The History of the Index Card

I’ve used index cards twice within the past six months alone. In one instance I used them for memorizing the different names and prices of similarly-themed products at the store where I work part-time. In the other, I was providing my boss with categorized questions to ask the people she was interviewing for a live panel discussion. The index card has long been a staple in my life, but I didn’t know the rich history behind this tool until I came across a recent Atlantic essay about it.

This essay delves into how Carl Linnaeus, the famous botanist and “father of modern taxonomy” created this tool, why he did it, and what the ramifications were.

The reason Linnaeus created the index card – roughly the same size and stock weight as what we use today – was to streamline information about the plants and animals he had studied throughout the course of his scientific career. This was in 1752, years after he had come up with the two-part naming system he created after organizing the world’s living organisms into the nested hierarchy of species, genus, family, order, class, phylum, and kingdom; perhaps one of the world’s most widely-used classification schemes. The author of the essay suggests the inspiration for Linnaeus’ index cards may have been playing cards.

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Perhaps the most interesting thing about the article, in my mind, is its exploration of the later uses of Linnaeus’ work. In the centuries to come, both his taxonomical system and the index cards themselves would be used for racist and otherwise immoral purposes. For instance, Nazis used an index card database as the tool they used for classifying Jewish Germans.

Daniela Blei, the author of this essay, notes:

The act of organizing information—even notes about plants—is never neutral or objective. Anyone who has used index cards to plan a project, plot a story, or study for an exam knows that hierarchies are inevitable.

This article reminded me of the importance of reflecting on the power that catalogers hold and the principles that dictate their work. Knowing what not to catalogue is just as important as knowing how to catalogue.

Source: How the Index Card Cataloged the World
Posted by Allee Manning, INFO 653-01

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Posted in Cataloging, Classification

by Hugh McLeod

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Pratt Institute School of Information
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