Old-Fashioned Index Cards

Index cards

A dissertation’s worth of index cards, a draft, and comments from my adviser

When I was in Philadelphia recently to present a paper at the McNeil Center, I also enjoyed the opportunity to meet undergraduate students who were working on research papers as part of the MCEAS Undergraduate Research Workshop. I was asked to talk about my research methods—how I go about finding sources, how I organize them, and how I pull them together into (sometimes) coherent prose. In doing so, I outed myself as a very old-fashioned researcher, indeed.

I do not take pictures or scans of documents. I transcribe quotes on my laptop as I research. And readers, I have a confession: I am a huge proponent of old-fashioned index cards.

I know, I know. I’m a bit behind the times. Fellow Juntoist Ben Park has written eloquently about why he uses Evernote and how he organizes his data. He even includes a “fun anecdote” about an instructor who taught “us how to keep notes on notecards.” Tongue-in-cheek, he wonders, “Does anyone do that anymore?”

Guilty. I don’t take pictures of documents because I know that I’m the type of procrastinator who will never sit down and read the things she’s scanned. It’s more useful for me to see what material a manuscript holds while I’m in the archive, and to jot it down there. Given the fact that I was looking for mentions of Native and slave foodways in Revolutionary America, it made more sense for me to skim quickly until I found something rather than to take photos and hope to find mentions of food afterward. I suppose my methods might change in the future if I don’t pick another needle-in-a-haystack sort of topic.

Because I ended up with so much material—and so much of it disorganized—I needed a way to work through the digital mountains of words on my computer. As an undergrad, I could print out my fifteen or so pages of primary source quotes to write a 10-to-12-page research paper. That method wasn’t going to work for the dissertation. I ended up using index cards, and it worked for me.

Here’s how.

The research started (albeit superficially) with my comprehensive exams. As I read the books on my list, I transcribed the passages I found where historians referenced food, cooking, or eating. I then looked up the archive they cited in their footnote, along with the manuscript collection (if I’d been even smarter, I would have included a short parenthetical remark stating why I was choosing to look at a particular collection, but I didn’t). By the time I was ready to set out on research I had a whole list of collections to examine.

Once I got to an archive, I created a new Word document for each collection I looked at. As I read, I transcribed the quotes I thought would be useful for me, making sure to note in bold when a volume changed over to the next volume. As I transcribed, if I came across a quote that immediately gave me something to say, I’d make a note to myself using all caps so that I could spot it easily when skimming a document. I should say that sometimes these notes were useful, and sometimes they were completely useless; at various points during the write-up stage I found myself vehemently crossing out my capitalized notes.

When the time came to write up a new chapter, I’d open up a new Word document and call it something like “Primary Sources, black Loyalists in Sierra Leone chapter.” Then, I’d go through my folders and open each document that seemed like it would contain a relevant collection. I’d copy and paste each document into the new Word document, alphabetizing by collection name. Once I was done adding in every potential collection, I formatted the document to 4 by 6 inches, shrunk the font (to save paper), and added page numbers. Then, I bought extra print cartridges, resigned myself to killing some trees, and printed everything out on index cards (each chapter usually ended up producing 200-500 cards). Sometimes, if chapter had a particularly thorny historiographical point that needed making, I’d do the same thing with my secondary source quotes.

Index cards2

Word document before printing

To plan a chapter, I’d sit with a yellow legal pad and my cards, and start reading. As I went, I’d write out key events (with dates), and themes. Each point got its own index card page number so I’d know where to find the evidence I needed. Once I read everything, I used my notes to make a detailed outline.

After that, I could sit down and write, essentially plugging the quotes from the index cards into the points I already knew I wanted to make. I found index cards particularly useful once I got to the writing part because I enjoy the ability to physically flip back and forth between several different quotations. I can even pull index cards out of the stack and place them side by side in front of me—the page numbering makes it easy to replace them once I’m done.

I should say that this method does not produce a beautiful first draft. To be honest, it produces a pretty mediocre piece of writing. But I’m the sort of writer who needs to produce a “here’s what happened chronologically” chapter before I can edit it into a “here’s why it matters” chapter. And I found that getting the chronology down was half the battle to writing the damn thing in the first place.

As I look ahead to the behemoth task of turning the dissertation into a book, I’m willing to admit that I could stand to update my methods and open myself up to more sophisticated forms of note-taking.

Readers, any note-taking tips/programs/tricks you use to keep track of your research? Please feel free to share in the comments below!

17 responses

  1. Very interesting and helpful! Unfortunately, the process of turning research into writing is one which we are expected to figure out for ourself. For that reason, I’ve always found it interesting when historians talk about their research/writing process. I have a post coming up next week on my own digital workflow, which will provide a sort-of counterexample to your process, so I won’t go into it here, but in reading your piece it did strike me that what I am doing in an almost all-digital environment is essentially the same as you describe. Software that I use includes index card functions and the ability to create, merge, or just look at multiple documents at the same time. It’s especially helpful to think about the process in an “analog” way as I set out on dissertation research, because I can begin to think a bit differently about how I might improve my digital workflow from the outset.

    • Thanks for the comment, Michael. I think part of my resistance to doing it digitally comes from an unwillingness to stare at a tiny computer screen for an extended period of time. If in the future I can procure the coveted double-monitor set-up, I think that would go a long way toward changing my mind.

      • As with most technology, double-monitor capability is getting cheaper and cheaper – even large high-res types. You should be able to get there soon!

  2. Rachel, I can’t tell you how happy this makes me. As I fellow index card user I love to see that I’m not totally alone. I’ve tried so many other methods, but I keep coming back and I’m now committed to it. There’s something about spreading cards out on a table and being able to think about an outline or narrative spatially that I can’t capture on a computer screen, even through special software. I have a convoluted coding system and, even though it is terribly inefficient, I feel much closer to the information and more able to process it. I also enjoy seeing the physical fruits of labor in big stacks of cards!

    And Michael, you make a terrific point about process. I’m intrigued by people’s research and organizational methods and am always on the lookout for new tricks and tips. So thanks for posting on this topic.

  3. Thank you for this. I confess: I haven’t used index cards for many years but the reason you use them is important and needs to be considered when we discuss digital research and changing nature of research in archives. How to make that kind of deep analysis, deep reflection happen even as we take advantage of technology? I am still balancing the same.

    As for bringing some of the 21st century into your method (no judgement!) I’d suggest either Scrivener or nValt/Notational Velocity as a starter. Scrivener because it allows you to use the documents as index cards and view them on a “corkboard.” It may best replicate what you are already doing visually. But nValt may better replicate your method. Profhacker has a great explanation here: http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/tag/nvalt. I actually like nValt so much I’ve moved my research notes from Bento (a more traditional database program) to nValt. I just realized I didn’t need all the bells and whistles. I just needed my notes. Plus it is just plain easy to use.

    Thanks again. Hope some of this helps and happy researching.

  4. Rachel, I have the same “follow up” problem in the archives–snapping lots of pictures can give you the illusion that you’ve done the brain work, and I have to be deliberate about scheduling days when I return home to actually carefully read and process all of that material. I also am a person that needs to get chronology straight first. While trying to contextualize the primary source scraps I had on the life of John “Appleseed” Chapman I created tables in Word, with a column on the left that divided time into quarter year sections (e.g. Jan-March 1797). The next column would include specific evidence of things Chapman did in that quarter (e.g March 17: bought tools at Franklin Dry Goods store). A third column tracked specific events in the lives of his family or close associates, a fourth column pinpointed specific local events that he would have experienced (e.g. Owl Creek Bank fails) and a fifth column identified regional or national events that may have influenced his world (e.g. Ohio and Erie canal opens). Once constructed, the table was not only a handy reference for writing, but helped me see connections and establish context which sometimes gave even mundane facts more meaning.

    I have also used the Note Cards app on my iPad to help me plan chapters or parts of chapters.

  5. I also used index cards when I was working on my thesis! Being a black-and-white visual sort of person it was the only thing I found that really worked for me. I would print out my source notes and cut each thought, quote or fact and tape them individually to each note card. I know I did a lot of extra work then necessary but it helped me to understand exactly what I had and what I needed more of. I still have all of the note cards in a container shoved somewhere in a closet. I have not had the heart to throw them out!

  6. I am totally going to do this. I need to physically handle and touch things before I really internalize and understand them. Then rearrange etc. I’ve been thinking about how I am going to organize everything as I write chapters and this seems like a manageable method.

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