Just about everyone’s heard of—and has probably used—3 x 5 cards, but where did they come from? Surprisingly, their origin dates back a thousand years. Also known as index cards, their evolution is rooted in the concept of cataloging, or indexing, key words in a book.
The monks of medieval times employed a hands-on system for marking a manuscript’s key words: they would use a symbol that indicated a finger pointing to the term—that digit being the forefinger, or index finger. Index traces its roots to Latin and the concept of informer, or pointer. Its Greek forbear means to show.
Eventually these pointy fingers found their way to the back of the book in the form of an index of terms.
But how were books themselves being catalogued? In fits and starts, it seems, with the Alexandria Library using an alphabetical system in the third century B.C. E., but the European libraries using a peculiar rhyming system 11 centuries later. Things got better organized in the nineteenth century, and in 1820 the first card catalog appeared in a library in London.
The American hero of the library index card was Melvil Dewey. He introduced his decimal classification system in the 1870s, in the library at Amherst College in western Massachusetts. The card he devised for his catalog drawers was approximately 3" x 5". The typewriter had been invented a few years earlier, and ultimately the card and the keys met and married.
The Library of Congress started printing its catalog index cards in 1901. For the next eight decades or so, the library index card and its attendant cabinets would serve as the Google of their day. Nicholson Baker, in his elegiac essay on card catalogs that appeared in The New Yorker in 1994, reported that the New York Public Library harbored 10 million cards.
With all these cards in libraries, perhaps it was only a matter of time before they segued into general use. Thrifty librarians primed the pump by setting out discarded cards for patrons to use for notes. Seeing the cards’ usefulness, stationers began offering blank cards for sale. Business and professional people, writers and students adopted the cards as standard tools for researching, filing and organizing information.
And then, of course, computers struck. Card cabinets in libraries were dismantled and the cards discarded. There simply wasn’t enough room anymore to capture all our knowledge on a 3" x 5" descendant of papyrus. The once ubiquitous little cards, whose origins are so closely linked to cataloging knowledge, teetered on the brink of extinction.
The index card is still a handy palimpsest, the screen on which one can quickly capture first ideas, reminder notes, titles of books friends recommend, your grandmother’s recipe for pumpkin pie. Index cards, with their scratch-outs, imperfect erasures and caret insertions, jog our memory as only the tactile can.
By contrast, electronic systems live a perilously finite existence. Better operating systems, application software and search engines will come along and the current hero will be banished, forgotten, trashed.
Get your digit out, the English are fond of saying—meaning, get cracking. Get your digit out—and your pen—and jot a note on an index card. It still has a place in the digital world.
“A key tip: try to limit what you write on cards to a single topic or subject, such as a grocery list on one card, a hardware list on another. For work, keep cards for different people or areas of responsibility.”
“I use a very fine-point pen to get lots of information on one card and I write neatly—most of the time.”
“I almost never write on the backs, and this saves me from always having to turn cards around to see if there is writing on the back. Occasionally, when I’m taking a bunch of notes on one topic, like during a speech, then I’ll write on the backs. But I number each card side, 1, 2, 3, which is my cue to look at the backs.”
Steve also uses them to make daily lists of to-dos that he adds to and crosses off as he goes through the day.