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The joy of index cards (2009) (nickpage.co.uk)
146 points by Tomte 10 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 65 comments

Minor exploration of the sentence "Before the computer became ubiquitous, index cards were the tools of all academics and researchers."

Some academics used edge-notched punched cards, which is a sort of index card with manual mechanical selection ability. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edge-notched_card and http://kk.org/thetechnium/one-dead-media/ .

These were used until the 1980s. The contents for the Whole Earth Catalog in the 1970s was organized with them.

A smaller number of academics and researchers used interior-notched punched cards (eg, the well-known IBM punched card) with sorting/selection machines and not computers. I think these can no longer be called index cards.

I vaguely recall having read some article or other about a pre-computer plan someone had for a "database of everything".

I suspect the idea hinged on edge notched cards or something similar.

Almost certainly you're thinking of Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine, leading to the Mundaneum. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mundaneum

> It aimed to gather together all the world's knowledge and classify it according to a system they developed called the Universal Decimal Classification.

Quoting https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Otlet :

> Otlet was responsible for the widespread adoption in Europe of the standard American 3x5 inch index card used until recently in most library catalogs around the world (by now largely displaced by the advent of the online public access catalog (OPAC)).

Mechanized (but non-computer) versions of such a system include Vannevar Bush's Memex (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memex ) and more obscurely Calvin Mooers' DOKEN (http://www.historyofinformation.com/expanded.php?id=4243 ) and ... there's a French information scientist from the same era but I've forgotten his name.

The materials I read said that after 10K-100K cards (forgot the actual tradeoff point), it's better to switch to interior cards because it becomes more worthwhile to sort by machine. The machines are expensive to rent, and not worthwhile until many searches are needed.

This reminds me of the Hipster PDA, a small collection of index cards for daily use held together with a binder clip.

Perhaps more relevant now than ever with our smartphones and their infinite capacity for distraction.



I've taken to carrying around small notebooks in my pocket recently.

I found that I never looked at notes written on my phone, but I do with paper.

It also has the advantage that I can tear pages out to give to people. No need to try and text a shopping list to someone when you can just give them one.

Since no one has mentioned it yet, this is a wonderful book on the evolution of index cards:

Paper Machines: About Cards & Catalogs, 1548 – 1929 (History and Foundations of Information Science) (https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/paper-machines)

Thank you for sharing this! I have been interested for a while in the idea that index cards, as analogue forms of cataloguing and computation, have been used in a number of ways that are still relevant to our new designs. It’s great to have this thread full of resources, and I don’t think that I have seen this one before.

I love index cards - despite running a computational lab, without index cards the whole thing would come tumbling down. And they're so versatile - the project management cards get taken off one board and then go into a pile that you can pull for annual reports, etc.

And yeah, there's something about being able to touch them, move them, etc.

Do you mind describing how you use index cards for project management? As a younger person, I don't have have the habit of using index cards at all.

Whenever I use it, I can't help but feel bothered by the finality of the act of writing in ink. Since we only use index cards when the task becomes too complex to hold in our brain, it also means that we often need to re-organize our thoughts about the task several times. The act of writing (as opposed to typing in a computer) doesn't seem conducive to that kind or re-oganization.

Each project I'm working on - or parts of a project - get an index card. They're color coded for what they are, and then go up on the massive pinboard in my office. As things move into different categories, they get moved around physically.

This does a couple things:

1) There's something satisfying about physically moving a thing 2) I can get a quick visual representation of the balance of my work. Am I conspicuously low on a certain type of project in the queue? If so, why? 3) When they're done, they go in a pile of either successful or unsuccessful (I'm an academic, so for example a rejected grant is unsuccessful). When I need to work on my annual report? I just grab 2018's successful pile and it's an accounting of what I've done.

Personally, I like the finality of committing something to ink. If it needs to be changed, it's not as if index cards are expensive, but I like there being a sense of solidity to "What we're doing".

I'm also a big fan of index cards for planning. I just took another first-time entrepreneur through a planning session and it went very well. My starting advice here:


And here's how we used them to run a startup for ~2 years:


You're not alone in being bothered by finality. If I sense any of that, one of the first things I have people do is test their pen on a card. Then I have them tear up that card. Then, later, I'll have them write an obviously too-big planning item, like "world domination". We then tear that up and break it down into smaller cards.

With a little practice, people quickly learn that cards are temporary, just tokens that represent conversations. And they also learn that reorganizing their thoughts is good and beneficial, a sign of progress. And personally, I think it way, way easier to reorganize a stack of index cards than anything in a computer.

One of the especially interesting things to me is that computers do make certain things easier, but they're often things that I'm reluctant to make easier. E.g., computers can store effectively infinite amounts of stuff. I once saw a ~10-person team with a bug database that had thousands of open items. A database like that is way worse than index cards. It was just a big soup of sadness; people struggled to find ways to stay focused on what really mattered. Eventually a new product manager had to declare ticket bankruptcy and start fresh.

With index cards, requiring manual manipulation and physical space forces people to be more practical, more reasonable, more aware of what's going on. We can only keep so many things in mind, and we can really work on a much smaller number of things than that. Matching those human limits to physical limits in planning tools can produce much better results.

Writing relative to typing helps me slow down my thoughts but of course its slower than typing. But for me this is good. About the finality, well, you can use a pencil or you can just cross out a line. When I write I try not to get caught up in making sure what I write is right. If its wrong just cross it out.

This called to mind the ScanCard, a proprietary roughly 3x3 inch card system with colored borders meant for people with lots of irons in the fire. Amazingly, they're still in business: http://www.scancardorganizer.com/

if you're not using an actual 3x5" filing system, or constructing stacks of cards - cutting heavy cardstock into longer thinner strips makes it smaller to carry and gives you four logical pages. as I get older and more absent minded its nice to have a reliable cache.

reasons I like paper better even though I have to carry my phone at all times

always faster

when the page i'm carrying is full I have to review it and chuck it. phone note apps for me tend to be write only

diagrams and sketches carry alot more meaning for me

no screwing around with menus for shading/font/line weight

just looking at the shape of the marks on the page brings an immediate recall, whereas with text I kind of have to read it and figure it out again

when I pull out my little card to write down to remember to buy socket head screws, I don't get derailed by my unread messages

the classic style has you keep your 3x5 notes as a permanent lab record, I can transcribe it into a notebook for that, this is just 'my day in scribbles'

> phone note apps for me tend to be write only

In that vein, I've recently realized that the CRUD model also defines how I interact with task management apps - I Create lots of stuff, Read maybe 10% of that, Update maybe 50% of what I read, and then maybe Delete (or mark done/hide) 10% of what I update - in short tons of stuff goes in and almost nothing ever comes out.

I realized that with data on a computer, for the most part the default state is that it lives forever, and you have to take positive action to remove data. With paper or physical media, the default state is for things to be lost/culled over time and positive action must be taken to retain things with some sort of organization. "Lost" can mean that what you wrote down 3 months ago is now 30 pages back in your daily notebook, etc. The "presence" of the data fades a bit over time.

So, for me, positive action is fatiguing. It is more valuable to have an organization system that is self-limiting where I must take positive action to capture more, rather than one where I must take positive action to distill far too much data down to what is important. I'm always looking for a better system, but so far a daily notebook where I keep the important stuff "bubbled up" to the most recent 1-3 pages has been more sustainable than any of the Wunderlist/Notes/Reminders/Omnifocus/Trello/etc. ever were.

i think this applies to programming issues as well. the IETF used to strongly emphasize 'soft state' protocols. Not that there was no state, but it was always associated with a timeout and went away on its own. A best effort cache - although alot of these protocols (i.e pim) depend on having some non-zero lifetime to work at all.

think about the additional bookkeeping and correctness issues associated with the destruction/cleanup path. alot of the time we maintain references and search structures so that we can 'properly clean up', when in reality we just want to tear down the whole world.

construction and destruction do have a certain pleasant symmetry, but since the destruction path is often less tested and error prone, and may double the work at hand, isn't it worth considering implicit destruction?

> cutting heavy cardstock into longer thinner strips makes it smaller to carry and gives you four logical pages.

I don't completely understand what you mean here and I'm very curious. Can you explain your system in more detail?

oh. just buy blank sheets of card and cut it down with a knife. fold it over on the long side (~5cm by 12cm for carrying around). that way you can make whatever size you feel like. and having lots of card on hand means you can make little maquettes, little drawer labels, or print out tags on a laser printer. i buy reams of 8 1/2 x 11 130lb.

> just looking at the shape of the marks on the page brings an immediate recall, whereas with text I kind of have to read it and figure it out again

I realized this about myself one day while moving, when I found an ancient hand-written essay from high school. At first I could not decipher it at all, but suddenly it clicked and I could read everything.

I realized then that my teachers had been right, my handwriting is really awful, and the only reason even _I_ can read it is that the unique shapes become associated with my thoughts through the act of writing.

I used index cards to write all my papers in college, up to and including my MS thesis. One fact/idea/thought per card, including citations/quotes/rough diagrams. Once all the information is there, lay them out in order, and the rest pretty much writes itself.

They're a great way to organize information; it can be difficult to track down enough phones to spread them out on the floor and see the whole picture.

Love index cards, there are knockoffs but the Levenger Pocket Briefcase is the consummate personal index card repository.

Also just learned recently there are whiteboard index cards used for flash cards and they’re awesome!

Cheap, bright white (good for small signs) and radiused corners so they stay nice as long as they don’t get bent.

Dangerous track however, because Staedler makes a line of (refillable!) LumaColor fine point correctable pens which are amazing but not cheap. Basically dry erase but needs more friction to remove.

Finally, NUBoard is a “blues clues” style whiteboard notepad, in pocket versions and larger letter sized with tracing/overlay sheets, expensive, cool, still looking for a good use case.

I thought I'd see Hawk Sugano's system mentioned here, but haven't so I'll share the link: http://pileofindexcards.org/

What's nice about his index card system is the simple taxonomy for organization, which can be expanded upon for specific projects or just carrying on day-to-day. Of course these can be modified, but I've found the four groups he proposes (Record, Discovery, GTD/to-do, Citation) work well for everyday capturing of ideas big and small.

This, and Marc Andreesen's note to make a short to-do list nightly for the next day are my main uses for index cards. https://pmarchive.com/guide_to_personal_productivity.html

Heh! My first "PDA" was the Hipster PDA, a stack of index cards and a binder clip: http://www.43folders.com/2004/09/03/introducing-the-hipster-...

I'm prioritizing my personal to-do lists with Trello, which is like digital index cards.

Have any HNers found an effective digital version of index cards? The author mentions a" years of trying all kinds of digital equivalents a much-loved Mac outliner programme called 3×5" but then returns to return to physical cards. Probably the usefulness of actual cards comes from their materiality, but maybe there's some effective replacement that lets you combine/create cards with added digital ease - I can type a lot faster than write by hand.

If using index cards for memorizing, I think the Anki system can't be beat. Simple HTML/css formatting, tons of configuration options, plug in a .CSV with as many columns as you like and out the other end can come decks with cards configured in all sorts of wild ways.

So for example I have a Japanese learning deck with columns "word - Japanese", "example sentence - kanji", "example sentence - hurigana helper text (phonetic speller for characters I don't know)", "English definition for word", "English definition for sentence", "part of speech" , "commonality of word.".

So I can make decks sorted by commonality of words with English on front, or Japanese on front, to practice vocabulary. Or I can have one with English sentences on front to practice sentence building.

You can even attach media files, like audio.

And best of all, last I checked this is all free. Still not sure how the creator funds hosting public decks.

Oh yes anki is fantastic! I'm still relatively new to the habit but I don't know how I used to manage without it (spoiler: I didn't)

I actually find I am reading and learning more because I no longer worry about trying to remember things. I think of it as anki's job to remember, and my job to understand, so now I have more mental resources to spend on understanding material.

I'm rambling, and I apologize, but I HIGHLY recommend anki.

I use Anki as well and it really is fantastic.

I use it for languages, math, and code (there is a really good markdown plugin).

15-30 minutes every morning is enough to keep many things fresh in memory.

Thank you for this. I hadn’t come across Anki and it looks like a great tool.

AnkiDroid on F-Droid store is an excellent open source mobile version

I've been working on my own version of "digital index cards", although of course being digital you're not strictly limited to 3x5" worth of content. It's a command-line Linux (or MacOS, I guess) tool written in Go.

The main motivation was to have a structured note-taking tool always at hand so I'd actually use it. For that reason, all the commands are as low-friction as I could make them: the program itself is called 'zk', and all the commonly-used commands are abbreviated to one character, so instead of "zk new" to make a new note, I say "zk n".

It's something I'm still playing with and tweaking, but I went ahead and pushed my latest changes to the repo at https://github.com/floren/zk so if anyone besides me finds it useful, so much the better. The README does an ok job of explaining usage, although it doesn't document the 'link' and 'unlink' commands yet because I'm not sure how much I like that concept. I apologize for the Go code being a little clunky and redundant in places, because I've been growing it organically.

I've found the slow writing exactly what makes them so useful. Whatever I write sticks in my head better.

Research backs up your observation. See, eg, http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797614524581

Yes, that's really true. Not sure what you're writing with, but writing cards in ink and brush is really pleasurable and poses constant design challenges.

I think the question is, "effective for what?"

Index cards are incredibly flexible. Anybody who has made it through elementary school can use simple office supplies to construct rich, elaborate systems to support particular workflows.

For software to come as close in utility requires a trained professional to put in a fair bit of labor, and that is done in large part by closing off possibility. Trello, a very good product, has tried to stay a pretty generic card-like tool. But it's mediocre for kanban workflows, and downright terrible for a flashcard deck or a recipe collection or quickly jotting a shopping list that you hand to your partner.

As an aside, getting words on the card faster is often a negative. As others mention, hand-writing something aids memory. It also makes me choose my words more carefully, and write less. I find writing less to be especially valuable during software planning, in that I see cards as tokens for conversation. The more people can write, the more they try to turn them into mini-specs, which shifts them away from collaboration and back toward waterfall-ish isolation.

I think the fact this doesn't exist, and that hacker news, the techy portal is talking about index cards is pretty telling. I think its more of a statement of the state of our software and devices. For example, I use a notepad for tracking to dos rather than wunderlist just because even if wunderlist is blazingly fast, there is still some level of delay that is cognitively frustrating enough that I like notebooks better. Mostly is not even wunderlists fault, the delay of getting my iphone to wake up and start working effectively in those couple of seconds makes me not want to use it. Its like my phone is drunk for about 20 seconds after I bring it up. Ive gotten to the point where ive stopped using even more common features of my phone like SMS, camera, calling people for the same reason. Something about my phone puts me in a negative frame of mind I think.

nvALT is one I like. It's fast and geared towards adding new notes quickly. You can type text to a combined search / create bar and either select a previous note or create a new note by pressing enter. All notes are just text files.

That said, I still like to use actual index cards especially because they are slower. Writing text by hands gives time to think what needs to be done and how best to express it. And doodling is fun.

I also use nvALT (and 1Writer on iOS tied to the same dropbox folder so I can add stuff on the go). It's where I store all my "information snippets".

The blogger, Taking Note, mentioned in the OP article, is a huge fan of index cards, and he suggests using software called ConnectedText as a digital alternative [0].

[0] https://takingnotenow.blogspot.co.za/2016/03/one-way-i-organ...

I tend to keep a folder full of short text files and pictures for my notes. If the documents are each small, its pretty easy to scan through them using preview functionality in the file browser (Finder.app in my case). And the simple format means its easy to import/export/organize them via scripts or manually.

The "flashcards" class [1] allows you to easily write nice index cards using LaTeX. I enjoyed using it to write well-typeset cards when studying for exams. You can buy printable perforated index cards for printing [2], but due to price I just used normal A4 paper with 3 cards per page and cut them manually using scissors.

[1] http://ctan.uib.no/macros/latex/contrib/flashcards/flashcard...

[2] https://www.avery.com/products/cards/type/index-cards

The author mentioned Scrivener, which does have an excellent card view.

> Have any HNers found an effective digital version of index cards?

I use a real notebook & index cards during the day, but digitise them into org-mode each morning as part of my slip-into-work-mode ritual. That way I always have my recent stuff physically to hand, but I also have everything electronically archived and searchable on my computer too.

If I could just get emacs working on my phone (and extend it to be pleasant to use with touch alone) then my life would be complete.

Mac HypeCard was a forerunner of both the web and powerpoint. You put some sort of text or multimedia on a screen. Then connected the screens together with button links. The topology was flexible.

I just started carrying a notebook in my back pocket, and a pen in my front pocket.

Technology is great, but there are some things that I have a better experience doing on paper.

This was the go to method of keeping information when I was in the military (05-09), which was _strongly_ encouraged starting in boot camp. If one was found without a pen or two and a notebook, there was some words said. I've kept the habit going into my civilian life though I don't take notes as often.

Arno Schmidt's Zettels Traum (Bottom's Dream in English) is a mammoth book originally written entirely with a collection of 130,000 index cards. [0][1]

The book's title is German wordplay referencing the medium which Schmidt wrote the book on ("Zettel") and Bottom from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream ("Zettel" being the translation of Bottom's name into German).

[0]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bottom%27s_Dream

[1]: https://www.zinzin.com/observations/2013/who-was-arno-schmid...

At the moment of writing this I can't find anyone mentioning CRC-cards(1) - have these been completely forgotten?


Many years ago there was a book, Java Modeling in Color with UML, which event gave you a reason to purchase the nice red/blue/green/yellow packs of index cards. I found it a very nice way of decomposing a problem (into entities, roles/interfaces, temporal things and description/lookup tables), but I've not seen anything like it survive.

I used them in a college project, to get the other team members involved in the design of the software bit.

They're a bit like flowcharts, they tend to be at a level below what is commonly done as a collaborative exercise in practice. For something completely new and for a programmer with limited experience of OO design, they could still be useful.

My software engineering prof at uni thaught us about them; in fact, the CRC card book was required for the course. I thought they were a brilliant idea, but I haven't encountered them being used in the wild.

How many times is this going to get subbed to HN? Maybe now that it earned some karma, the same user (@Tomte) won't resub it for another year at least. Right?

The joy of index cards (2009) 136 points Tomte 20 hours ago 59 comments

The joy of index cards (2009) 3 points Tomte 5 months ago 0 comments

The joy of index cards (2009) 1 points Tomte 9 months ago 0 comments

The joy of index cards (2009) 1 points Tomte a year ago 0 comments

The joy of index cards (2009) 3 points Tomte a year ago 0 comments

Yes, there were plenty of reposts, and reposts are typically bad. But that doesn't mean it isn't a topic HN wants to discuss as it did finally get traction on this latest go at it.

Timing (and luck) can be everything on these sites and some don't actively attempt to game the system and post at the most optimal times to get views/votes. If it stops here, I don't see a problem with the reposts... Just not sure where you would draw the line between this and spamming the boards.

I don't have a problem with the content (I found it interesting myself). What I have a problem with is users who keep submitting the same stories over and over again. I'm pretty sure that's against the HN TOS.

Even the largest computer screens fall short of the flexibility of a large table of index card piles. You can lay out piles in a 2D array or 2D separated groups. Then resuffle the piles. Each pile can be ordered by importance, time, or expository order.

During an intense period at university, index cards kept me sane. I wrote my next day schedule on one side every night and kept little to-dos to add on the other throughout the day. I should probably go back to them at some point.

Since then, have you found a better way?

I still start each day at work recopying the previous day’s list, reordering it, and adding new items. I’ve tried to move to a computer TODO for a couple of decades, but no success. Most of my peers do nothing, so I do lists for them, too, occasionally. They really like getting a list, and they tend to be more productuve for it. They doodle on them, cross out items, take notes, etc.

Your system of recopying the previous day's list, reordering, adding new items, and I assume removing any done or stale items, is very close to the Bullet Journal [1] system that I have started to use since last year.

It's interesting to see that you came up with a similar system.

It really is an excellent system that keeps me organized and sane during the hectic periods of life and work.

[1] http://bulletjournal.com/get-started/

I have always wanted to make a set of reusable, "erasable" index cards, perhaps constructed out of "whiteboard" material.

Thomas Jefferson "carried a small notebook made up of ivory leaves on which to record his observations. He would write down his measurements in pencil and in the evening transfer the data to seven large notebooks, each devoted to a different subject. He would then erase the ivory plates, readying them for another day of scientific inquiry." Source: https://www.artofmanliness.com/2010/09/13/the-pocket-noteboo...

This sounds very similar to what you're looking for: https://thenoteboard.com/. Sadly it doesn't seem to be available right now, but it's a pocket whiteboard made up of 3x5 segments. It folds down rather than being a stack of cards, but it may work for what you're thinking of.

You could laminate some index cards; that might work.

I remember seeing a notebook form of this:


They’re on amazon, made for flash cards, cheap thin ones and thick stocky ones too.

They’re pretty rad!

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