The tiny but mighty index card

There are some things that are so perfect they can’t be improved on. A few that quickly come to mind are the #2 lead pencil, the Victor mouse trap, the Zippo lighter, and the Swiss Army knife.

Today I’d like to talk about another perfect thing that we really take for granted, and that is the standard 3-by-5-inch index card. Yes, those ubiquitous little white, lined index cards are among mankind’s most powerful intellectual and organizational devices, even in the computer age. Index cards rock.

What got me into index cards recently was my continued study of music. I’m to the point now where I can actually pick up sheet music and attempt to play songs.

Don’t take this lightly, believe me, because there are many well known, extremely rich and famous musicians and songwriters who have said publicly for years that they don’t know how to read music. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I know I want to be able to look at written music and, if nothing else, at least get a feel for the piece.

So I needed a way to map the notes on the music staff to the strings and frets on the guitar. What I did was make up six index cards, one for each string. Each card clearly shows me which notes on the music staff map to which notes on the guitar fretboard.

By doing it this way — one string to one index card — I get the power of “less is more.” It is much easier to learn it one string at a time, at least for me.

This is where index cards shine. By limiting the sheer amount of information they can comfortably contain, they force you to pare down to its essence whatever it is you are studying. How great is that?

I can still remember my kids making up index cards or “flashcards” to help study for tests. We’d go over the material with them, reading the questions off the cards, over and over, until they got it. What an effective way to study.

Just having to make up the cards in the first place is helpful, and then the repetition, over and over; you can’t beat it. Heck, if you’re not careful, you could also learn the material by doing this kind of studying with them, haha.

I like to read thrillers and mysteries. Often I find myself thinking how it was possible for the author to keep track of so many characters and plot lines. Turns out some of our greatest writers use index cards to help organize all this stuff.

A popular method is to stick index cards up on a large cork board or lay them out on a large table, and then move them around as necessary to complete the “story arc.” Apparently Vladimir Nabokov of “Lolita” infamy was a huge proponent of writing this way. What a great idea. To think that these simple little cards can assist in creating truly great writing is pretty amazing.

Speeches, books, scientific research — all of this creative activity and more has been powered by the humble index card. Before computers, they were used to form personal contact databases as well (the classic desktop “Rolodex” was essentially a rolling collection of sorted index cards).

Again, when you write the information down yourself, it just helps to reinforce it. Contrast that with someone handing you a business card. Not the same.

I have a little spiral-bound book I was given for Christmas one year in which I write my favorite recipes. My wife and her mom used index cards for their favorites. Some of their cards, like the one for lasagna and the one for apple pie, are well worn because we use them so much.

The great thing about using index cards for recipes is you can organize them into those little boxes that make it so easy to find them later. Maybe I should switch.

I’ve been to plenty of training sessions where index cards were used to jot down ideas for group reflection and discussion. I think Post-It notes, because they can be stuck on whiteboards and walls, have usurped the index card in the business world for brainstorming activities. When you think about it, you realize that a Post-It note is simply an index card with sticky stuff on the back, so it’s still kind of the same thing.

If you’re old like me you must remember the card catalog that was used in libraries for years and years. The cards allowed you to search for a book by title, subject, and author.

In fact, these cards and the index searchable model that they represented became the basis for the computer databases that are used today for library cataloging. The system, enabled by the humble index card, was so versatile that the computer systems created from it can easily handle the DVDs, CDs, magazines, and all the other great stuff that libraries so wonderfully make available to us. Awesome.

These days, when you attend a class or presentation, the first thing everyone wants to know is if the PowerPoint (the computer slide show) will be made available. That’s great if it is, but how often do you really go back and look at it later?

A better thing to do is, as the presentation goes on, to write the main idea of ​​whatever point the speaker is making on the back side of an index card. Then you can write the details on the lined side.

The advantages of doing it this way are that it is an active process — you are writing down information, which will help retain it — and the cards are very portable so you can take them with you and easily pull them out at a later time. I wish I’d known about this method of note-taking when I was in school.

In researching index cards, I came across something I’d never heard of before — a “cropper hopper.” This is the generic term for a box used to store photographs, but which can easily be repurposed to store index cards in an orderly way. Just do a search on “cropper hopper” and see what you find. Pretty great idea.

My new guitar-note index cards are going to help me learn to read sheet music. Now that I know how powerful index cards are, I’ll be using them for many more things in the future I’m sure.

If you’re still not convinced how great index cards are, let me leave you with this:

“Father emptied a card file for Margot and me and filled it with index cards that are blank on one side. This is to become our reading file, in which Margot and I are supposed to note down the books we’ve read, the author and the date.” — Anne Frank

Next time you’re in the dollar store, pick up a pack of index cards. You’ll be glad you did.

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