My own personal card file!

I admit it! My memory isn’t what it used to be. 10 years ago I was the go-to person at work to remember the who, what, when, and where of anything we had done in the past. How much did we spend on such and such exhibit in 2009? Who do I contact at X exhibit firm about y and z? Why did we not included that person in the section on x? Just ask Heather! She’ll know! In fact just this last year I was contacted by a former employee asking me how much we spent on something in 2008 or 2009 and where that paperwork might be! I hadn’t work there in 7 years!!!!

And believe it or not, a good memory is not a common trait for historians. Actually most historians I know have terrible memories for names and dates and places (cause history isn’t really about names and dates and places but that’s a different post!) That’s why historians and librarians embraced the card index system invented by scientists in the 1700s. Just like scientists, historians and librarians have lots of knowledge and needed a great retrieval system.


Enter the 3×5 index card and the card catalog or card file! Remember those!?!?!!?

I dreamed of having one of my own! I know super nerdy! But when you love organization and knowledge, a cabinet full of little 3×5 cards, loaded with facts, organized in drawers by title, author, and subject…

Since rebooting my Breckinridge reserach, I’ve been having a lot of moments where my own personal card file would come in handy and it make me think of one of my favorite scenes from A.S. Byatt’s Possession. The book is about a scholar of a fictitious English poet (think Wordsworth or Tennyson). The main characters, Roland, goes to see a colleagues about a reference he has found in an manuscript. The colleague, Beatrice Nest, is the foremost expert on the Ellen Ash, the wife of Roland’s subject, Randolph Henry Ash.

“I’ve come up against something–I wondered if you could help. Do you happen to know if Ellen Ash says anything anywhere about Christabel LaMotte?”

“I don’t remember anything.” Beatrice sat smiling, as thought her lack of memory clinched the matter. “I don’t think so, no.”

“Is there any way of checking?”

“I could look at my card index.”

– page 130-131, A. S. Byatt Possession (1990 edition)

(And if you want to read the whole conversation or the whole novel for that matter, it’s on Google Books.)

All historians have their own system for storing the knowledge they collect over a lifetime of research. The card file is somewhat universal but the organization system of categories and facts recorded is unique to each individual. And I think Beatrice is nervous about Roland getting into her card file and messing everything up — even though she doesn’t have it completely organized herself.

For years – actually all of my professional history life – I used a system of 3-ring binders and dividers to organized data collected. Paper data that is! Pages of letters, photographs, photocopies of secondary source articles — all neatly organized usually by subject in rows of colorful binders on office shelves. At one point I even color coded projects so the binders for the same project had the same color spine label.

But it was my memory for where that made the system work. My visual memory of where I put that piece of paper in that section of that binder was my magic! And as I said at the beginning, my memory isn’t what it used to be.

Originally I typed out quotes from secondary sources into a Word file using the Index Card template (like where you go to find the template for printing labels). Then I’d rework to avoid the dreaded plagarism.

And as I’m going back through all my original research (plus finding new stuff), I find myself wasting more and more time trying to remember where I saw that particular piece of information. When I originally wrote my thesis, I used a system of digital note cards to record quotes or information from secondary sources. But I never recorded the facts on note cards for the primary sources. I just used copies of them directly.

But now, a decade or more later, there are so many possibilities for my computer to be my brain, or more to the point, my memory. I know there are digital tools just for this purpose (Zotero or Scrivener) and designed specifically for scholarly research. But I didn’t want to start a new subscription or pay another fee or have another log in.

So I turned to my trusty Evernote and looked at how other scholars have used it to catalog, record, and organize their research. Here are some posts I found.

After all that, I didn’t see a system that would work perfectly for me. So first I concocted a very complicated system of reference templates in Evernote so I would be able to have the fact, where I got it from, and where the copies are in my files. But that was just too complicated for me maintain.

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Here’s the first card template I tried to use. But it just didn’t work for me.
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So I modified it to this but still something wasn’t gelling.

I picked a few things I like from other systems and subtracted a few things that weren’t necessary for me and came up with a system that seems to be working for me. Someone in the Evernote world suggested creating a Card File Index Stack (much like a file cabinet) to organize note cards. I don’t remember where or who suggested it but it’s brilliant. I created a new series of notebooks and then combined them into a Stack.

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My Card File Index Stack in Evernote

I did a little soul searching and remembered that I loved handwriting my note cards. I know — call me crazy but I get a lot of satisfaction out of writing my cards. And I remember things much better when I write them longhand instead of typing them. If the system is going to work, I’m going to need to enjoy doing it.

Aren’t they pretty?!?!?!?!

And who can resist colorful note cards and different color pens?!?!?!?! Because of course I can’t use just plain white cards and black or blue ink. So I stocked up on 4×6 (more space to write, right?) pastel note cards and went to town! But I needed a place to store them. Cause there are going to be a lot of them. I treated myself to a file box.

A file box of my own!

But the whole point of all this was having a searchable database to be able to find a random fact or set of facts quickly. And part of this whole thing is to be able to use the computer as my memory. Well guess what? Evernote can read my handwriting and make it searchable. It’s not foolproof but it helps with people, places, and dates. The key is to print neatly and clearly. In this card about William R. Stone, Evernote recognizes the following words: brother, Guards, 1861, 1865, 1882, Vicksburg, Army, and Omega.

Scan 43
Here is one of my handwritten notecards after it’s been scanned into Evernote.

Using my much loved scanner document feeder, I run my cards through weekly before filing them in my black metal file box. Here are a couple of tips and tricks I’ve learned with scanning into Evernote.

  1. I use a document feeder to scan my cards so I don’t have to place each one on the scanner glass. Make sure your cards are positioned head first into the feeder. If you try to scan them sideways, you will end up doing a lot of rotating.
  2. Scan as a Jpeg cause that’s the format that Evernote needs to index your writing.
  3. Print as clearly as possible, especially words you know you are going to be searching for.
  4. Give Evernote time to process your scans. I’m a Premium subscriber and we get priority but when you are scanning 50 to 100 cards at a time, it might take a few hours. I scan in the evening and they are ready to catalog by morning.
  5. All scans into Evernote automatically appear in my default notebook, .2BFiled. The period in front of 2BFiled is so this notebook will show up at the top of any search or alphabetized list.

Once my note cards are scanned into Evernote, I have to organize them. My note card scans appear in my .2BFiled notebook and are named “Scan” through “Scan number x.” First I highlight all the new scans and immediately tag them as Card Index. By tagging them Card Index, I can search specifically for a person, place, or date only in my note cards and not in recipes or other notes. Super helpful in future searching.

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A fresh batch of scanned cards waiting to be labeled and filed.

Once they are all tagged with Card Index, I start to process them. My card header becomes the note header in Evernote. And then I add other tags. I can get carried away with tags but I try very hard to keep them to a minimal and think of them as big subject categories. Like Civil War or Louisiana or Diplomacy.

I may not have a beautiful wooden card file with perfectly typed 3×5 index cards of information and facts about Katherine Carson Breckinridge, her various family members, and her gads of categories. But my system is searchable. Electronically. Now with a quick search in Evernote, I can remember which brother lived in Knoxville and which brother lived at Oasis Plantation. Or what was the name of the boat that took them to Europe in 1894. Or what was the street address that KCB and her mother lived at in Memphis.


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