Index cards (before and after)

There’s an excellent essay – in the truest sense of that word – by Keith Thomas in the current issue of London Review. It examines the history of scholarly note-taking.

From there he muses on everything from the commonplace book to

Realistically he must come to the point were he acknowledges

Yet I doubt that moderately diligent student could have imagined or composed as fascinating a reminiscence.

WARNING: Anyone younger than 35 may have trouble understanding it; anyone younger than 25, trouble believing it.


That’s a lovely essay; PJS, thanks for the tip. I especially like his collecting and sifting through many scraps gathered in envelopes. The basic methods in research never change: gather, arrange, digest, outline, draft, verify, polish. I started out with hand-written index cards and today almost never write a note.

Sometimes I wonder if scholars who only know the computer are a bit handicapped. They resist visiting the library, prowling the stacks, and making finds deep in the bowels of a forgotten collection. And they don’t write out notes on cards, shift them about, and begin to discover the possibilities of arrangement and order.

I hope I’m not being merely nostalgic. There are actual, visceral experiences to have, in a world that grows more and more virtual. My friends who are ecologists complain that many of the younger folk in the field can’t identify species; all they do is computer modeling. And when’s the last time you met a doctor who had any interest in your individual life and character?

My reaction was much like your own: thinking back to hours spent in the deep recesses of Lockwood Memorial Library, trying to accumulate, organize, and present a set of index cards which would provoke something more than a tolerant smile from Professor Bonner.

And though it’s happened only once in the past many decades, I did recently encounter a doctor who had any interest in my individual life and character. He was at the Veterans Administraion – of all unlikely venues – and he prodded me into revisiting a couple old manuscripts, revising them, and trying to get them published.

Not surprisingly, he left the VA last year, frustrated with the bureaucracy.


I know it’s not really the same thing, but I find my retention of things is not as good if I type them (or worse, copy and paste) compared to writing them out.

I long ago realised that my note-taking served no purpose other than to try to cement information in my brain at point of impact, as it were (I rarely, if ever, revisit notes - and sometimes my handwriting is so bad I have no idea what is written there (or the context) if it’s several weeks or months since I made the note). I swear I’ve even developed better lateral hearing as a result of how I physically sit while writing.

I’m learning some new stuff for work at the mo, wading through tutorials and copying and pasting chunks to a Scriv project, with the odd web page reference made wholesale, and it simply isn’t the same. I’m not retaining things. And worse, my brain rejects more and more nowadays as ‘dull’. When I was a child, new things were learnt because by default they were interesting. And now I can’t trick myself that learning some marketing or programming techniques is anything other than deathly dull. Or at least compared to playing escape the room games, or writing - anything fictitious, basically.

I need a bigger desk, and I need it covered with paper. I need the inefficiency. I need the space.

Maybe I need to project a second screen on to the wall with all my notes, and shrink my desktop screen down real small. Perhaps to the size of an iPad…

I remember index cards - the physical ones I used to fetishise the different colours of ink for different types of note at the expense of doing any actual learning. And then when they popped up in Cardfile, well, life was never as rosy again.

(Apologies for the ramble, I need to click my fingers through the gears of World Cup-and-bad-news-related inactivity. Hey maybe I should get myself over to a GTD website, there’s a good way to avoid doing anything useful this morning. I could make some notes…)

I once had a doctor who looked up my symptoms on Google, right in front of me.

Anyway, thanks for the link PJS - it looks fascinating, and I’ll read it when I get some spare time this evening. I think there’s definitely a good balance to be struck between computer and physical research. I abandoned my PhD research mainly because the preliminary physical research took over a year and was such a chore - it involved tracking down hundreds of medieval manuscripts purely to write down their contents, because I was looking at the sorts of literature 14th-century alliterative poetry got compiled with (a typically arcane scholarly topic in other words). It was boring beyond belief, and how I wish all of those contents had been available on computer! But when you get to the stage of actually studying the manuscript itself, its contents, there is nothing quite like having a manuscript that was hand-written by scribes seven hundred years ago wheeled out to you on a trolley in the British Library, and pouring over its pages. It’s actually exciting, because suddenly you can see different coloured inks or the ways the pages have been arranged, things that might be significant but which you would never get from a transcribed version in a book or on the web (unless it’s a famous manuscript that has been thoroughly studied already, of course). I still feel rather sad that I never got to this stage with my PhD, as I absolutely loved this part of my MA, but ultimately I knew that my hatred of merely copying down contents was not resulting in something that would be thorough enough.

Anyway, I hope that’s not too off-topic. I look forward to reading the article later.

All the best,

Actually, our GP clinic started out like that about 20 years ago. They’re still pretty good at treating you as a person, not a bunch of symptoms to be looked up on a computer, but they, especially the woman doctor who set up the clinic – originally they were all women doctors – got so popular that they can no longer spend so much time with each patient. And that doctor moved, as her husband moved to another part of the country.

But I’ll never forget the time when I went to see her … I was very depressed at the time at the way life and work was going. And that particular day, she asked a perfectly ordinary question and I burst into tears all over her desk. She stood up and cheered! I asked her why, and she said, “I just couldn’t imagine how you can have managed to go on so long without doing that.”

So they do exist, but they’re very rare, it seems.


If not the same thing, it seems very close. Compare with comments on another topic: why students seem to write better with pen and paper than with a keyboard: [url]]

And as for

I got a bigger desk. Now I need a bigger office. I keep promising Lady Of The House that I will, definitely and most assuredly will, subject this clutter to meticulous scrutiny, and will jettison every last scrap which does not prove at least IMPORTANT, perhaps even CRUCIAL.

But she knows it won’t happen. Hasn’t happened in 25 years; why expect it now?

But I also ramble.

GTD, did you say?