Daily Archives: April 23, 2011 7:10 pm

In praise of record cards

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Photo of index card box with record cards

My index cards. Not throwing them away just yet.

I was on the point of throwing away two boxes of record cards (or index cards) that, if I’m honest, I have rarely used. One of them I have had since 1997. I bought it because I needed some way of learning lots of new vocabulary when I started work in a German theatre. The other I’ve had since 2008 when I started my MA.  Does anyone really need record cards any more, given the enormous amount of amazing technology (most of which I use) that replaces them? I love and am reliant on Zotero, and I am a new convert to Scrivener and I’ll  make a database at the drop of a hat. So what’s the point in record cards?  I have hardly opened these boxes since I started them.

Well, the point is, as I’ve discovered, that record cards encourage me to write things down and catalogue them as I find them, and to start a card for any concept, person or phenonenon that is new to me. The card index becomes an aide-memoire for all the things that I find difficult or interesting. Looking through the cards now, I find that I had forgotten most of it.

When I was on the point of throwing the cards away, my rationale was ‘I haven’t looked at these, so they can’t be that important’. But card after card reminded me of things that I once knew, things that were once very important to me.  One of my favourites was this:

DARWINIAN theory of music” Coined by Subotnik (1987) to mean the theory that the greatest music is what survives. Cf. Leonhard & House 1972:106 “we can rely somewhat on the survival of a piece of Western music as an indication’ of expressive appeal and value”.

As an undergraduate in the days before computers, I did all my revision for exams on record cards, gradually reducing the amount on them until I could remember a whole topic from one keyword.  It never occurred to me to think ‘I guess if it’s important, I’ll remember it’. That would have been, so to speak, a Darwinian theory of learning, and a very stupid one at that.

And as for the Darwinian theory of music (in case there’s any doubt, Subotnik was using the term ironically, whereas Leonhard & House meant it seriously), I’ve been looking everywhere for that quote, but  I couldn’t even remember what the thing was that I was looking for, let alone who wrote it. A routine scout through my record cards reminds me of what I know. Yes, I could do that on a computer, but there’s too much there, and it’s too clever at hiding stuff away that might provide the necessary connections.

So for the moment, Oxfam isn’t getting my card boxes. I don’t know if I’ll keep writing index cards, but I’m certainly going to keep looking through the ones I’ve got.