the delight of discovering the origin story of index cards

For reasons too complicated to explain briefly, today I was researching the history of index cards (also called record cards in the UK and system cards in Australia). I thought this would be a run-of-the-mill, fact-finding mission, until the seekers trail led me to this exquisite snippet of information:

Index cards were invented by Carl Linnaeus around 1760. Yep, the father of taxonomy, Mr. Namy Names himself, so frustrated by the fixed state of paper as a means of organizing information, decided to take things in his own hands. As noted in Science Daily,

“Linnaeus invented the index card in order to help deal with the information overload facing early scientists… 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 we call index cards. Index cards could be selected and moved around at will to update and compare information at any time.”

Reading this provoked, what is likely a totally historically inaccurate but amusing (at least to me), image of Linnaeus, who, in a pique of frustration, sweeps all the papers from his desk Angry Panda style. Two sheets land next to one another. He pauses. Eureka! After a flurry of cutting he holds aloft an INDEX CARD. A frenzy of gleeful, laughing scribbling, and shuffling follows…

And just as the life forms he wrote about were the result of dividing, reorganizing, and shuffling, now he was able to do that with information.

Index cards. They contain the multitudes.

Source: British Society for the History of Science. “Carl Linnaeus Invented The Index Card.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 16 June 2009.

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Jeanne M. Lambin

Jeanne M. Lambin

I help people imagine, create, and live better stories for themselves, their communities, and the world.

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