Fall 2012

Paper Machines: An Interview with Markus Krajewski

The index card and the card index

Brian Dillon and Markus Krajewski

Vladimir Nabokov scribbling on note cards.

“The pattern of the thing precedes the thing. I fill in the gaps of the crossword at any spot I happen to choose. These bits I write on index cards until the novel is done. My schedule is flexible, but I am rather particular about my instruments: lined Bristol cards and well-sharpened, not too hard, pencils capped with erasers.” Thus Vladimir Nabokov, interviewed by the Paris Review in 1967, on the subject of his famously dispersed and piecemeal writing habits. The index card is an especially reified item of stationery in literary-historical terms: one thinks of Gisèle Freund’s photographs of Walter Benjamin at work with his cards at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, or novelist Nicholson Baker’s 1994 essay-elegy “Discards” on the disappearing library card index. Nabokov’s distinction between “pattern” and “thing” suggests how these two aspects of the index card—tool of writing practice and element of information systems—may be related. The card’s hardware is nothing without the software of an overarching system, whether the user is a solitary writer or a scholar faced (a rare occurrence now) with the massed drawers of a major research library’s card index.

The card index, in its enclosing cabinet, is a model for the information systems that supplanted it in the twentieth century. In his new book Paper Machines (MIT Press), Markus Krajewski, associate professor of media history at the Bauhaus University, traces the history of index cards and card indexes: from Konrad Gessner’s paper-slip prototype in the sixteenth century through the wayward cataloger William Croswell’s accidental rediscovery of the method at Harvard in the early nineteenth century to Melvil Dewey’s popularization of card catalogues in business and bureaucracy as well as libraries. Brian Dillon interviewed Krajewski in September 2012.


Cabinet: The development of the card index among scholars, librarians, and bureaucrats seems to be linked throughout its history with a perceived glut of information or material: a “book flood.” What are the specific advantages of the card catalogue, which Konrad Gessner originates in the sixteenth century, when it comes to dealing with that profusion?

Markus Krajewski: One strategy to tackle the glut of books and information is to provide synopses and lists. This is what Gessner develops with his Bibliotheca Universalis of 1548: an alphabetically and systematically ordered register of all the books of his time—at least those he knew of, and he was a meticulous collector of book-trade catalogues and publishers’ announcements. In order to compile this bibliography, Gessner had to develop new methods and techniques. He not only had to rearrange and sort individual items; he had to standardize the information he found in booksellers’ catalogues and the references in the books he read. Every reference to a book had to contain author, title, printer, place, and year of publication: in fact, all the core information that still makes up a bibliographic record today. So Gessner not only paved the long way to modern bibliography, but his project also set the first standards of orientation and navigation in the ocean of knowledge that early modern scholars were exploring gradually, publication by publication.

But the greatest advantage of Gessner’s work is that he was explicit in describing how to prepare huge bibliographies. He recommends, for example, singling out each piece of information—be it a bibliographic set of data, a swift thought, or an elaborate idea—on slips of paper in order to shuffle through them more easily. He delivers nothing less than a five-step algorithm for how to proceed with huge data processing. First, when reading, everything of importance and whatever appears useful should be copied onto a good sheet of paper. Second, a new line should be used for every idea. Third, cut out those core elements with a pair of scissors. Fourth, arrange the slips as you desire, e.g., into larger clusters that can then be subdivided again as often as necessary. Fifth, as soon as the desired order is produced, arranged, and sorted on tables or in small boxes, it should be fixed or copied directly. So the Bibliotheca Universalis not only sets a new standard in terms of content, but also in the format of the records.

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