Chris Aldridge has discovered yet another writer who used index cards to construct an extensive body of work from smaller pieces. This practice is often referred to as keeping a Zettelkasten, whether or not the owner was actually German.

The Idea File of Harold Adams Innis (University of Toronto Press, 1980) reproduces an edited version of the typescript Innis, an economic historian, made of his original index cards.

Chris wonders if the index cards themselves might be re-issued for interested readers.

While I appreciate the published book nature of the work, it would be quite something to have it excerpted back down to index card form as a piece of material culture to purchase and play around with. Perhaps something in honor of the coming 75th anniversary of his passing?

I guess such a work might look something like the 138-index-card edition of Nabokov’s unfinished novel, The Original of Laura, which Chip Kidd designed; or his dream diary, constructed from 118 index cards and published with some images of the original notes as Insomniac Dreams.

Sadly, a new edition such as this seems unlikely. That’s because according to the Introduction of the Idea File, Innis himself had around 1,500 of his index cards transcribed to 339 typed and numbered sheets of paper. And the cards themselves were lost, it seems, so I’m not holding my breath. However, it’s always possible that some interpid researcher might investigate the archives1 and discover them hidden away there one day. Stranger things have happened.

“The early history of the material that came to be called the Idea File is obscure. Innis’s son, Donald, recalls that his father used to keep notes on card files, and that there were, at one point, about eighteen inches of white cards, with another five or so inches of white cards containing an index. This index, according to Donald Innis constituted ‘a cross referencing system so that one idea might be referred to under several headings and vice-versa’. These cards appear to have been in manuscript. However, at some point or points, Innis had these notes typed on sheets of paper, and near the end of his life collected the typed notes into one collation which he numbered consequently from 1 to 339.

The cards themselves appear to be lost. It is possible that they still existed at Innis’s death, for there is a second typed version of part of the Idea File. What might have happened is that in the process of preparing Innis’s posthumous material for limited circulation, a typist began working from the cards; then, during the typing, the family discovered the typed version and stopped the retyping.”

I’ve gleaned a few ideas from all this.

First, cross-referencing matters. Innes kept a very extensive index to his cards: 5 inches of index to 18 inches of actual notes. This means his ideas were probably extensively cross-referenced. Makes me think no amount of cross-referencing is too much, if you feel like doing it. But also: don’t get obsessive. Life’s too short to cross-reference everything.

Second, I’m wondering about longevity of work. It really seems like the original notes on index cards were lost. This is such an interesting feature of the resurgence of interest in the working methods of writers and scholars. Is the ‘finished product’ - book or article - really more important and permanent than the supposedly transient and disposable noted from which it was created? And what happens to the ‘Nachlass’ in the age of digitization? Is it both eternal and wipeable at the same time?

Third, the meaning is in the links, but the links are fragile. Given the interlinking of the original notes and their subsequent disappearance, it’s fairly clear that the published ‘idea file’ has lost a significant part of its meaning, since that meaning resides in the links between ideas, not just in the ideas themselves.

Fourth, I noticed that Innis’s notes were often very short. Sometimes just a sentence or two, with compressed, abbreviated syntax. It reminds me of Lichtenberg’s aphorisms, many of which fall slightly flat as prose. Here’s an example. I just wonder what it used to link to:

“University presidents giving each other degrees. A university not an institution designed to that end, or to give members of boards of governers degrees.”

I really appreciate looking into the working practices of writers like this. No doubt there are many more such examples to be found and explored.

  1. Manuscript Collection #845, Innis Papers, Archives of the University of Toronto, Thomas Fisher Library, Box 8 ↩︎