An Ode to Index Cards


(This essay was inspired by Pablo Neruda’s Odes to Common Things, a book of poems dedicated to everything from a lemon, a book, a pair of socks, to a pair of scissors.)

Right now, my desk, table, and part of the living room floor are littered with index cards. Let’s just say I’m in the midst of some heavy “strategic planning” and the index cards are helping me to keep track, get ideas, brainstorm, make lists, and address various aspects of my life.

I find comfort in index cards and they have been useful tools throughout my life. I remember my younger sister and I made a pack of playing cards with them one summer because then we could take them outside. In eighth grade, I gave one of the student speeches at our commencement and my words of wide-eyed optimism were scribbled on some scrap index cards from my mother’s desk. In my high school world history class, our teacher taught us to use the index cards to take notes, capturing one idea or fact on each card, along with the source information to be copied down. He showed us that after the outlining and researching phase, the set of index cards would be the general term paper and bibliography, with only a little left to write in the final stage of our big projects.

I was maybe the last of the generation who knew the library card catalog, made with index cards. Pulling out the drawer to find a title, a subject, an author, those cards had power. But I remember those cards being slowly replaced. One summer we spent with my dad in Boulder, we went to the library often and my older sister used her new college student experience to tap out queries for the library collection, music on tapes and cool photography books among the discoveries she brought home. I still loved to look through the card catalog, though, flipping through the cards and marveling at the ideas and knowledge and stories they represented.

Index cards are portable and convenient. They are easy to use to make flash cards, or copy down well-loved recipes. Even with smart phones at our fingertips, index cards are endlessly useful.

Index cards were the office supplies I loved most growing up. They carried me through monumental parts of high school from those history term papers to a love note written to my first boyfriend when I didn’t want to use stationery for fear of looking too mushy. Speeches, for contests or class, I wrote or typed on index cards. Writing on an index card was less intimidating than starting with a whole blank sheet of paper and easier to see the progress as a small stack of cards emerged.

In college, I made flash cards for Spanish, kept track of assignments, and used them for lists and notes. A couple packs of index cards helped me stay organized during a summer internship.

In my early twenties, when I felt like I was floundering after the solid direction of school, the index cards in my life were nonexistent. The index cards returned, though in my mid twenties and they helped me as I brainstormed about life directions: jobs, career trajectory, school, where I wanted to live, and the pros and cons of dating a certain boyfriend.

I have written my resume on index cards, discovered big dreams with them, and wrote some of my first bad poetry on them.

It wasn’t until a few years ago, that I finally learned how to use them well for studying. Write one fact on each card, in a question form, with the answer on the other side. For vocabulary, one side can be the word, while the other side is the definition, one way I’ve always known to use them. For multiple pronged questions: use the cards to isolate the bullet points. Shuffle through the cards and see what you know, making two piles of ones you know and ones you do not, slowly plowing through the pile until they merge into the pile you know. Now, I sift through books and notes with note cards, making it easier to keep track of what I have learned and read. In hindsight, this would have helped in both high school and college. Even in this digital age, research shows that writing things down helps our brains to learn and retain the information.

Right now, I am using index cards for creating a better budget and a plan to pay down debt and increase savings. I am using some for a book project, each card representing an essay to go in the book, with the subject on one side and a few ideas scribbled on the other side. Index cards on my desk are helping me keep track of my applications for writers’ residencies and my submissions of articles and essays. The other night, I flipped through part of a pack while I wrote down some goals, and also used them for some dreamier and hazier parts to my life.

One of my favorite book characters, Kinsey Milhone, used index cards religiously. The character, created by Sue Grafton for her alphabet mystery series, would jot down facts about her current mysterious case and then shuffle them to see what she knew and what might be missing. The index card scenes in the books, beyond showing Kinsey’s fastidiousness, helped with foreshadowing, shared expository details, or reminded the reader about clues littered throughout the pages.

Index cards are useful, small, and cheap. They have provided me with direction and comfort when I felt I had neither. They still help me to make my fuzzy ideas more clear. There is something very soothing to me to start with a fresh pack of index cards, for a new project or to find my way through a problem. Index cards are my way to take something large and break it down into smaller pieces. Index cards have even helped me to pray.

After the inner spiritual work that I have done in the last few years, index cards get me from the nebulous to the now. They help me to go from worry and wonder to the moment. They help me to find the concrete, the detail.

It’s the simplicity of an index card that I love the most. It’s just a piece of paper, but it’s different than a sticky note or a writing pad, neither of which I like to use. They are sturdy and thick, usually with lines on one side and a blank side. I can tuck an index card into my pocket or shuffle a whole pack of them or stab one onto my bulletin board with a safety pin.

As I think about how I use index cards, it makes me sound like a very linear person. But, as my close friends and family would attest, I am one of the least linear people they know. I tend to talk and think and write in squiggles and loops. Index cards give me another dimension, and another way to line up or circle up the ideas, feelings, things.

I love index cards and all that they can be used for. Love letters, budgets, lists, favorite recipes, chapters for a book, vocabulary words, learning a new language, notes for a speech, brainstorming, breaking a huge project into smaller parts, keeping track of assignments. Index cards help me go from muddled to clear. Index cards help me to clear the fog of too much to do. Writing out index cards, for whatever chore or project, helps me to slow down and find the pace.

Thank you to the index card for space, for a linear side, for a nonlinear side, for a way to make sense, for a way to name and question. Thank you to the index card for potential, for the past, and for the middle.

6 comments

  1. I recall employing index cards in Junior High School(early 1970s) when rendering five minute speeches in English class. After entering high school, I discontinued use of index cards. When in university studies, I always used notebook paper to develop an outline for a paper that had to be written. My English 101 instructor urged us to use simplicity when writing. In an Advanced Composition course the professor advocated using a potent vocabulary. Now, when I entered my early thirties, I commenced to employ index cards to ameliorate my vocabulary. Whether academic or in the real world, index cards can be salutary in accomplishing tasks.

  2. What a cool blog! And what cool things are index cards. So inviting and so full of potential…. I’ve never been as heavy a user as you are, but I do have a stack with a rubber band around them right now in the drawer just beside me…Even though I use sticky notes and a keyboard almost always, I could never throw those cards away. I just like their being there. Maybe just because of the possibilities. 🙂

    • Thank you! I tend to be on the Luddite side of the spectrum of technology, so I love index cards, but sticky notes on my laptop are also pretty groovy!! I agree with you and there is so much possibility with a deck of index cards!! Thanks for reading and commenting, Donnie. I am amazed and humbled that after 4 1/2 years from The Upper Room that you found this blog and keep reading and commenting. Thank you so so so much!

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