Tell me all about analog organization systems
August 24, 2015 10:46 AM   Subscribe

How did people organize tasks, reference materials, records, and projects before the widespread advent of computers? And how did they learn these techniques?

Recently, I learned about the Zettelkasten (card-file) method used by German sociologist Niklas Luhmann to keep his materials organized. Umberto Eco's How to Write a Thesis also refers to using notecards. In the Golden Age of animation, films were planned down to the single frame of film using tabular exposure sheets.

I want to know about MORE analog systems, whether idiosyncratic and used by a single person, or enterprise-level business organization strategies that were used by big companies in the pre-computer era.

If there are any books about this subject, recommendations are extremely welcome!
posted by overeducated_alligator to Work & Money (14 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I love the idea of Edge-notched/McBee cards.
posted by zamboni at 11:07 AM on August 24, 2015

Gannt charts are cool to read about.
posted by Michele in California at 11:21 AM on August 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

I recently bought the book "Applied Secretarial Practice," produced by the Gregg Shorthand people and printed in 1934. Basically a handbook/textbook for learning all of a secretary's considerable range of duties.

A huge chunk of the book related to filing techniques. There are a multiple chapters on alphabetization, discussions of when to use various methods of sorting files (alphabetic, geographic, topical), uses of cross-reference cards, as well as different physical filing formats (vertical, flat, hanging, et), tactics for moving files from active to long-term storage, using pull cards, etc. It would totally scratch your itch.
posted by adamrice at 11:45 AM on August 24, 2015 [7 favorites]

Getting Things Done may have some interesting info for you. It's been awhile since I read through it, but one thing I remember is that everything in your to-do box should have a physical piece of paper associated with it. I use that tip at work (I do research administration), and print out emails and/or other docs related to a task I need to get done, and take notes on the paper and discard it when I've completed the task.
posted by JenMarie at 1:31 PM on August 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

(upon further review, my answer may not be relevant, sorry if I misread)
posted by JenMarie at 1:32 PM on August 24, 2015

Best answer: A book called File Don't Pile taught me a non-digital system for my paper files that I still use today. I found the book in in the library in the early 90s.
-Broad Categories get broken down into smaller categories (bills->electric, bills->medical, bills->phone)
-Each Broad Category gets a reference sheet that lists a code plus the smaller category. The code is 1-3 letters of the Broad Category and then 101, 102, 103, etc. So you have Bills-> electric in BIL101, Bills->medical in BIL102 and Bills->phone in BIL103.
-Label each file folder with the code and not the category name. Write the smaller category name on the reference sheet in pencil.
-When you no longer need the smaller category, you can remove the papers and erase the small category on the reference page. You can reuse the folder when you make a new smaller category.
posted by soelo at 1:40 PM on August 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

In terms of how people learned, we were taught to use file cards to make notes and track our work as part of learning how to do research reports - probably in 8th or 9th grade,maybe as early as 6th grade (that would 12-14 years old) circa early 1970s. We always used 3x5 file cards. One card for each source, with the citation written out the same way that it go into the bibliography with a code in the upper right corner. Then for each fact or quote got written on a separate card with the corresponding source code in the corner with the page number added. I remember shuffling them into piles as I organized my thoughts but I have had also added codes for the type of entry on each card.

Until I could take a laptop to the library with me, one card per idea/fact/quote with a link to the source was the cornerstone of note taking. Various combinations of codes in the corner, different color cards and rubber-banded piles helped keep it all straight.

When my daughter was in 3rd grade (2000), the kids were taught to write their first book reports in a similar fashion - each idea on a card, cards linked to source and then cards sorted into order to create an outline for the report.
posted by metahawk at 2:24 PM on August 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Yeah, I learned like Metahawk, starting in about fourth grade when there was a district-wide "president report," feared and dreaded by students and parents alike, where we had to research and write a report on a president (I did Woodrow Wilson, I still remember!) that was probably about two typed pages long, but the main point was we had to use several different sources and do the notecards. Each fact or quote on a notecard. Each source on a notecard. I used white notecards for facts and blue ones for sources, so I could quickly separate them. We probably had to make 20 "fact" notecards and produce a bibliography, although we didn't have to cite in the text. Having learned the basic system, we built on it from there throughout junior high and high school, turning note cards into outlines and getting more elaborate with the notecarding and so forth.

In college I switched to putting post-it notes in my books as I did the research, since I could highlight and mark up the books as they were my own books. I sometimes made notecards for library books just so I could sort them in with my post-its if I wanted, but mostly I typed quotes and cites from library books directly into my word processor. If I needed to, I could print that, then cut out the quotes and tape them to note cards so I could sort them in. In my own books, I would underline or highlight the quotes, stick a post-it flag sticking out so I could find it (maybe color-coded by topic), and then if I needed to I'd stick a regular post-it inside the book with a thought scrawled on it. ("This quote for intro?" "Contradicted by Smith? Don't use without checking")

I usually had a note card or a folded paper (8 1/2 x 11, folded in long thirds so it was 3 x 11 basically) that I used as a bookmark and that had different headings scrawled down it: "19C interp" "arch. evid." "modern disagree. pro" "con" and then under each heading I'd scrawl page numbers where I was underlining important quotes or sticking post-it flags (whether I needed both depended on complexity of project) so I didn't have to go searching through 200 post-it flags to find the quote I was after -- I could just look at the 12 page numbers I'd scrawled under that particular topic. Sometimes then I would sit down and make a handwritten page for each idea and write "19th century Interpretation of the main site" and then write each book and its pages with supporting quotes: "Smith -- 12, 52, 128, 129, 130-134, 57??" So that I could work with each main idea in turn, if it was a long paper. (Then I could add notes and thoughts underneath my list of quotes/facts, and cross out page cites as I used them, and so on.)

The really important thing when writing long research papers prior to computers was you had to have a complete a thorough way of tracking all your supporting facts and quotes (on notecards or in books themselves); you had to organize or index them in some fashion because there was no search/find; and you had to create some sort of intermediary outline because you simply can't hold 60 pages of ideas in your head at once. Ten pages you can organize and write in one concentrated sitting without an intermediate outline, but much beyond that and you at least need to organize your headings so you know what chunk of information you need to chase down for this section. Personally I prefer relatively minimalist outlines and then working in sections where I can hold a whole section in my head at once and do the arranging and composing within each section at one time, but other people liked to make really detailed outlines that did all the arranging for the whole paper, and then sit down to compose without having to go back to arranging.

I think most people learned an organized system in school (typically in English class) and then, if they went on to college and began writing longer papers, created more ad hoc systems that worked for them. I didn't know anyone who still used the full-on formal system of notecards, but most people had some personal variation on it that worked for them. I used post-its and slips of paper; my roommate used a spiral notebook for each paper that she copied things into.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:47 PM on August 24, 2015

Also, I've read about this method for making an index on the front or back page of a notebook that can be kept up to date easily.
posted by soelo at 2:47 PM on August 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I highly recommenced "Methods of Information Handling" by Charles P. Bourne from 1963. It was written as the change from manual to computer based systems was being made but before a documents full text could be searched. It talks about the aforementioned edge notched cards as well as quite a few other ways retrieving data. It's good stuff and it's only a few dollars used.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 4:17 PM on August 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

SECNAV Manuals M-5210.1 and 5210.2 don't assume electronic records.
posted by ctmf at 8:30 PM on August 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

As a grad student, pre-computer, I had an apparently unlimited photocopying budget, so I'd photocopy the Abstract page of whatever research article I thought was relevant, because it had all the citation info on it plus a summary of the paper -- later, I'd photocopy the entire article if it was going to be a major part of whatever I was writing. That pile of photocopies was my index, plus I used colored highlighter to underline the specific key point.

Possibly relevant: my handwriting is (and was) terrible, so I took as few notes as possible.
posted by Mogur at 4:31 AM on August 25, 2015

"Control through communication" by JoAnne Yates may be a good book for you to read. It discusses, among other things, the development of vertical filing cabinets and how innovations like that (e.g., employee manuals, written procedures) transformed businesses and helped address the explosion of manufacturing in the industrial revolution.
posted by ElKevbo at 5:50 PM on August 27, 2015

This great New Yorker piece by John McPhee describes his own organizing and writing structure.

He starts with a mention of learning outlining structure in high school, and goes on to talk about his process for sorting the notes for "The Pine Barrens", laying out 36 index cards on a big sheet of plywood in his office.

He then describes the process for "Travels in Georgia", which started with him typing up all his notes, which refreshed all those thoughts and experiences in his head. Then,
After reading and rereading the typed notes and then developing the structure and then coding the notes accordingly in the margins and then photocopying the whole of it, I would go at the copied set with the scissors, cutting each sheet into slivers of varying size. If the structure had, say, thirty parts, the slivers would end up in thirty piles that would be put into thirty manila folders. One after another, in the course of writing, I would spill out the sets of slivers, arrange them ladderlike on a card table, and refer to them as I manipulated the Underwood.
And THEN he describes Kedit, "the only text editor I have ever used," which was heavily customized specifically for McPhee by a friend who worked in IT at Princeton.

The whole thing is fascinating (of course it is, it's written by John McPhee), and I always recall his scissors and slivers when I think about structuring ideas and stories.
posted by kristi at 8:26 PM on August 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

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