In Praise of Index Cards

When I was in high school (and I’m not telling you how many years – decades? – ago that was), I learned to write research papers using note cards. We bought a big metal ring and used a single-hole punch on the upper left hand corner of a pack of 3×5 index cards. Voilà! A research index, working bibliography, and research notes at your disposal.

Index Card

I don’t think I’m alone in expressing a certain nostalgia for those days. There’s something endearing about the idea that research could be quantified, labeled, sorted alphabetically, and stored in the front pocket of your backpack, especially in a world where information has become infinite.

As a government writing trainer, I continue to see the value of the system. Word processing programs are linear. You type, and the letters move horizontally across the screen. You press return, and your cursor moves vertically down the screen. Lateral moves are difficult to make. They require tabbing or spacing, in other words the insertion of data that is unrelated to our thought process.

And most word processors come with an auto correct function that attaches formatting to our words, formatting that can create relationships between concepts that we were not intending. For example, when we hit return to create a list, our thoughts are capitalized, giving them a weight or a significance that perhaps they do not deserve.

Little note cards allowed us to do four things that are very difficult to do inside of a word processing program.

1) They maintained a bibliographic record in alphabetical order. Every time you consulted a new source, you created an index card for the source. In the top right hand corner, you then wrote the name by which the source would be alphabetized in the references list. And then it became really easy to shuffle the cards alphabetically.

Word processing programs don’t come with a sort feature.

2) They tagged each quote or concept to a bibliographic entry. In this system, you conducted all your research with a 3×5 index card at the ready. And the first thing you did was to write a bibliographic cross-reference in the bottom right hand corner of the card.

You always knew which ideas came from what source. And there was never any confusion between your own thoughts and those of the authors you were reading.

We have a tendency to today to move a little too fluidly between the things we read on our computer and the things we write on our computer. So we don’t always know which ideas belong to us and which ideas belong to others. In a highly individualized society like the United States, that’s a huge problem.

3) They maintained a separation between concepts. The first stage in the writing process is brainstorming, and it’s intended to be a very open process of determining what CAN be said about a particular topic. Only later does an author determine what he or she WANTS to say about a topic. And even later we decide HOW to say it.

When we take notes on a computer, we do so in a single document. And that leads us to believe that all of our notes from a book or an article or a webpage are intricately connected. That process restricts us to regurgitation.

4) They allowed concepts to be combined and re-combined. Index cards can be laid out on a conference table, spread across your bedroom floor, taped to a wall, or strung out along a clothesline. They allow you to literally see the possibilities for grouping and arranging the concepts in a document.

A stack of notes on 8.5×11 paper restricts our vision, forces us into the weeds, and denies us the big picture.

So what’s the answer? If word processing programs are so limiting, what should we do – return to index cards? Unfortunately, that’s not a realistic solution. Believe me, I tried. I started researching my dissertation this way, and gave up after I reached the 500th card.

Fortunately, there are several software programs that mimic the features of the index carding system while offering the data processing power necessary for research today. All of them allow you to sort your research any number of ways. And each has its pros and cons. Here are three that I’m familiar with and like:

Writer’s Blocks is a paid software program that visually mimics the index card system with “blocks” of text on the screen that can be arranged in rows and columns as you work.

Evernote (my personal favorite) is fully integrated with the internet so you can download web pages, collaborate with others, and access your account across all devices. Unfortunately, it is not an available option for government writers.

Microsoft OneNote allows the creation of notebooks and note pages with the flexibility to add any sort of media anywhere on the page. You can also add and search by tags. Like Evernote, it is part of an online platform so you can clip web pages and collaborate with others. As part of the Microsoft Office suite, it is probably the best, possibly the only, option available to government writers.

Regardless which program you choose, remember the lessons learned from index cards.

  • Be a conscientious researcher.
  • Create a bibliographic record for every source you consult.
  • Tag your notes with to the bibliographic record so they can be cross-referenced and properly cited.
  • Clearly identify your own thoughts and distinguish those from your research, using a different font, color, or highlight.
  • Keep your notes short to allow for the possibilities of combination and re-combination.
  • Be creative and consistent with your use of tag – creative in the sense that you are open to the possibilities presented by a note, and consistent in that you use exactly the same terminology so you can easily sort your notes.
  • Be rigorous in your use of tags. Sometimes this means going back and re-tagging work that you already did. Take the time to do so. Remember, the software is only so useful as the input you provide.

I hope you have found these tips useful. Please be sure to share your thoughts and best practices as we enjoy learning from one another. Thanks!

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