of the typewriter’s cover. The context and history of some of this airplane have been lost to current generations. Twelve of these air yachts were built by Boeing and operated for a decade between 1938 and 1948. Nine of the airplanes were operated by Pan-Am as transoceanic “one class” ultra-luxury air travel featuring lounges, dining areas with silver service for six-course meals from four-star chefs served by white coated stewards, seats that converted to sleeping bunks for overnight accommodations, and separate male and female dressing rooms for the comfort of elite businesspeople and wealthy travelers in the mid-twentieth century. As an indicator of the exclusivity and expense at the time, a one-way ticket from San Francisco to Hong Kong on the Clipper was listed for $760, which is equivalent to about $15,000 adjusted for inflation in 2021 (Klaás, 1989, p. 20).

Pan Am’s Clipper service of the 1940s represents the romance of flight in that era in the same way Smith-Corona Clipper represents the romance of typing in the ensuing decades. Most Americans’ nostalgia for the luxury and exotic freedom of airline flight in the 1960s and 1970s was built on this early experience operating the Clipper nearly 20 years before.

Reverse view into the opened Smith-Corona Clipper featuring a close up view of all of the type face and levers. Just visible at the top are a side view of the keys on the front of the typewriter.


“Tom Hanks, Typewriter Enthusiast.” CBS News Sunday Morning. CBS, October 15, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UTtDb73NkNM.

Klaás, M. D. (December 1989). “Clipper Across the Pacific, Part One”. Air Classics. 25 (12).

A note about my article on Goitein with respect to Zettelkasten Output Processes

Not long ago I made a Call for Model Examples of Zettelkasten Output Processes. To answer a part of that call and to highlight my own reading, note taking, and writing process, in the production of writing S.D. Goitein’s Card Index, I’ve included red # hyperlinks to all of the available digital notes I took while doing my research which is synthesized there. The interested reader can then look back to see the date and timestamps of all of my original notes and compare them if they wish to the final text of the piece. One will notice that most of the Goitein-specific portions occurred on two consecutive days while other portions were tied in from notes taken over the past two years including a few which may have been older, but revised for import.

I’m hoping that this example will give the aspiring interested note takers, commonplacers, and zettelkasten maintainers a peek into a small portion of my own specific process if they’d like to look more closely at such an example.

Following the reading and note taking portions of the process, I spent about 5 minutes scratching out a brief outline for the shape of the piece onto one of my own 4 x 6″ index cards. I then spent 15 minutes cutting and pasting all of what I felt the relevant notes were into the outline and arranging them. I then spent about two hours writing and (mostly) editing the whole. In a few cases I also cut and pasted a few things from my digital notes which I also felt would be interesting or relevant (primarily the parts on “notes per day” which I had from prior research.) All of this was followed by about an hour on administrivia like references and HTML formatting to put it up on my website. While some portions were pre-linked in a Luhmann-ese zettelkasten sense, other portions like the section on notes per day were a search for that tag in my digital repository in Hypothes.is which allowed me to pick and choose the segments I wanted to cut and paste for this particular piece.

From the outline to the finished piece I spent about three and a half hours to put together the 3,500 word piece. The research, reading, and note taking portion took less than a day’s worth of entertaining diversion to do including several fun, but ultimately blind alleys which didn’t ultimately make the final cut.

For the college paper writers, this entire process took less than three days off and on to produce what would be the rough equivalent of a double spaced 15 page paper with footnotes and references. Naturally some of my material came from older prior notes, and I would never suggest one try to cram write a paper this way. However, making notes on a variety of related readings over the span of a quarter or semester in this way could certainly allow one to relatively quickly generate some reasonably interesting material in a way that’s both interesting to and potentially even fun for the student and which could potentially push the edges of a discipline—I was certainly never bored during the process other than some of the droller portions of cutting/pasting.

While the majority of the article is broadly straightforward stringing together of facts, one of the interesting insights for me was connecting a broader range of idiosyncratic note taking and writing practices together across time and space to the idea of statistical mechanics. This is slowly adding to a broader thesis I’m developing about the evolving life of these knowledge practices over time. I can’t wait to see what develops from this next.

In the meanwhile, I’m happy to have some additional documentation for another prominent zettelkasten example which resulted in a body of academic writing which exceeds the output of Niklas Luhmann’s own corpus of work. The other outliers in the example include a significant contribution to a posthumously published book as well as digitized collection which is still actively used by scholars for its content rather than for its shape. I’ll also note that along the way I found at least one and possibly two other significant zettelkasten examples to take a look at in the near future. The assured one has over 15,000 slips, apparently with a hierarchical structure and a focus on linguistics which has some of the vibes of John Murray’s “slip boxes” used in the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary.

S.D. Goitein’s Card Index (or Zettelkasten)


Scholar and historian S.D. Goitein built and maintained a significant collection of over 27,000 notes in the form of a card index (or zettelkasten1) which he used to fuel his research and academic writing output in the mid to late twentieth century. The collection was arranged broadly by topical categories and followed in the commonplace book tradition though it was maintained on index cards. Uncommon to the space, his card index file was used by subsequent scholars for their own research and was ultimately digitized by the Princeton Geniza Project.

Introduction to S.D. Goitein and his work

Shelomo Dov Goitein (1900-1985) was a German-Jewish historian, ethnographer, educator, linguist, Orientalist, and Arabist who is best known for his research and work on the documents and fragments from the Cairo Geniza, a fragmented collection of some 400,000 manuscript fragments written between the 6th and 19th centuries.

Born in Burgkunstadt, Germany in 1900 to a line of rabbis, he received both a secular and a Talmudic education. At the University of Frankfurt he studied both Arabic and Islam from 1918-1923 under Josef Horovitz and ultimately produced a dissertation on prayer in Islam. An early Zionist activist, he immigrated to Palestine where he spent 34 years lecturing and teaching in what is now Israel. In order to focus his work on the Cairo Geniza, he moved to Philadelphia in 1957 where he lived until he died on February 6, 1985.

After becoming aware of the Cairo Geniza’s contents, S.D. Goitein ultimately devoted the last part of his life to its study. The Geniza, or storeroom, at the Ben Ezra Synagogue was discovered to hold manuscript fragments made of vellum, paper, papyrus, and cloth and written in Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic covering a wide period of Middle Eastern, North African, and Andalusian Jewish history. One of the most diverse collections of medieval manuscripts in the world, we now know it provides a spectacular picture of cultural, legal, and economic life in the Mediterranean particularly between the 10th and the 13th centuries. Ultimately the collection was removed from the Synagogue and large portions are now held by a handful of major research universities and academic institutes as well as some in private hands. It was the richness and diversity of the collection which drew Goitein to study it for over three decades.

Research Areas

Goitein’s early work was in Arabic and Islamic studies and he did a fair amount of work with respect to the Yemeni Jews before focusing on the Geniza.

As a classically trained German historian, he assuredly would have been aware of the extant and growing popularity of the historical method and historiography delineated by the influential works of Ernst Bernheim (1899) and Charles Victor Langlois and Charles Seignobos (1898) which had heavily permeated the areas of history, sociology, anthropology, and the humanities by the late teens and early 1920s when Goitein was at university.

Perhaps as all young writers must, in the 1920s Goitein published his one and only play Pulcellina about a Jewish woman who was burned at the stake in France in 1171. [@NationalLibraryofIsrael2021] # It is unknown if he may have used a card index method to compose it in the way that Vladimir Nabokov wrote his fiction.

Following his move to America, Goitein’s Mediterranean Society project spanned from 1967-1988 with the last volume published three years after his death. The entirety of the project was undertaken at the University of Pennsylvania and the Institute for Advanced Study to which he was attached. # As an indicator for its influence on the area of Geniza studies, historian Oded Zinger clearly states in his primer on research material for the field:

The first place to start any search for Geniza documents is A Mediterranean Society by S. D. Goitein. [@Zinger2019] #

Further gilding his influence as a historian is a quote from one of his students:

You know very well the verse on Tabari that says: ‘You wrote history with such zeal that you have become history yourself.’ Although in your modesty you would deny it, we suggest that his couplet applies to yourself as well.”
—Norman Stillman to S.D. Goitein in letter dated 1977-07-20 [@NationalLibraryofIsrael2021] #

In the early days of his Mediterranean Society project, he was funded by the great French Historian Fernand Braudel (1902-1985) who also specialized on the Mediterranean. Braudel had created a center in Paris which was often referred to as a laboratoire de recherches historiques. Goitein adopted this “lab” concept for his own work in American, and it ultimately spawned what is now called the Princeton Geniza Lab. [@PrincetonGenizaLab] #

The Card Index


In addition to the primary fragment sources he used from the Geniza, Goitein’s primary work tool was his card index in which he ultimately accumulated more than 27,000 index cards in his research work over the span of 35 years. [@Rustow2022] # Goitein’s zettelkasten ultimately consisted of twenty-six drawers of material, which is now housed at the National Library of Israel. [@Zinger2019] #.

Goitein’s card index can broadly be broken up into two broad collections based on both their contents and card sizes:

  1. Approximately 20,000 3 x 5 inch index cards2 are notes covering individual topics generally making of the form of a commonplace book using index cards rather than books or notebooks.
  2. Over 7,000 5 x 8 inch index cards which contain descriptions of a fragment from the Cairo Geniza. [@Marina2022] [@Zinger2019] #

The smaller second section was broadly related to what is commonly referred to as the “India Book” # which became a collaboration between Goitein and M.A. Friedman which ultimately resulted in the (posthumous) book India Traders of the Middle Ages: Documents from the Cairo Geniza “India Book” (2007).

The cards were all written in a variety of Hebrew, English, and Arabic based on the needs of the notes and the original languages for the documents with which they deal.

In addition to writing on cards, Goitein also wrote notes on pieces of paper that he happened to have lying around. [@Zinger2019] # Zinger provides an example of this practice and quotes a particular card which also shows some of Goitein’s organizational practice:

 In some cases, not unlike his Geniza subjects, Goitein wrote his notes on pieces of paper that were lying around. To give but one example, a small note records the location of the index cards for “India Book: Names of Persons” from ‘ayn to tav: “in red \ or Gray \ box of geographical names etc. second (from above) drawer to the left of my desk 1980 in the left right steel cabinet in the small room 1972” is written on the back of a December 17, 1971, note thanking Goitein for a box of chocolate (roll 11, slide 503, drawer13 [2.1.1], 1191v). 

This note provides some indication of some of his arrangements for note taking and how he kept his boxes. They weren’t always necessarily in one location within his office and moved around as indicated by the strikethrough, according to his needs and interests. It also provides some evidence that he revisited and updated his notes over time.

In Zinger’s overview of the documents for the Cairo Geniza, he also provides a two page chart breakdown overview of the smaller portion of Goitein’s 7,000 cards relating to his study of the Geniza with a list of the subjects, subdivisions, microfilm rolls and slide numbers, and the actual card drawer numbers and card numbers. These cards were in drawers 1-15, 17, and 20-22. [@Zinger2019] #


Zinger considers the collection of 27,000 cards “even more impressive when one realizes that both sides of many of the cards have been written on.” [@Zinger2019] Goitein obviously broke the frequent admonishment of many note takers (in both index card and notebook traditions) to “write only on one side” of his cards, slips, or papers. # This admonishment is seen frequently in the literature as part of the overall process of note taking for writing includes the ability to lay cards or slips out on a surface and rearrange them into logical orderings before copying them out into a finished work. One of the earliest versions of this advice can be seen in Konrad Gessner’s Pandectarum Sive Partitionum Universalium (1548).

Zinger doesn’t mention how many of his 27,000 index cards are double-sided, but one might presume that it is a large proportion. # Given that historian Keith Thomas mentions that without knowing the advice he evolved his own practice to only writing on one side [@Thomas2010], it might be interesting to see if Goitein evolved the same practice over his 35 year span of work. #

The double sided nature of many cards indicates that they could have certainly been a much larger collection if broken up into smaller pieces. In general, they don’t have the shorter atomicity of content suggested by some note takers. Goitein seems to have used his cards in a database-like fashion, similar to that expressed by Beatrice Webb [@Webb1926], though in his case his database method doesn’t appear to be as simplified or as atomic as hers. #

Card Index Output

As the ultimate goal of many note taking processes is to create some sort of output, as was certainly the case for Goitein’s work, let’s take a quick look at the result of his academic research career.

S.D. Goitein’s academic output stands at 737 titles based on a revised bibliography compiled by Robert Attal in 2000, which spans 93 pages. [@Attal2000] # # A compiled academia.edu profile of Goitein lists 800 articles and reviews, 68 books, and 3 Festschriften which tracks with Robert Atta’s bibliography. #. Goitein’s biographer Hanan Harif also indicates a total bibliography of around 800 publications. [@NationalLibraryofIsrael2021] #. The careful observer will see that Attal’s list from 2000 doesn’t include the results of S.D. Goitein’s India book work which weren’t published in book form until 2007.

Perhaps foremost within his massive bibliography is his influential and magisterial six volume A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza (1967–1993), a six volume series about aspects of Jewish life in the Middle Ages which is comprised of 2,388 pages. # When studying his card collection, one will notice that a large number of cards in the topically arranged or commonplace book-like portion were used in the production of this magnum opus. # Zinger says that they served as the skeleton of the series and indicates as an example:

 …in roll 26 we have the index cards for Mediterranean Society, chap. 3, B, 1, “Friendship” and “Informal Cooperation” (slides 375–99, drawer 24 [7D], 431–51), B, 2, “Partnership and Commenda” (slides 400–451, cards 452–83), and so forth. #

Given the rising popularity of the idea of using a zettelkasten (aka slip box or card index) as a personal knowledge management tool, some will certainly want to compare the size of Goitein’s output with that of his rough contemporary German sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927-1990). Luhmann used his 90,000 slip zettelkasten collection to amass a prolific 550 articles and 50 books. [@Schmidt2016]. Given the disparity in the overall density of cards with respect to physical output between the two researchers one might suspect that a larger proportion of Goitein’s writing was not necessarily to be found within his card index, but the idiosyncrasies of each’s process will certainly be at play. More research on the direct correlation between their index cards and their writing output may reveal more detail about their direct research and writing processes.

Digital Archive

Following his death in February 1985, S.D. Goitein’s papers and materials, including his twenty-six drawer zettelkasten, were donated by his family to the Jewish National and University Library (now the National Library of Israel) in Jerusalem where they can still be accessed. [@Zinger2019] #

In an attempt to continue the work of Goitein’s Geniza lab, Mark R. Cohen and A. L. Udovitch made arrangements for copies of S.D. Goitein’s card index, transcriptions, and photocopies of fragments to be made and kept at Princeton before the originals were sent. This repository then became the kernel of the modern Princeton Geniza Lab. [@PrincetonGenizaLaba] # #

Continuing use as an active database and research resource

The original Princeton collection was compacted down to thirty rolls of microfilm from which digital copies in .pdf format have since been circulating among scholars of the documentary Geniza. [@Zinger2019] #

Goitein’s index cards provided a database not only for his own work, but for those who studied documentary Geniza after him. [@Zinger2019] # S.D. Goitein’s index cards have since been imaged and transcribed and added to the Princeton Geniza Lab as of May 2018. [@Zinger2019] Digital search and an index are also now available as a resource to researchers from anywhere in the word. #

Historically it has generally been the case that repositories of index cards like this have been left behind as “scrap heaps” which have meant little to researchers other than their originator. In Goitein’s case his repository has remained as a beating heart of the humanities-based lab he left behind after his death.

In Geniza studies the general rule of thumb has become to always consult the original of a document when referencing work by other scholars as new translations, understandings, context, history, and conditions regarding the original work of the scholar may have changed or have become better understood.[@Zinger2019] # In the case of the huge swaths of the Geniza that Goitein touched, one can not only reference the original fragments, but they can directly see Goitein’s notes, translations, and his published papers when attempting to rebuild the context and evolve translations.

Posthumous work

Similar to the pattern following Walter Benjamin’s death with The Arcades Project (1999) and Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary (2010), Goitein’s card index and extant materials were rich enough for posthumous publications. Chief among these is India Traders of the Middle Ages: Documents from the Cairo Geniza “India Book.” (Brill, 2007) cowritten by Mordechai Friedman, who picked up the torch where Goitein left off. # # However, one must notice that the amount of additional work which was put into Goitein’s extant box of notes and the subsequent product was certainly done on a much grander scale than these two other efforts.

Notes per day comparison to other well-known practitioners

Given the idiosyncrasies of how individuals take their notes, the level of their atomicity, and a variety of other factors including areas of research, other technology available, slip size, handwriting size, etc. comparing people’s note taking output by cards per day can create false impressions and dramatically false equivalencies. This being said, the measure can be an interesting statistic when taken in combination with the totality of these other values. Sadly, the state of the art for these statistics on note taking corpora is woefully deficient, so a rough measure of notes per day will have to serve as an approximate temporary measure of what individuals’ historical practices looked like.

With these caveats firmly in mind, let’s take a look at Goitein’s output of roughly 27,000 cards over the span of a 35 year career: 27,000 cards / [35 years x 365 days/year] gives us a baseline of approximately 2.1 cards per day. #. Restructuring this baseline to single sided cards, as this has been the traditional advice and practice, if we presume that 3/4ths of his cards were double-sided we arrive at a new baseline of 3.7 cards per day.

Gotthard Deutch produced about 70,000 cards over the span of about 17 years giving him an output of about 11 cards per day. [@Lustig2019] #

Niklas Luhmann’s collection was approximately 90,000 cards kept over about 41 years giving him about 6 cards per day. [@Ahrens2017] #

Hans Blumenberg’s zettelkasten had 30,000 notes which he collected over 55 years averages out to 545 notes per year or roughly (presuming he worked every day) 1.5 notes per day. [@Kaube2013] #

Roland Barthes’ fichier boîte spanned about 37 years and at 12,250 cards means that he was producing on average 0.907 cards per day. [@Wilken2010] If we don’t include weekends, then he produced 1.27 cards per day on average. #

Finally, let’s recall again that it’s not how many thoughts one has, but their quality and even more importantly, what one does with them which matter in the long run. # Beyond this it’s interesting to see how influential they may be, how many they reach, and the impact they have on the world. There are so many variables hiding in this process that a fuller analysis of the statistical mechanics of thought with respect to note taking and its ultimate impact are beyond our present purpose.

Further Research

Based on a cursory search, no one seems to have picked up any deep research into Goitein’s card collection as a tool the way Johannes F.K. Schmidt has for Niklas Luhmann’s archive or the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale has for Jonathan Edwards’ Miscellanies Index.

Goitein wrote My Life as a Scholar in 1970, which may have some methodological clues about his work and method with respect to his card index. He also left his diaries to the National Library of Israel as well and these may also have some additional clues. # Beyond this, it also stands to reason that the researchers who succeeded him, having seen the value of his card index, followed in his footsteps and created their own. What form and shape do those have? Did he specifically train researchers in his lab these same methods? Will Hanan Harif’s forthcoming comprehensive biography of Goitein have additional material and details about his research method which helped to make him so influential in the space of Geniza studies? Then there are hundreds of small details like how many of his cards were written on both sides? # Or how might we compare and contrast his note corpus to others of his time period? Did he, like Roland Barthes or Gotthard Deutch, use his card index for teaching in his earlier years or was it only begun later in his career?

Other potential directions might include the influence of Braudel’s lab and their research materials and methods on Goitein’s own. Surely Braudel would have had a zettelkasten or fichier boîte practice himself?



  1. In my preliminary literature search here, I have not found any direct references to indicate that Goitein specifically called his note collection a “Zettekasten”. References to it have remained restricted to English generally as a collection of index cards or a card index.↩︎
  2. While not directly confirmed (yet), due to the seeming correspondence of the number of cards and their corpus descriptions with respect to the sizes, it’s likely that the 20,000 3 x 5″ cards were his notes covering individual topics while the 7,000 5 x 8″ cards were his notes and descriptions of a single fragment from the Cairo Geniza. #↩︎

Full RSS feeds for Mastodon Instances with OpenRSS

I’ve wanted full RSS feeds for several Mastodon instances for ages.

They can be particularly useful for small instances (aka communities) with slow posting velocity—you know, that instance you wanted to join for the local camaraderie, but having/maintaining/maintaining yet another Mastodon account wasn’t worth it, the hashtag discovery wasn’t going to cut it, and trying to follow all the people in the local community individually is irksome. Well OpenRSS.org might be able to cover you.

As an example, I wanted to follow what’s happening at toolsforthought.rocks/public/local so I added that slightly trimmed local timeline URL onto https://openrss.org/ and put it into my feed reader. After they wire things together for you a bit (presuming it’s one they’ve not seen/done before), voilà your RSS feed just starts working!  Now I’m following ToolsForThought at: https://openrss.org/toolsforthought.rocks/public/local.

Since my personal website works with Mastodon and the Fediverse, this last part of more easily following groups of people in my social reader helps me complete the circle of reading, following, and responding in a more IndieWeb way. (Of course I wish that Mastodon 4.0 had not gone full js;dr, which would have allowed following them using Microformats mark up with much better fidelity. le sigh)

social media (n):  /ˌsoː.ʃəl ˈmiː.di.aː/
A DDoS, usually perpetrated by surveillance capitalists, on a person’s attention preventing them from traditional sensemaking, clear thinking, learning, and generally otherwise experiencing life.

🎧 Space, Pixels and Cognition (Yiliu and John) | T4T S01E03

Listened to Space, Pixels and Cognition (Yiliu and John) | T4T S01E03 by Jerry Michalski from Tools for Thinking | Betaworks

A conversation about spatial computing and the power of operating in a spatial environment with the founder of Softspace, Yiliu Shen-Burke, and John Underkoffler of Oblong Industries.

Some interesting ideas about generative and playful spaces here. Also some references to Aby Warburg and murder boards, which may be of interest to Shawn Gilmore and J.D. Connor (@jdconnor@mastodon.social)

🎧 From Second Brains to Collective Brains (Sari and Rufus) | T4T S01E02

Listened to From Second Brains to Collective Brains (Sari and Rufus) | T4T S01E02 from Tools for Thinking Podcast | Betaworks

Yiliu Shen-Burke, founder of Softspace
John Underkoffler, creator of G-Speak
Host: Jerry Michalski

Finally catching up on Jerry Michalski’s Tools for Thinking podcast.

The Ultimate Guide to Zettelkasten Index Card Storage

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.

Modern Boxes

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.

Recipe boxes

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.

photo of desk featuring a green index card with a fountain pen on top of it. Surrounding it are a book on a book stand, a green card index and a pair of glasses

Microfiche boxes

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.

Postcard boxes

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.

Photo boxes

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?

Decorative boxes

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.

a white wooden crate with rope handles at each end and a red placard on the side that reads "Joy" with the "o" replaced with a snowflake.
I recently saw a simple decorative holiday box from Kohl’s that could be repurposed into a holiday themed zettelkasten. Does your zettelkasten bring you this kind of “joy”?

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:

Room Essentials™ 6qt Clear Storage Box White, a clear plastic box with a white lid whose interior measurements are 11 1/2″ x 6 3/8″ x 4 3/8″ and retails for $1.50. These are billed as nested/stackable as well. (Example in use

Sterilite 1751 – 6 Qt. ClearView Latch™ Box, a clear plastic box with handles whose interior measurements are 11 5/8″ x 6 1/8″ x 4 5/8″ and retails for $3.89 at vendors like Target, Home Depot, TruValue, and Big Lots. (Example in use)

Boxes made specifically for index cards

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.

Acrimet makes 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 

A small metal zettelkasten with a clear plastic lid sitting on a wooden table with a fountain pen and index card in front of it

Globe-Weis/Pendaflex Fiberboard Index Card Storage Box, $20 – $25, holds up to 1,000 cards. These are the boxes used by writer Robert Green to write his books. They’re made of some sturdy archival quality cardboard and their simple structure makes them fairly large and easy to stack. 

Snap-N-Store Index Card holder is a collapsible box fits that will fit 1,100 4 x 6 cards for $10 – $15.

Max Gear business card/index card boxes are made of bamboo and will hold up to 600 cards for about $40.00. 

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 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. Used versions of Remington-Rand and Gaylord Brothers versions can be found used online (eBay often has them), but they’re usually misidentified as drawers and very rarely identified as library card charging trays.

Update [2023-11-30]: I’ve written a bit more about these boxes and provided photos of a couple I’ve collected for those interested in more information about them.

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


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.

Brodart Mini Single Charging Tray holds 600 5″H x 3″W cards, adjustable steel follower block with automatic lock, felt pads on tray bottom 

Modular and Industrial options

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. 

Tennsco is 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.

Vintage Boxes

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, Facebook Marketplace, Offerup.com, 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.

A wooden 12 drawer index card filing cabinet (or zettelkasten) sitting in an antique store.
I ran across this 12 drawer 4 x 6 inch index card filing cabinet at an antique store in Southern California in December 2022.

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. Some midcentury and later cabinets mixed wood with steel drawers or in the late century wood cabinets with plastic drawers inside mounted to wooden fronts. Many were made with quarter sawn oak or with “tiger 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. Another useful search phrase is midcentury modern (or the abbreviation MCM) especially if you like that particular esthetic. 

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.

Oblique angle on a Shaw-Walker 11 inch 3 x 5 inch card index
An 11 inch Shaw-Walker wooden card index that I picked up for $10.

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. These sorts are particularly more common in the very early 1900’s as modular systems which were focused on the business market.

A two drawer wooden card index sitting on a wooden table

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 
  • Globe-Wernicke
  • Gaylord Bros. Inc. (Syracuse, NY and Stockton, CA) (1896)
  • Remington Rand
  • Weis (Monroe, Michigan)
  • Wagemaker
  • Tucker File & Cabinet Co. (Ilion, NY)
  • The Fred Macey Company, Ltd. (Grand Rapids, Michigan) aka Macey

Update: In September 2023, I’ve written more detail about the state of the used Library Card Catalog market, for those who might be interested in going that route for 3 x 5″ index cards: Market analysis of library card catalogs in 2023.

A waist high Gaylord Bros. library card catalog with a smaller desktop card index and black Smith-Corona Clipper typewriter on top.

Another option on the secondary market are used library charging trays, but it’s rare that sellers know what these were called or how they were used, so searching for and finding them can be difficult at best. Most often sellers confuse these with card catalog drawers or tray inserts. Additionally searching for charging trays directly results in modern accessories for charging cell phones and other personal electronic devices. Because they’re difficult to search, there’s a greater than necessary implied rarity to them, and as a result, they can be listed for several hundreds of dollars though most often they sell in the range of $5-15 per row of cards in the tray and are frequently found in configurations of one, two, three, and sometimes up to five rows of cards in a single unit.

Library charging tray with two rows for storing 3 x 5" index cards in portrait orientation. It's sitting on a small library card catalog.
A two row charging tray sitting on top of a library card catalog.

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.

1906 Advertisement for a combination card index table and telephone stand featuring a desk with the satellite combination table next to it.
1906 magazine ad from the Adjustable Table Company


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. 

Credit: Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

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) 
  • Steelmaster (Art Steel Co., Inc.) (New York)
  • Browne-Morse (Muskegon, Michigan)
  • Cole-Steel Equipment Company (New York) 
  • Singer Business Furniture
  • Globe-Wernicke
  • Buddy (later Sandusky/Buddy)
    • They seem to have ceased manufacturing them some time around 2016
  • MMF Industries
  • GWS

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.

Custom made

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.


Been working on this Zettlekasten for my thesis for nearly a year… Made some personal modifications to the system, so it includes a chronological stack of cards and lots of images.
byu/fer_mese inantinet

In late 2022/early 2023, Scott Scheper commissioned a two drawer solid wood (cedar) desktop zettelkasten box similar to those from the early 20th century. He had it listed on his website initially for $995 and then later for a reduced price of $495. He created a waitlist sign up for copies like it, ostensibly to test the interest in  manufacturing/selling them as a product. To my knowledge he never made any beyond the initial prototype, but it does show that one could custom make their own if they prefer.

Foreign Made Zettelkasten

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.

Anecdotally, I’ve heard that the IKEA Moppe will work for A7 cards. Additionally, I’ve heard that some Chinese practitioners have used Taobao cabinets.


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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📅 RSVP to Early Tools For Thought, with Mark Bernstein | Tools for Thought Rocks!

RSVPed Attending Early Tools For Thought, with Mark Bernstein

Mark Bernstein of Eastgate Systems, Inc., is the designer of Tinderbox: https://www.eastgate.com/Tinderbox/ 

​Join Mark as he turns back the clock to examine some early Tools For Thought, and the people who created them. There’s quite a lot to learn from both, as well as a research literature that repays study.

​The infinite canvas as a thinking space now has a long history, but few of the early systems are well known.  I think some of them might be worth a brief look, in terms of the ideas they brought forward and in terms of the tasks they sought to address.  For example:

Sketchpad: Ivan Sutherland’s system from the 1960 kicked off interactive computer graphics AND object-oriented programming.

NLS/Augment: Doug Engelbart’s original outliner, the first system that explicitly sought to be a tool for thought.

Xanadu: Ted Nelson’s early proposal for a hypertext docuverse.

Storyspace: the first system intended for non-sequential narrative. Introduced in 1987 and still in use today.

Intermedia: a platform for digital pedagogy, developed at Brown and BBN. 

KMS: a hypertext system for technical documentation, the source of Akscyn’s Law

Microcosm: A hypertext system based chiefly on contextual links, the ancestor of all sculptural hypertext.

Aquanet: the 1990 system from Halasz, Trigg, and  Marshall at Xerox PARC, described as a tool to hold your knowledge in place.

VIKI: the first spatial hypertext system, designed by Cathy Marshall as a reaction to Aquanet and the start of an enormously influential line of research

Listened to Howard Rheingold on Tools for Thought | Episode 94 • August 14, 2022 by Jorge Arango from The Informed Life
“We’re extremely powerful when it comes to making sense and finding connections, doing it visually instead of with a page.” Howard Rheingold is an eminent author, maker, and educator. His work has explored and defined key aspects of digital culture, including the use of computers as tools for mind augmentation, virtual communities, and social media literacy. In this conversation, we discuss computers as extensions for our minds, Douglas Engelbart’s unfinished revolution, basic literacies for interacting in information environments, and the resurgence of Tools for Thought.

Interesting and some useful base material here on literacies, but one can’t get very deep in 30 minutes with Rheingold on this topic. I would have rather this been 6 hours long and then multiple times that.
Listened to Mark Bernstein on Tinderbox by Jorge ArangoJorge Arango from The Informed Life

Mark Bernstein is chief scientist of Eastgate Systems, Inc. He’s been writing hypertexts and developing hypertext authoring software since the late 1980s. Mark is the creator of Tinderbox and other tools for thinking that “harness the power of the link.” In this conversation, we discuss thinking through connected notes.

Some subtle insights here.

representational talkback; the design of taking notes in the present when you’re not sure how they’ll connect to ideas in the (imagined) future; The Tinderbox Way; by force, all research is bottom up.

New Mastodon Instances and a Local Timeline Experiment

I’ve been tempted to join a smaller Mastodon instance to be able to appreciate the value of having a useful local timeline. Mastodon.social is so large as to have a generally un-useful local timeline because I lack the context of all the users and its generally very hit-and-miss for my discovery and serendipity needs. It’s not like I really spent a lot of time sipping from Twitter’s firehose timeline, which is a rough equivalent.

I almost jumped yesterday when Jim Groom and the Reclaim Hosting spun up a Mastodon instance focused on DS 106 at https://social.ds106.us/about. I’ve followed a large part of that community for over a decade, but didn’t have the bandwidth.

This morning I noticed that Boris Mann and gang have spun up a Mastodon instance around the idea of tools for thought which dovetails with their efforts at Tools for Thought Rocks! So I’m going to bite there to see what happens and have the experience of a smaller specific and focused timeline to watch.

I still have to figure out how to best dovetail the experience into my own IndieWeb site given potential limitations with backfeed of POSSE posts from Brid.gy. Perhaps I’ll just use it as read only to start and simply federate my content there? We’ll see. It’s solely an experiment, but some of those few already there are people I see regularly. No guarantees on how much I’ll post there, but if it’s your favorite reader/platform you can find me at @chrisaldrich@toolsforthought.rocks. Most likely anything I post to it will be more relevant to thinking.

As ever, following me directly via my own site is the best way to ensure you’re getting the best of everything.