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Index cards: Let's count their many uses, by Bob Vecchiotti

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It’s summer and it’s time for a lighthearted topic. While looking over some ideas for the column on index cards, I realized that was it. Why not write about index cards!

Index cards have been around since the late 1800s when Melvil Dewey, the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System for cataloging books in libraries, created a card system for the Library Bureau of New York City. He used 3x5 cards, known as index cards, to document titles and authors and put them in alphabetical order. However, fewer and fewer libraries use them now as they are being replaced by computer- based systems.

The Dublin Library still keeps several large wooden cases that hold its 3x5 book references for nostalgia. Their current book references have been online for six years.

But the cards have other great uses. They can order a progression of thoughts and actions into a meaningful sequence or be a reminder cue. For me, I use them to list topics for columns, new practices for clients, and the home “to do” list. There’s a special place on my desk for my index cards. There are about five to 10 next to my computer. The cards have a unique responsibility: prompting me to retrieve information from my long-term memory.

Here’s how it works. They are a visible sign for short-term memory so there is something to see. This information stays only a very short time and must be changed in a way the mind understands. Next is “working memory,” which takes this information, changes it, and moves it to long-term memory where the information itself and associated thoughts, reactions, spontaneous ideas, insights and conclusions are stored. These products of my thinking are in my consciousness for as long as I keep perusing them. That’s quite an index-card benefit.

It can also be a quick way to remember things or, as I call it, the initial draft. When out of the office, I usually don’t have time to activate my laptop, iPad, or iPhone to save an important thought or insight. So I write it on my trusty index card from my shirt pocket. I can refer to it later and transfer the idea to the laptop. That is if it is still important and if there’s any need to add to it.

The initial idea can also be changed or added right on the card. This gives the idea the benefit of some additional rehearsal by writing it down — an added and important way of “keeping it in mind” and in long-term memory. Mr. Dewey would be proud to see how useful his index cards are still in remembering and cataloging our ideas.

One concern with using index cards is that they can get lost or misplaced, just like your cellphone. The answer here is the same as with your phone — your memory of the last time you saw it. Another is not having one when you need it. If you’re like me, ideas pop into my head all day long. Ideas can come at anytime and from anywhere. That’s why there are a few index cards on my night table so when I have an idea at night I jot it down with the aid of a small flashlight. It’s captured and ready for assessment and cataloging in the morning.

Index cards are also an easy way to sort ideas. You can put all the relevant ideas together or rearrange them with little effort. They are light weight. There are other practical uses for the index cards worthy of some note: they measure things like a ruler with their precise dimensions, they can scoop up small things dropped on the floor (a bit of a stretch), they help draw straight lines, they are a handy bookmark, and they are used a lot as flash cards. Have you thought of another use for an index card?

Bill Little, owner of Steele’s Stationers in Peterborough, estimates that he sells more than 500 packets of 100 index cards each year.

As useful as index cards are, there’s another well-known device for combining ideas, integrating similar subjects, and just plain keeping things together. It’s a long-standing workhorse with many years of experience. It’s the paper clip. A topic for another column.

Bob Vecchiotti is a business advisor and executive coach in Peterborough. His website is

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