Replied to a thread by Donna Yates and Shawn Graham (archaeo.social)
For the past few weeks I've been working hard to bring a modified system into my academic life via . Obsidian (or knowledge management) tips, tricks, plugins, etc very welcome.
@Drdonnayates@archaeo.social I'd say, ignore the temptation to install all the plugins, until you get the feel of things. And even then, keep it minimal. Otherwise I at least get distracted in pursuit of The One True System instead of just using the damned thing. You might find some use in the materials re Obsidian I use with my students, https://shawngraham.github.io/hist1900
@electricarchaeo@scholar.social OH do I so want the one true system...I want it.
@Drdonnayates@archaeo.social @electricarchaeo@scholar.social
Shawn’s admonition to keep things simple is valuable. I’m hoping to go through his excellent looking class materials shortly.

I rely heavily on Hypothes.is for digital annotation and transport it all into Obsidian using https://boffosocko.com/2021/07/08/hypothes-is-obsidian-hypothesidian-for-easier-note-taking-and-formatting/

@natalie@hcommons.social recently wrote up an excellent overview for dovetailing with Zotero, which I’d done previously and love: https://nataliekraneiss.com/your-academic-reading-list-in-obsidian/

If you really want to go down the rabbit hole: https://boffosocko.com/research/zettelkasten-commonplace-books-and-note-taking-collection/

If it provides some reassurance, though I’ve not gotten into the specifics I’m reasonably certain that Marcel Mauss and Claude Lévi-Strauss, among many others, had significant practices.

If you go beyond basic notes, I’ll have something on to do list functionality shortly, but our friend @kfitz@hcommons.social had something here recently: https://kfitz.info/tasks-matter/

If you’ve not found it yet, Obsidian has a Discord with a specific channel for academia.

Replied to a post by Romain LarueRomain Larue (Piaille)
Nous avons tous pris des notes durant nos cours, nos réunions ou pendant la lecture d’un livre. Mais que deviennent ces notes ? Est-ce qu’il n’existe pas un moyen de les rendre durable dans le temps et surtout de les utiliser de façon efficace? Cette méthode c’est le ZETTELKASTEN, une technique inventée par NIKLAS LUHMANN pour organiser ses notes et ses observations pour en faire des livres et des articles denses et riches. https://youtu.be/1ycG6ojNPq8 #efficacité #organisation #ecrire
@ctietze @romainlarue@piaille.fr
Pourquoi ne pas utiliser la méthode des fiches de Roland Barthes? 😁 #FichierBoîte
https://hypothes.is/users/chrisaldrich?q=tag%3A%27fichier+bo%C3%AEte%27

On the Jokerzettel: An Apocalyptic Interpretation of Luhmann’s note ZKII 9/8j

Niklas Luhmann’s Jokerzettel 9/8j

Many have asked about the meaning of Niklas Luhmann’s so-called jokerzettel over the past several years.

9/8j Im Zettelkasten ist ein Zettel, der das
Argument enthält, das die Behauptungen
auf allen anderen Zetteln widerlegt.

Aber dieser Zettel verschwindet, sobald man
den Zettelkasten aufzieht.
D.h. er nimmt eine andere Nummer an,
verstellt sich und ist dann nicht zu finden.

Ein Joker.

—Niklas Luhmann, ZK II: Zettel 9/8j

Translation:

9/8j In the slip box is a slip containing the argument that refutes the claims on all the other slips. But this slip disappears as soon as you open the slip box. That is, he assumes a different number, disguises himself and then cannot be found. A joker.

An Apocalyptic Interpretation

Here’s my slightly extended interpretation, based on my own practice with several thousands of cards, about what Luhmann meant:

Imagine you’ve spent your life making and collecting notes and ideas and placing them lovingly on index cards. You’ve made tens of thousands and they’re a major part of your daily workflow and support your life’s work. They define you and how you think. You agree with Friedrich Nietzsche’s concession to Heinrich Köselitz that “You are right — our writing tools take part in the forming of our thoughts.” Your time is alive with McLuhan’s idea that “The medium is the message.” or his friend John Culkin‘s aphorism, “We shape our tools and thereafter they shape us.”

Eventually you’re going to worry about accidentally throwing your cards away, people stealing or copying them, fires (oh! the fires), floods, or other natural disasters. You don’t have the ability to do digital back ups yet. You may ask yourself, can I truly trust my spouse not to destroy them? What about accidents like dropping them all over the floor and needing to reorganize them or worse, what if the ghost in the machine should rear its head?

You’ll fear the worst, but the worst only grows logarithmically in proportion to your collection.

Eventually you pass on opportunities elsewhere because you’re worried about moving your ever-growing collection. What if the war should obliterate your work? Maybe you should take them into the war with you, because you can’t bear to be apart?

If you grow up at a time when Schrödinger’s cat is in the zeitgeist, you’re definitely going to have nightmares that what’s written on your cards could horrifyingly change every time you look at them. Worse, knowing about the Heisenberg Uncertainly Principle, you’re deathly afraid that there might be cards, like electrons, which are always changing position in ways you’ll never be able to know or predict.

As a systems theorist, you view your own note taking system as a input/output machine. Then you see Claude Shannon’s “useless machine” (based on an idea of Marvin Minsky) whose only function is to switch itself off. You become horrified with the idea that the knowledge machine you’ve painstakingly built and have documented the ways it acts as an independent thought partner may somehow become self-aware and shut itself off!?!

And worst of all, on top of all this, all your hard work, effort, and untold hours of sweat creating thousands of cards will be wiped away by a potential unknowable single bit of information on a lone, malicious card; your only recourse is suicide, the unfortunate victim of dataism.

Of course, if you somehow manage to overcome the hurdle of suicidal thoughts, and your collection keeps growing without bound, then you’re sure to die in a torrential whirlwind avalanche of information and cards, literally done in by information overload.

But, not wishing to admit any of this, much less all of this, you imagine a simple trickster, a joker, something silly. You write it down on yet another card and you file it away into the box, linked only to the card in front of it, the end of a short line of cards with nothing following it, because what could follow it? Put it out of your mind and hope your fears disappear away with it, lost in your box like the jokerzettel you imagined. You do this with a self-assured confidence that this way of making sense of the world works well for you, and you settle back into the methodical work of reading and writing, intent on making your next thousands of cards.

On The Interdisciplinarity of Zettelkasten: Card Numbering, Topical Headings, and Indices

As humans we’re terrifically spectacular at separating things based on perceived categories. The Dewey Decimal System systematically separates mathematics and history into disparate and distinct locations, but your zettelkasten shouldn’t force this by overthinking categories. Perhaps the overlap of math and history is exactly the interdisciplinary topic you’re working toward? If this is the case, just put cards into the slip box closest to their nearest related intellectual neighbor—and by this I mean nearest related to your way of thinking, not to Melvil Dewey’s or anyone else. Over time, through growth and branching, ideas will fill in the interstitial spaces and neighboring ideas will slowly percolate and intermix. Your interests will slowly emerge into various bunches of cards in your box. Things you may have intially thought were important can separate away and end up on sparse branches while other areas flourish. If you make the (false) choice to separate math and history into different “sections” it will be much harder for them to grow and intertwine in an organic and truly interdisciplinary way. Universities have done this sort of separation for hundreds of years and as a result, their engineering faculty can be buildings or even entire campuses away from their medical faculty who now want to work together in new and exciting interdisciplinary ways. This creates a physical barrier to more efficient and productive innovation and creativity. It’s your zettelkasten, so put those ideas right next to each other from the start so they can do the work of serendipity and surprise for you. Do not artificially separate your favorite ideas. Let them mix and mingle and see what comes out of them.

If you feel the need to categorize and separate them in such a surgical fashion, then let your index be the place where this happens. This is what indices are for! Put the locations into the index to create the semantic separation. Math related material gets indexed under “M” and history under “H”. Now those ideas can be mixed up in your box, but they’re still findable. DO NOT USE OR CONSIDER YOUR NUMBERS AS TOPICAL HEADINGS!!! Don’t make the fatal mistake of thinking this. The numbers are just that, numbers. They are there solely for you to be able to easily find the geographic location of individual cards quickly or perhaps recreate an order if you remove and mix a bunch for fun or (heaven forfend) accidentally tip your box out onto the floor. Each part has of the system has its job: the numbers allow you to find things where you expect them to be and the index does the work of tracking and separating topics if you need that.

The broader zettelkasten, tools for thought, and creativity community does a terrible job of explaining the “why” portion of what is going on here with respect to Luhmann’s set up. Your zettelkasten is a crucible of ideas placed in juxtaposition with each other. Traversing through them and allowing them to collide in interesting and random ways is part of what will create a pre-programmed serendipity, surprise, and combinatorial creativity for your ideas. They help you to become more fruitful, inventive, and creative.

Broadly the same thing is happening with respect to the structure of commonplace books. There one needs to do more work of randomly reading through and revisiting portions to cause the work or serendipity and admixture, but the end results are roughly the same. With a Luhmann-esque zettelkasten, it’s a bit easier for your favorite ideas to accumulate into one place (or neighborhood) for easier growth because you can move them around and juxtapose them as you add them rather than traversing from page 57 in one notebook to page 532 in another.

If you use your numbers as topical or category headings you’ll artificially create dreadful neighborhoods for your ideas to live in. You want a diversity of ideas mixing together to create new ideas. To get a sense of this visually, play the game Parable of the Polygons in which one categorizes and separates (or doesn’t) triangles and squares. The game created by Vi Hart and Nicky Case based on the research of Thomas Schelling (Dynamic Models of Segregation, 1971) provides a solid and visual example of the sort of statistical mechanics going on with ideas in your zettelkasten when they’re categorized rigidly. If you rigidly categorize ideas and separate them, you’ll drastically minimize the chance of creating the sort of useful serendipity of intermixed and innovative ideas. A zettelkasten isn’t simply the aggregation repository many use it for—it’s a rumination device, a serendipity engine, a creativity accelerator. To get the best and most of this effect, one must carefully help to structure their card index to generate it.

It’s much harder to know what happens when you mix anthropology with complexity theory if they’re in separate parts of your mental library, but if those are the things that get you going, then definitely put them right next to each other in your slip box. See what happens. If they’re interesting and useful and they’ve got explicit numerical locators and are cross referenced in your index, they are unlikely to get lost. Be experimental occasionally. Don’t put that card on Henry David Thoreau in the section on writers, nature, or Concord, Massachusetts—especially if those aren’t interesting to you. Besides, everyone has already worn down those associative trails, paved them, and re-paved them. Instead put him next to your work on innovation and pencils because it’s much easier to become a writer, philosopher, and intellectual when your family’s successful pencil manufacturing business can pay for you to attend Harvard and your house was always full of writing instruments from a young age. Now you’ve got something interesting and creative. (And if you really must, you can always link the card numerically to the other transcendentalists across the way.)

In case they didn’t hear it in the back, I’ll shout it again:

ACTIVELY WORK AGAINST YOUR NATURAL URGE TO USE YOUR ZETTELKASTEN NUMBERS AS TOPICAL HEADINGS! MIX IT UP INSTEAD.

Featured image by Michael Treu from Pixabay

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)

Abstract

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

Basics

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] #

Method

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?

References

Footnotes

  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. #↩︎
Replied to a post by Arindam Basu (@arinbasu1@social.arinbasu.online)Arindam Basu (@arinbasu1@social.arinbasu.online) (social.arinbasu.online)
Please share some resources on you have found useful.
@emkmiller@sciences.social, @josh@sciences.social, @arinbasu1@social.arinbasu.online Here’s a collection of material I’ve written relating to Zettelkasten which some may find useful: https://boffosocko.com/research/zettelkasten-commonplace-books-and-note-taking-collection/

In this area, I prefer using Zotero for collecting, ResearchRabbit for expanding scope, Hypothes.is for note taking/annotations which I then pipe into Obsidian for revising, cross linking, and further writing/revisions. Depending on the project, some of it may be more analog with index cards similar to Victor Margolin’s process.

To show the general benefits, I’m copying and pasting from my own prior notes and writing:

ZK is an excellent tool for literature reviews! It is a relative neologism (with a slightly shifted meaning in English over the past decade with respect to its prior historical use in German) for a specific form of note taking or commonplacing that has generally existed in academia for centuries. Excellent descriptions of it can be found littered around, though not under a specific easily searchable key word or phrase, though perhaps phrases like “historical method” or “wissenschaftlichen arbeitens” may come closest.
Some of the more interesting examples of it being spelled out in academe include:

For academic use, anecdotally I’ve seen very strong recent use of the general methods most compellingly demonstrated in Obsidian (they’ve also got a Discord server with an academic-focused channel) though many have profitably used DevonThink and Tinderbox (which has a strong, well-established community of academics around it) as much more established products with dovetails into a variety of other academic tools. Obviously there are several dozens of newer tools for doing this since about 2018, though for a lifetime’s work, one might worry about their longevity as products.

I study many of these methods from the viewpoint of intellectual history (and not just for my own use), so I’m happy to discuss them and their variations ad nauseam.

Santa’s Magnificent Zettelkasten: The Christmas Chronicles

Of course Santa Claus would have the most spectacular zettelkasten in the world!

He’s got billions of people and gifts for them to keep track of, so naturally he’s got a stupendous card index filing system to back it up! Usually Santa’s “List” gets the hero’s credit for his operation along with elves, reindeer, and a sleigh, but let’s be honest: he’s got a massive filing system that he uses to compile that naughty and nice list!

I appreciate that the movie The Christmas Chronicles (Netflix, 2018) features Santa’s main office in an extended sequence and shows off the backbone of his office operation. With centuries in operation and millions of moving parts, he’s obviously solved the logistics problem the way many before him have. His filing system seems to consist of alphabetically ordered names and letter correspondence he maintains with his juvenal suppliants. This system along with magic (presumably) allows him to make his famous list.

Throughout the movie Santa demonstrates his encyclopedic knowledge of people, their names, and long histories of what they’ve wanted for Christmas. Surely it was long and concerted work with his filing system which has made his work almost second nature, right?!?

The boxes pictured are definitely not standard library card catalog 3 x 5 inch size but are closer to a more classical 4 x 6 inch, or if you presume he’s using the DIN standard, which may be more likely, then A6 slips. If the shelves are roughly as deep as my own filing cabinet, then this room could easily contain roughly 13,925,000 slips. In comparison to Niklas Luhmann’s lifetime output of notes, this would represent roughly 155 Niklas Luhmanns—it’s no wonder that we call him Saint Niklas. 

Screen capture from the Christmas Chronicles featuring Santa Claus' dark wooden and cavernous office the back wall of which is covered in a massive card index file. In the foreground a young girl walks in to explore it.
Seen in this office photo are approximately 4,000 drawers of files! I totally want this office aesthetic.
Screen capture from the Christmas Chronicles featuring a girl staring in awe around Santa's office. In the background behind her is Santa's massive zettelkasten.
I suspect I would have the same awestruck look on my face when exposed to such a massive office infrastructure.

Screen capture from the Christmas Chronicles featuring a standing in awe at Santa's massive zettelkasten which fills the screen despite the wide angle shot. There are thousands upon thousands of drawers.

Screen capture from the Christmas Chronicles featuring a girl exploring Santa's zettelkasten wall using a steampunk style mechanized platform.
I thought I had a large filing cabinet for slips, but Santa needs a custom elevator platform just to reach his materials. This gives new meaning to Maschinen der Phantasie.

Screen capture from the Christmas Chronicles featuring a girl exploring Santa's zettelkasten. The close up shows here thumbing through an open drawer with a variety of colored filed letters. In the background we see a dozen drawers on the wall.

Screen capture from the Christmas Chronicles. The girl is closing the drawer she was exploring to look down into the office. There are hundreds of file drawers in the background behind her.

Screen capture from the Christmas Chronicles. A view into Santa's office which is suddenly populated with several dozen incredibly cute elves.
Naturally if one had such a large zettelkasten, one would want their own army of magical elves with nimble fingers to help manage it all!

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.

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, 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.) 

Wood

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

Steel

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.

Examples

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. from antinet

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.

Others?

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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Over the past year and change, I’ve read and written a fair amount about note taking practices and their history including the topics of #CommonplaceBooks and . I’ve spent a few minutes aggregating it into a collection for those who are curious: https://boffosocko.com/research/zettelkasten-commonplace-books-and-note-taking-collection/. 🗃️📓🖋️
Replied to a post by Jim Luke (econproph) (@econproph@mastodon.social)Jim Luke (econproph) (@econproph@mastodon.social) (Mastodon)
@chrisaldrich Prob wouldn't work for your use since the paper stock, but Post-its come in 4x6 portrait (usu w/lined) gummed into a pad. Issue is post-its are usu lightweight stock - closer to 80#text (ordinary copier stock: 125gsm) and what we call cardstock is typically 65#card or thicker (175gsm+).
@econproph Thanks! It’s not only the thickness, but also the fact that they stick together front to back. I have used these in the past like a faux-whiteboard on walls, which is great by the way, and then stuck them to index cards for filing/later use, but for day to day use the sticky backs is an additional fiddly bit that’s probably worse than the stock issue.