Index card

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An index card in a library card catalog. This type of cataloging has mostly been supplanted by computerization. LA2-katalogkort.jpg
An index card in a library card catalog. This type of cataloging has mostly been supplanted by computerization.
A hand-written American index card. Lhfhospitalsstatehospital001.jpg
A hand-written American index card.
A ruled index card Notecard.jpg
A ruled index card

An index card (or record card in British English and system cards in Australian English) consists of card stock (heavy paper) cut to a standard size, used for recording and storing small amounts of discrete data. A collection of such cards either serves as, or aids the creation of, an index for expedited lookup of information (such as a library catalog or a back-of-the-book index). This system is said to have been invented by Carl Linnaeus, around 1760. [1] [2] [3]



The most common size for index card in North America and the UK is 3 by 5 inches (76.2 by 127.0 mm), hence the common name 3-by-5 card. Other sizes widely available include 4 by 6 inches (101.6 by 152.4 mm), 5 by 8 inches (127.0 by 203.2 mm) and ISO-size A7 (74 by 105 mm or 2.9 by 4.1 in). [4] [5] Cards are available in blank, ruled and grid styles in a variety of colors. Special divider cards with protruding tabs and a variety of cases and trays to hold the cards are also sold by stationers and office product companies. They are part of standard stationery and office supplies all around the globe.


Index cards are used for a wide range of applications and environments: in the home to record and store recipes, shopping lists, contact information and other organizational data; in business to record presentation notes, project research and notes, and contact information; in schools as flash cards or other visual aids; and in academic research to hold data such as bibliographical citations or notes in a card file. Professional book indexers used index cards in the creation of book indexes until they were replaced by indexing software in the 1980s and 1990s.

An often suggested organization method for bibliographical citations and notes in a card file is to use the smaller 3-inch by 5-inch cards to record the title and citation information of works cited, while using larger cards for recording quotes or other data, [6] [7] but some people have also given the opposite advice to put everything on one size of card. [8] [9] [10]

Index cards are used for many events and are helpful for planning. [11]


Filing cabinet for paper slips in Vincent Placcius's De arte excerpendi (1689) Houghton GC6.P6904.689d - Placcius, 154.jpg
Filing cabinet for paper slips in Vincent Placcius's De arte excerpendi (1689)

The first early modern card cabinet was designed by 17th-century English inventor Thomas Harrison (c. 1640s). Harrison's manuscript on the "ark of studies" [13] (Arca studiorum) describes a small cabinet that allows users to excerpt books and file their notes in a specific order by attaching pieces of paper to metal hooks labeled by subject headings. [14] Harrison's system was edited and improved by Vincent Placcius in his well-known handbook on excerpting methods (De arte excerpendi, 1689). [12] [15] The German polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) was known to have relied on Harrison's invention in at least one of his research projects. [15]

Carl Linnaeus, an 18th-century naturalist who formalized binomial nomenclature, [16] is said to have "invented the index card" c.1760 [1] in order to help deal with the information overload facing early scientists that occurred from overseas discoveries, [17] though there is room for dispute about whether he alone was the index card's inventor. [18] Linnaeus had to deal with a conflict between needing to bring information into a fixed order for purposes of later retrieval, and needing to integrate new information into that order permanently. His solution was to keep information on particular subjects on separate sheets, which could be complemented and reshuffled. In the mid 1760s Linnaeus refined this into what are now called index cards. Index cards could be selected and moved around at will to update and compare information at any time. [1]

In the late 1890s, edge-notched cards were invented, which allowed for easy sorting of data by means of a needle-like tool. These edge-notched cards were phased out in the 1980s in favor of computer databases, and they are no longer sold.

Kardex index card filing system Old kardex file cabinet.jpg
Kardex index card filing system

James Rand, Sr.'s Rand Ledger Company (founded 1898) with its Visible Ledger system, and his son James Rand, Jr.'s American Kardex dominated sales of index card filing systems worldwide through much of the 20th century. "Kardex" became a common noun, especially in the medical records field where "filing a kardex" came to mean filling out a patient record on an index card. [19]

Library card catalogs as currently known arose in the 19th century, and Melvil Dewey standardized the index cards used in library card catalogs in the 1870s. Until the digitization of library catalogs, which began in the 1980s, the primary tool used to locate books was the card catalog, in which every book was described on three cards, filed alphabetically under its title, author, and subject (if non-fiction). Similar catalogs were used by law firms and other entities to organize large quantities of stored documents. However, the adoption of standard cataloging protocols throughout nations with international agreements, along with the rise of the Internet and the conversion of cataloging systems to digital storage and retrieval, has made obsolescent the widespread use of index cards for cataloging.

Many authors have used index cards for the writing of books. [20] Vladimir Nabokov wrote his works on index cards, a practice mentioned in his work Pale Fire . [21]

See also

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  1. 1 2 3 "Carl Linnaeus Invented The Index Card". ScienceDaily . 16 June 2009. Retrieved 2020-07-31.
  2. Müller-Wille, Staffan; Scharf, Sara (January 2009). Indexing Nature: Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) and his Fact-Gathering Strategies (PDF) (Working paper). Department of Economic History, London School of Economics. p. 4. 36/08. See also the summary of the research project: "Rewriting the System of Nature: Linnaeus's Use of Writing Technologies". Centre for Medical History, University of Exeter . Retrieved 19 September 2022.
  3. Everts, Sarah (2016). "Information Overload". Distillations. 2 (2): 26–33. Retrieved 20 March 2018.
  4. "Index card sizes compared". Quill. Retrieved 2022-10-13.
  5. "Business card sizes". Retrieved 2022-10-13.
  6. Williams, Cecil B. (1963). "Notes and Note-taking" . A Research Manual for College Studies and Papers (3rd ed.). New York: Harper & Row. pp.  95–105 (97). OCLC   1264058764. it is better to use different sizes of cards to avoid confusing the bibliographic and subject notes with each other.
  7. Cantor, Norman F.; Schneider, Richard I. (1967). "Research Note-taking" . How to Study History. New York: Crowell Publishing. pp.  196–203 (200). ISBN   0690419937. OCLC   679321. Keep bibliographical entries on 3 × 5 cards [...] Notes taken from sources should be written in ink or typed on either 5 × 8 cards or sheets of loose-leaf paper.
  8. Hockett, Homer Carey (1948) [1931]. "Forms for Notes on Bibliography" . Introduction to Research in American History (2nd ed.). New York: Macmillan. p.  10. OCLC   1374221. Many workers do not use cards at all, but make their notes on bibliography and subject-matter on slips or sheets of paper of uniform size. [...] The use of two cabinets of different sizes, one for bibliography cards and one for subject-matter notes, is likely to prove inconvenient.
  9. Alexander, Carter; Burke, Arvid James (1958) [1935]. "Note-taking in Work with Library Materials". How to Locate Educational Information and Data: An Aid to Quick Utilization of the Literature of Education (4th ed.). New York: Teachers College, Columbia University. pp.  168–180 (169). OCLC   14603864. In extensive library studies, however, it usually saves much time and energy to organize the bibliography cards in one system and all other notes in another system, even though both systems use the same headings and cards of the same size.
  10. Barzun, Jacques; Graff, Henry F. (2004) [1957]. "The ABC of Technique" . The Modern Researcher (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth. pp.  15–36 (23). ISBN   0155055291. OCLC   53244810. For all these purposes, experience shows that you must take notes in a uniform manner, on paper or cards of uniform size.
  11. For example: Justice, Thomas; Jamieson, David (1999). The Facilitator's Fieldbook: Step-by-Step Procedures, Checklists and Guidelines, Samples and Templates . New York: AMACOM. ISBN   0814470386. OCLC   40573268. In this book, index cards appear in instructions for various procedures for facilitating events, including chapters on "Storyboarding Basics", "Brainstorming Variations", "Moderating Focus Groups", "Voting", and "Gantt Chart Planning".
  12. 1 2 Placcius, Vincent (1689). De arte excerpendi vom gelehrten Buchhalten liber singularis, quo genera & praecepta excerpendi, ab aliis hucusq[ue]; tradita omnia, novis accessionibus aucta, ordinata methodo exhibentur, et suis quaeque materiis applicantur ... (in Latin). Stockholm; Hamburg: Apud Gottfried Liebezeit, bibliop. literisq[ue] Spiringianis. p.  138. OCLC   22260654.
  13. Harrison, Thomas (2017). Cevolini, Alberto (ed.). The Ark of Studies. De diversis artibus. Vol. 102. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols. ISBN   9782503575230. OCLC   1004589834.
  14. Blei, Daniela (2017-12-01). "How the Index Card Cataloged the World". The Atlantic. The Atlantic. Archived from the original on 2021-07-04. Retrieved 4 July 2021.
  15. 1 2 Malcolm, Noel (September 2004). "Thomas Harrison and his 'ark of studies': an episode in the history of the organization of knowledge". The Seventeenth Century . 19 (2): 196–232 (220–221). doi:10.1080/0268117X.2004.10555543.
  16. Calisher, CH (2007). "Taxonomy: what's in a name? Doesn't a rose by any other name smell as sweet?". Croatian Medical Journal. 48 (2): 268–270. PMC   2080517 . PMID   17436393.
  17. Müller-Wille, Staffan; Charmantier, Isabelle (March 2012). "Natural history and information overload: the case of Linnaeus". Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences. 43 (1): 4–15. doi:10.1016/j.shpsc.2011.10.021. PMC   3878424 . PMID   22326068.
  18. Charmantier, Isabelle; Müller-Wille, Staffan (April 2014). "Carl Linnaeus's botanical paper slips (1767–1773)". Intellectual History Review. 24 (2): 215–238. doi:10.1080/17496977.2014.914643. PMC   4837604 . PMID   27134642.
  19. "Kardex". A Dictionary of Nursing. HighBeam Research. 2008. Retrieved September 11, 2014 via
  20. Krajewski, Markus (2011) [2002]. Paper Machines: About Cards & Catalogs, 1548–1929. History and Foundations of Information Science. Vol. 3. Translated by Peter Krapp. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. doi:10.7551/mitpress/9780262015899.001.0001. ISBN   9780262015899. JSTOR   j.ctt5hhmbf. OCLC   698360129.
  21. Gold, Herbert (1967). "Vladimir Nabokov, The Art of Fiction No. 40". The Paris Review. Summer-Fall 1967 (41). Retrieved 7 April 2013.

Further reading