The Technium

One Dead Media

One of my suppositions is that technologies rarely go extinct — on the global level. Usually someone, somewhere will continue to employ the most ancient technology. There are probably more people making swords by hand now than in the past. On any given weekend in the US there will be a gathering of weekend flint knappers churning out mounds of magnificent arrow heads, using the exact technology of the stone age. Online you can buy new valves for a Stanley steam powered car, or leather parts for a horse drawn buggy, just as you could 100 years ago. In some parts of Africa and Asia any ancient tool is still manufactured in ancient ways.  It is hard to find an old technology that is not available in any form any where on earth.

But today I may have found one. Alex Wright’s story in the New York Times about Paul Otlet, the little-known Belgian who worked out an early version of hypertext (see my review of a documentary about him in True Films) prompted a reader to point out a system similar to Otlet’s that was once available commercially in the US.


Edge-notched cards were invented in 1896. These are index cards with holes on their edges, which can be selectively slotted to indicate traits or categories, or in our language today, to act as a field. Before the advent of computers were one of the few ways you could sort large databases for more than one term at once. In computer science terms, you could do a “logical OR” operation. This ability of the system to sort and link prompted Douglas Engelbart in 1962 to suggest these cards could impliement part of the Memex vision of hypertext.

The “unit records” here, unlike those in the Memex example, are generally scraps of typed or handwritten text on IBM-card sized edge-notchable cards. These represent little “kernels” of data, thought, fact, consideration concepts, ideas, worries, etc., that are relevant to a given problem… Each such specific problem area has its notecards kept in a separate deck, and for each such deck there is a master card with descriptors associated with individual holes about the periphery of the card. There is a field of holes reserved for notch coding the serial number of a reference from which the note on a card may have been taken, or the serial number corresponding to an individual from whom the information came directly (including a code for myself, for self-generated thoughts).

In the US these cards were sold as McBee Keysort Cards and InDecks Information Retrieval cards.  McBee cards were often used in libraries to keep track of books in interlibrary loan programs.


These cards were used by Stewart Brand in managing the creation of the Last Whole Earth Catalog in 1975, which is where I first encountered them. Here is what he said about them at the time:

What do you have a lot of? Students, subscribers, notes, books, records, clients, projects? Once you’re past 50 or 100 of whatever, it’s tough to keep track, time to externalize your store and retrieve system. One handy method this side of a high-rent computer is Indecks. It’s funky and functional: cards with a lot of holes in the edges, a long blunt needle, and a notcher. Run the needle through a hole in a bunch of cards, lift, and the cards notched in that hole don’t rise; they fall out. So you don’t have to keep the cards in order. You can sort them by feature, number, alphabetically or whatever; just poke, fan, lift and catch. Indecks is cheaper than the McBee sysem we used to list. We’ve used the McBee cards to manipulate (edit) and keep track of the 3000 or so items in this CATALOG. They’ve meant the difference between partial and complete insanity.


This card sorting system was sold to graduate students, and professionals with data sorting needs such as field workers, catalogers, and nerdy people. In short anyone who today might be FileMaker Pro. An advertisement in the September 23, 1966 issue of MIT’s The Tech offers:



McBee and InDecks cards took a bit of fussy attention to make them work. Here is a description from Participant Observation: A Guide for Fieldworkers by DeWalt and DeWalt on how field researches used the cards.

The cards were “coded” by punching out the holes such that when a “knitting needle” was inserted into a particular hole in a stack of cards and shaken, the “coded” cards would fall to the floor. You could search for 2 codes simultaneously by using two knitting needles. For example on the card reproduced in figure 8.2 [below], the information has been coded using the gross codes contained in the Outline of Cultural Materials… Thus, information contained on this card is coded for the categories for research methods (12), demography (16), food quest (22), food processing (25), sickness (75), religious beliefs (77), and ecclesiastical organization (79).  Needless to say, coding the information, punching out the holes, and retrieving information coded in this manner was cumbersome. It was almost more efficient to use the century-old system of marginal notes…


Pete Bell, co-founder of Endeca, a search and navigation technology, sent along this reference to the beginnings of the McBee way of knowledge:

Otlet’s “steampunk hypertext” would not have scaled – from an information science standpoint, forget mechanically — but one of his contemporaries envisioned a way to browse information that did. Known today as the father of library science, S.R. Ranganathan was an Indian mystic and mathematician that in the 1930s saw the coming failure of the Dewey Decimal System to scale. He envisioned a better way to classify knowledge known as the Colon Classification System. And while Google might be the most popular way to search information today, the most popular way to browse information, besides hypertext, is on a faceted navigation system, whose roots are in Ranganathan. Below are pics of its steampunk predecessors.

This is an French edge-notched card, which permits faceted navigation.


To clarify what faceted navigation is, I offer this summary from Wikipedia:

The most prominent use of faceted classification is in faceted navigation systems that enable a user to navigate information hierarchically, going from a category to its sub-categories, but choosing the order in which the categories are presented. This contrasts with traditional taxonomies in which the hierarchy of categories is fixed and unchanging. For example, a traditional restaurant guide might group restaurants first by location, then by type, price, rating, awards, ambiance, and amenities. In a faceted system, a user might decide first to divide the restaurants by price, and then by location and then by type, while another user could first sort the restaurants by type and then by awards. Thus, faceted navigation, like taxonomic navigation, guides users by showing them available categories (or facets), but does not require them to browse through a hierarchy that may not precisely suit their needs or way of thinking.

A similar faceted approach is taken by computer-based field guides to wildlife identification. The old style key for birds require you to go down a path of forking questions: Does it have web feet or not? Is it bigger than a pigeon or not? Does it have a downy crest or not? This hierarchical path can trip you up if you mistake an early step. It will then send you down the wrong path to the wrong identification. Much better is a faceted navigation based on a matrix, where you answer any of the the forks you can, in any order, and then the computer will sort you the most likely answer.  The edge-notched McBee and InDeck cards and Colon Classification contained the seeds of this matrix/faceted navigation.

But prescient as it was, and as cool as these cards were, I searched the Net today for any sign of InDecks and was surprised to find no sellers on eBay, no fan sites, no collector sites, no historical web pages, and no evidence that anyone is still using them.  They are gone. Blasted out by the first computers. Bruce Sterling lists them in his Dead Media file, a catalog of defunct media devices and platforms.  They seem to be verifiably extinct.

Unless I am wrong. If you know of anywhere in the world these edge-slotted cards are still be used or manufactured, please write, and I’ll be happy to announce the news of their survival.

  • My dad gave me some MacBee cards that he’d had specially printed for a medical study in the 60s. (He moved to a computerized system around the end of the 60s). The holes are in groups of 4 for
    binary coded decimal. What surprised me is that in each group of 4 the holes are numbered
    (from right to left) 1, 2, 4, and 7! Its “obvious” you should use 1, 2, 4, and 8 so that you can encode 16 numbers. With 1, 2, 4, 7 you can only encode 15 numbers with 7 getting two encodings. (Of which one was presumably never used.)
    0 0000
    1 0001
    2 0010
    3 0011
    4 0100
    5 0101
    6 0110
    7 1000 or 0111
    8 1001
    9 1010
    Why did they use this nonobvious form of BCD?
    Does anyone know?

  • Igor Polk

    This is wonderful tool !
    I am a computer specialist, but I do use the cards for my research, it is so much more convenient !
    I bought a hole making machine – a whole puchner and punch these cards myself. As a puncher I use regular Side-Cutting Pliers – no problem.
    It is like materialized ideas, and you are holding them in your own hands: incredible tool for inspiration and self estime.

  • Bill

    When I was a kid (30 years ago), I had the strange hobby of collecting fingerprints of friends. There were companies that made “fingerprint kits” consisting of ink, powders for lifting prints, cards for collecting prints on, etc. The cards you put prints on typically used this “edge-notched” technology, so you would classify prints, then cut out the appropriate notches along the top of the card. You could then use a pencil to filter through your deck.

    A quick search shows there’s at least one commercial “kids fingerprinting kit” out there, and if you look close at the picture, you can see they continue to take advantage of edge-notching. See

    So apparently your original belief about no technology dying gains some credence.

  • Bill Brown

    I likewise use the cards in writing my Ph.D. dissertation. This was in 1968-69 and I found the system invaluable. Using just the first eight holes I could alphabetize my bibliography by the first three letters simply by running the needle through the first eight one at a time and putting the cards which fell out to the back of the pack. Having finished the 8th hole my bibliography was alphabetized. I could pull quotes by authors, topics, chapter etc. It was great -especially for a student on a very fixed income living in Europe. No PCs in those days. Thee was a book that I used on “how to use the system” – would anyone happen to know of such a work?

  • If InDeck cards provided a service besides indexing for which they have become inefficient, then they would still be around, just as swordmaking still exists for aesthetic and other reasons besides weaponry, for which they are basically defunct.

  • Michael

    The main reason they have disappeared is that they were among the crude tools used by Hitler’s fascists in selecting populations to be exterminated in death camps. Keysort cards were a clear way to describe digital sorting techniques to brutal people who went on to use IBM machines then. IBM’s role is deeply embarrassing to the corporation, naturally. By now, databases don’t need to be explained with manual tools. Sorting populations is still rampant, which worries some.

  • A bit late to the discussion…. but here’s a belated working link to that New Yorker magazine article about the NYPL card catalog…

    Digging it out, I noticed that the abstract is tagged with keywords, including “file cards” (ironically, a bad link), and “computer” — which retrieves some wonders, including a parody of an early-1980s ad for a personal computer:
    “…weighs less than one ounce, is no larger than a domestic olive, yet performs all the photographic, dataprocessing, and information-retrieving functions you yourself do — automatically…”
    Sounds a little bit like my Osborne 1!

  • Tom

    It’s not so out of date. Ever here of a hanging chad. The use has changed a bit but the principle of use is the same.

  • Karl A Petersen

    I would like to see this card use continue and am pleased to find people interested. Where are instruction books on McBee Keysort or the others available online?

  • Paul

    Back in grad. school I was too cheap to buy Indecks, so I bought a bunch of 3 x 5 note cards that were bound to a spiral metal coil. I snipped off an end of the coil with a pliers, then unwound the coil, and thus had a deck of cards with holes on one edge (True, one edge only, but, hey). For about $.75 a pack instead of several dollars a pack from Indecks.

  • Robert

    Anybody remember the CRC Cards from PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), Adelle Goldberg, and Alan Kay? Although perhaps more of a teaching device than a communication medium, the “medium” usually consisted of a fist full of Denny’s napkins or a file box of 3×5 cards, each ruled with a giant “tee”. The idea was to list Class, Responsibilities, and Collaborators (CRC) and was for me the precursor to the modern Interactive Development Environment (IDE) for the Object-Oriented Programmer.

  • Terry

    Theodore Norvell: I too was puzzled by the 7-4-2-1 coding, but it turns out not to be a BCD in the sense we know it from computing.

    Rather than being a four-bit address for random access, this coding is a means of sequencing the cards. To sort, you do four “probe-and-shake” operations going from right to left, ending up with a sorted sequence of cards. There’s a good explanation here:

    There are several advantages to this coding scheme: the sort procedure is straightforward and can be done with a single needle; coding requires no more than two notches in a field, and the coding pattern for the nine nonzero digits is easy to remember.

    The properties of this particular set of numbers is interesting in that the scheme doesn’t appear to be extensible. You couldn’t use it to represent duodecimal digits, for example, because there would be no way to represent a value of 10 with just one or two notches. Likewise, hexadecimal digits couldn’t be represented by extending the scheme to 10-7-4-2-1, for example, as 13 and 15 would be missing.

    The use of 7-4-2-1 to encode and sort decimal digits appears to be a happy coincidence, but that may be moving into Marvin Gardner territory!

  • Terry

    Correction: that url should be:

  • Scott Barney

    At least one company still makes applicable punches, in a variety of widths, depths, and shapes (rectangular, rounded-bottom, sloped-side).

    “NOTCHING PUNCHES: Designed to punch along edge of paper or card only. For use on patterns, card filing systems, or business forms, etc.”

  • Frank Svoboda

    I worked on a ruffed grouse research project in the late 60’s and early 70’s. The project spanned a period from the 1930’s to the late 1980’s. Over 70,000 McBee key-sort cards were generated during trhe course of he project and I am looking for ideas on converting the data cards to an archival reproduction and also converting the data to an Access database. Ideas, past experiences would be appreciated.

  • tim

    If InDeck cards provided a service besides indexing for which they have become inefficient, then they would still be around, just as swordmaking still exists for aesthetic and other reasons besides weaponry, for which they are basically defunct.

  • Bob K

    Ironically, the Dead Media site’s link to its mailing list is 404 and the last Dead Media Note on the site dates back to 2001…

  • Stewart Brand

    Now THAT’s a blast from the past, Kevin.

    After the Catalog, I degraded to ordinary 5×7 cards to keep track of research material and ideas for book writing.

    Now the cards are in my computer—SuperNotecard—I just spent all day with a chapter’s worth. They have multiple attributes like the InDecks and they’re searchable by content. Words can be copied and pasted. I blend them with other outliners like DEVONthink Pro and OmniOutliner.

    When it’s a book, or a Catalog, most of writing is preparing to write.

  • Alfonso El Sabio

    They are not as “gone” as you think. Southern Methodist University’s Anthropology Department has a very large collection of these, field data, though they are not readily accessible. They are not heavily used, though.

  • vanderleun

    Oh, my sweet lord, that brings back the remaining specks of a mostly obliterated memory.

    Sometime in the summer of 1966 in Berkeley I was part of a group of “students” hired to punch the codes into a mountain of cards that recorded the data from some obscure study that was the life’s work of a couple of acdemics.

    I know longer recall the subject of the study. Only that there were a lot of cards whose edges needed punching after we figured out which ones to punch. A WHOLE LOT OF CARDS!

    The group hired for slave student wages of the 60s must have been no more than five. We had a room to do it in down in the same building as the ten main post office of Berkeley.

    As it was summer the room became hot and we soon figured out that, without any real supervision, we could haul the cards and the coding and the punches and the sort boxes and the sticks up to the room of the Post office where it was much cooler.

    At the time I had another friend, Chris the Mailman, whose last name is lost to me, but who I think of as, in the parlance of the time, “Chris and his old lady Karla.” Both were, as were many postmen in the town then, hippies but only Chris worked as a postman. Karla was an…. agronomist of a gentle persuasion. In her back yard she had stands of some of the best amateur ganga in the town at the time. Chris was not slow at figuring out that his job as a “Federal Officer in Charge of the Mails” was an excellent cover under which to run the distribution end of Karla’s farm harvest.

    He had a habit of, before starting out on his route, of ambling up to the roof of the post office where we were pretending to sort the cards at about the rate the academics whose study it was were pretending to pay us.

    Chris favored the spliff and was always looking to share. And share he did. It was one of the most laid-back jobs I ever had, but I can’t help wondering what happened to the study since our punching of the cards was not exactly crisp after Chris the mailman left.

    I do like to think that somewhere in the great realm of statistics there is a study — I hope a foundational one — that is completely dependent upon the cards we sorted high on the roof in that long ago study.

  • Holy heck, data geeks! How did I not know of these wonderous doodads? Thanks for this great write up.

  • That’s nifty!

    Even if the cards aren’t manufactured anywhere, couldn’t we make them ourselves?

    Don’t know where to find a notch puncher though.

  • I have an unused deck of the InDecks type and 3 of the needles, but no notching punch. And definitely no clue if anyone’s making them.

    • Kevin Kelly

      Bill Walker, keep those cards and needles for the inevitable Museum of Dead Media.

  • sadashivam

    Many of the posts are interesting.
    Robert Pirsig in his excellent book LILA talks extensively about a card system similsr to what you describe and what Mr.Brand was using. Pirsig’s description of his own system for his two famous books also seves as a guide to any one who is attempting to write a book.

  • I think you meant to say “logical AND”, not “logical OR”. Sure, you can do an OR as well, by first selecting cards that belong to one category and then another, and adding the piles together – but that’s less impressive than doing an AND using two or more knitting needles.

    Cool technology by the way. Inspiring. I’m almost sorry that computers and RFID-s has made anything like thit obsolete.

  • Colin

    You mean “One Dead Medium” – “Media” is plural.

  • sp

    You might be interested to check out the P.D. James novel “A Mind to Murder.” A card index like these is featured in the plot.

  • Hal Caswell

    These cards had uses for quantitative analysis as well as text-oriented uses. My father used McBee keysort cards for his Ph.D. thesis in the early 1950s. He was analyzing records of bird censuses, and doing multiway contingency table analyses and factor analyses with them. Each card corresponded to a census, with holes coding for species and breeding status. By needling holes in various orders you could extract all records in which particular combinations of species occurred. A count of the cards would provide an entry in the data table … then on to another combination of species.

  • Pete

    Used by public health investigators into the middle 20th century and epidemiologist to document symptoms, exposures, environments, etc of individuals then aggregate the cards to analyze source and spread of diseases.

    Basically, Dr. Snow, you put an ice pick in the “Broad Street pump” notch and when all the cards fall to the floor, . . . source of cholera!

  • It might be a good idea to scan a representative set of the cards and archive them somewhere. Printing a mess of them off at Kinko’s might be costly, but at least one could mock up a demonstration of the technology.

    The “French-Edged” card … is that the Napoleon Gauge mentioned in “The Difference Engine” :-)

  • Anne

    Thanks for this great, explanatory piece. I’m living with McBee cards these days for some research I’m doing on the National Endowment for the Humanities — all pre-1979/1980 records at the NEH’s Office of Budget and Planning in Washington DC on are McBee cards!

  • *slaps head* Of course, one could use a knitting needle, some index cards and a recipe box to make a set.

    If one wanted to get really nutty, one could create a stamp to make uniform edges.

  • Your article reminded me of an old New Yorker Magazine article on the death of the traditional card catalog. I looked it up and was surprised to find it was writen by novelist Nicholson Baker. Anyway, here’s that link (to the abstract) if you’re interested:

    Baker’s article and yours also reminded me of the fundamental law of computing…garbage in, garbage out. All of these technologies, the old and the new, rely on the programmer (or the filer) to create relevant categories and classifications (fields and tags). Baker’s article (from what I remember) did an excellent job of illustrating the difference between a truly amazing (crazy helpful) card catalog (or indexing system) and a more bare bones job.

    Now I may spend some time thinking about whether Google (or any other computer search engine) is a ‘good librarian’ as defined by Baker…one who has a certain intuition about the types of information people are searching for when they are investigating a topic…or if it’s just a big librarian (brute force). I know Google would argue for the former and I know it’s algorithms are not strictly brute force, but is it approaching “amazing librarian AI”? I don’t think so.

    Thanks for giving me brain freeze…again.

  • Jeff Ubois found a use for these cards in the 1950s for human intelligence gathering for propaganda efforts – notes at

  • Neil in Chicago

    I’m implementing a web site for some unevenly clued people, and I have a stack of pictures of (so-far) imaginary pages . . . which I put into my own logical order first, and then flagged by which design elements are used on which pages, etc. So I want to be able to re-arrange this stack of pages in several orders as the mood/purpose takes me.
    Yesterday I was wishing I had some McBee cards to put them on . . .

  • vanderleun

    One good story deserves another developed from a comment @ “Knit One. Puff Two”: Bent, Folded and All Punched Out in the Summer of ’66

  • Warren

    I first met what we called “Pin Sorting Technique” in 1968 at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) during summer classes. My first computer class.

  • Kevin

    I learned about this technology in a fantastic, wide-ranging math/logic class in 1976. I couldn’t remember the details of the system, though.

    Today I did a web search trying to find out about it, because I’m thinking of a design for a new board game, and this technology might be the perfect way to allow “the game” to know secrets that no player knows, but which can be used to answer questions posed by the players.

    Thanks for this amazing article!

  • Heather Patey

    1950’s? Hah. I used them in my summer job at the public library in 1987, and they were in use for some years after that. I loved using them – the needle trick was like magic. Database geekery for an institution which, at that time, had no computers at all.

  • Alison

    The term “false drops” is still around though – it came from these cards, the false drops were the cards that dropped but weren’t supposed to.


  • Hedgie

    To be pedantic, “media” is plural. “One Dead Medium” would be correct.

  • This technology lives on in computerized form!

    I learned to sort cards when working at the public library as an intern. Years later, I needed an algorithm for sorting graphics registers on a game console, and I remembered the cards – adapted it for the computer and it worked! I thought I was really smart, but of course if I had paid attention in class I would’ve learned that it’s called a radix sort, and in commmon usage for certain types of data.

  • Vicki

    I was just cleaning out a drawer at my 100 year old church and found a McBee punch, in it’s original box. It looks barely used. It appears to be stainless steel – and stamped “Made in USA” – the kind of craftsmanship you don’t see today. I have no idea what the church used the system for, my best guess would be membership information.

    If you have any ideas what I should do with it, please contact me at

  • Oh, if only they had resurrected this tech for use in the polls in Florida.

  • nike dunk

    Tipp-Ex is better known to USians as “Liquid Paper” — basically fast-drying white paint to cover over typing errors with old-fashioned typewriters.
    nike dunk

  • Joel

    I researched and wrote my Ph.D. dissertation using InDecks cards. I relied on the fact that I could retrieve all of the cards on a specific issue or subject, sort 10 or so cards physically in the desired order I wanted, and then easily write a section of my paper by referring to each card in turn, often comparing and contrasting comments from one card to another. For me, it often seems more difficult to do this on a computer! I always felt that the Indecks system was a “manual computer” that served a wonderful purpose.

  • what about tipp-ex? Surely this is on the way out…

    • Kevin Kelly

      What is tipp-ex?

  • I remember a colleague of mine mentioning that this type of system was used as a precursor to the modern day real estate MLS.

  • Larry K

    In the 1950’s the small Queens [NY] Public Library branch in Rockaway Park, where I grew up changed its book check-out system. Before, we had printed our name on the card in the pocket [or was it imprinted by a metal number on our library card??], then the card was taken and dated with a stamp and filed until the book was returned [ then it had to be found and reinserted]. Into the pocket was placed a card stamped with the return date.

    The new system used sorted pre-numbered and pre-punched McBee cards. To check out the book, the book’s pocket ID card would be removed [describing the book] and the next McBee card would be placed just beneath the title id and the library card next under that: a microfilm image was taken and the McBee was [date stamped] and inserted into the pocket. [I believe there was a make-work job for pages to pre-stamp the date on hundreds of McBee cards each day; they were re-usable a dozen or more times.]

    As books were returned, only the McBee card needed to be removed, and placed into “date-due” pockets. After 28 days since check-out, they were somehow sorted back into number sequence. There was some method of seeing which cards were missing [late]. Then the micro-film was scanned to that missing sequence number and it was “printed” or copied to a late notice that was mailed for about 4 cents postage!

    A variant of “edge-punching” was another system of cards whose name escapes me. The cards were about 8 or 10 inches square [one corner was cut for alignment] that I saw used in medical case study research. Each card had 100 rows of 100 holes or up to 10,000 cases [persons, incidents, sales, etc.]. In the 1971 study that I was assigned to help with, there were about 500 holes representing 500 nurses that were being studied for indications of clinical depression. Two psychiatrists independently evaluated the persons for clinical depression: 2 cards, 1 for each psychiatrist, were punched for the cases that were positive. [Another two cards could be automatically punched by the machinery to have holes punched where NOT positive.] Other cards for Male, for Female, for Age ranges, for smoking, for drinking. Then there were 100 questions being tested for early indications [filtering] of possible positives before seeing a psychiatrist; 100 cards for yes on the question [like, “Do you have trouble sleeping?”] and the 100 cards for NOT yes, etc.

    The cards had a “counting machine”: you placed a set of cards on the device, Male, NOT smoking, answered Q27 yes, answered Q54 NOT yes; then the machine would shine a light through the deck as it stepped past all holes and count the number [of the 500] that were all Yes. There was a way to automatically punch out a card with THOSE holes punched and another for NOT’s. Tedious but clever.

    At that time I was a scientific programmer and I had learned a nifty interactive array language called APL [now APL2 and other variants]. I tried to interest the researchers in converting their data to NAMED vectors of 1’s and 0’s that are really easy to AND and OR etc. The names would be MALES, Q27, SMOKERS, etc. But they were happy touching real cards representing something real with visible holes.

  • Stephen Seidman

    Edge-notched cards were used in the 1950s to assign schedules to students in NYC high schools. When I was a student (1957-1960), we selected our courses by punching appropriate notches. All students requesting a specific course could then be selected by inserting needles in appropriate notches and collecting the cards that fell out of the pile.

  • ralf

    Tipp-Ex is better known to USians as “Liquid Paper” — basically fast-drying white paint to cover over typing errors with old-fashioned typewriters.

  • Brilliant. Thanks for this Somehow I’ve never seen this concept before. It so happens I have an ideal modern use for this technology – in a data capture & retrieval project where power (& computers) are not available. Now I’ll just have to find some suitable materials.

  • stephen

    Maybe this technology will be revived – along with card catalogs – when electricity becomes unreliable.

  • Fred Schlipf

    The Recordak system Larry K mentions was also used by the entire Chicago Public Library system when I was in library school at the University of Chicago in the 1960s. I became intimately acquainted with the system because I used the library’s lending records in my doctoral dissertation.

    One thing that went wrong was the loss of numbered Keysort cards from the sequence. Any circulation system that relies on patrons keeping loose objects (like Keysort cards or theft-control bypass cards) in book pockets when books are in use leads to problems when users lose the objects. In Chicago, patrons kept losing the Keysort cards from books. When the books were returned, any book missing its card was a snag, and the missing cards were often not recreated in order to keep the decks complete. As a result, many of the numbers missing from the sequences of returned Keysort cards represented missing cards rather than non-returned items.

    The manual labor involved in putting the cards in order and checking skipped numbers against the microfilms must have been bad enough without finding endless dead ends due to pre-numbered cards lost from the sets.

    Another use of Keysort cards in academic library lending systems was based on the transaction card approach. Borrowers filled out single-use Keysort cards for each item they borrowed. Cards were filed narrow end up, with call numbers written so they were at the tops of the cards. The cards were then notched to indicated due dates and filed in tubs in call number order. The resulting file could be searched by call number by flipping through the cards. Overdues were produced by using the Keysort feature to sort the card file by due date. The University of Illinois, Urbana, used this system.

    (I think that a similar approach may have been used at the University of Texas, using IBM cards rather than Keysort cards. The cards were gang punched by due date and then filed by call number. Overdue items could be separated from the deck by running it through a card sorter.)

    Fred Schlipf

  • Siobhan McAndrew

    A fascinating subject. Does anybody have any information on how data were transferred from McBee cards to computers? I have been offered a databank of c.60,000 cards and we are trying to work out how to do this cost-effectively. We are considering scanning the cards and using OMR to convert the images. How did libraries etc do this in the past? Many thanks!

    • That is a great question. My guess is that very little data from the cards was moved over, and what was done was done by hand. You could scan them, and then turn it over to the Amazon Turk, to be done by cheap humans. Might be faster than trying to write a script. Depending on the complexity.

  • Esw Ren

    I have been offered a databank of c.60,000 cards and we are trying to work out how to do this cost-effectively. We are considering scanning the cards and using OMR to convert the images. How did libraries etc do this in the past?

  • wonderboy

    What A Splendid
    And Informative
    Posts, I
    Surely Will
    Bookmark Your Site.Best
    Regards! seiryokushop

  • Sylvie

    That’s wild…. I’m here 5 years later trying to learn more about these systems for a board game design I’m thinking of too!! What are the odds?

  • miranda

    amyinohio I Know This If Off Topic But I’m Looking Into Starting My Own Weblog
    And Was Wondering
    What All Is Required
    To Get Set
    I’m Assuming Having A Blog Like Yours Would Cost A Pretty Penny? I’m Not Very
    So I’m Not 100% Sure.
    Any Suggestions
    Or Advice Would Be Greatly Appreciated. Appreciate

  • mwra

    Thanks for a great article. Note its link anchor ‘Douglas Engelbart’ should link now point to as domain is now just a generic redirect.