How the Index Card Cataloged the World

Daniela Blei in the Atlantic: “…The index card was a product of the Enlightenment, conceived by one of its towering figures: Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, physician, and the father of modern taxonomy. But like all information systems, the index card had unexpected political implications, too: It helped set the stage for categorizing people, and for the prejudice and violence that comes along with such classification….

In 1780, two years after Linnaeus’s death, Vienna’s Court Library introduced a card catalog, the first of its kind. Describing all the books on the library’s shelves in one ordered system, it relied on a simple, flexible tool: paper slips. Around the same time that the library catalog appeared, says Krajewski, Europeans adopted banknotes as a universal medium of exchange. He believes this wasn’t a historical coincidence. Banknotes, like bibliographical slips of paper and the books they referred to, were material, representational, and mobile. Perhaps Linnaeus took the same mental leap from “free-floating banknotes” to “little paper slips” (or vice versa). Sweden’s great botanist was also a participant in an emerging capitalist economy.

Linnaeus never grasped the full potential of his paper technology. Born of necessity, his paper slips were “idiosyncratic,” say Charmantier and Müller-Wille. “There is no sign he ever tried to rationalize or advertise the new practice.” Like his taxonomical system, paper slips were both an idea and a method, designed to bring order to the chaos of the world.

The passion for classification, a hallmark of the Enlightenment, also had a dark side. From nature’s variety came an abiding preoccupation with the differences between people. As soon as anthropologists applied Linnaeus’s taxonomical system to humans, the category of race, together with the ideology of racism, was born.

It’s fitting, then, that the index card would have a checkered history. To take one example, the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover used skills he burnished as a cataloger at the Library of Congress to assemble his notorious “Editorial Card Index.” By 1920, he had cataloged 200,000 subversive individuals and organizations in detailed, cross-referenced entries. Nazi ideologues compiled a deadlier index-card database to classify 500,000 Jewish Germans according to racial and genetic background. Other regimes have employed similar methods, relying on the index card’s simplicity and versatility to catalog enemies real and imagined.

The act of organizing information—even notes about plants—is never neutral or objective. Anyone who has used index cards to plan a project, plot a story, or study for an exam knows that hierarchies are inevitable. Forty years ago, Michel Foucault observed in a footnote that, curiously, historians had neglected the invention of the index card. The book was Discipline and Punish, which explores the relationship between knowledge and power. The index card was a turning point, Foucault believed, in the relationship between power and technology. Like the categories they cataloged, Linnaeus’s paper slips belong to the history of politics as much as the history of science….(More)”.