How the Index Card Cataloged the World

Daniela Blei:

Like every graduate student, I once holed up in the library cramming for my doctoral oral exams. This ritual hazing starts with a long reading list. Come exam day, the scholar must prove mastery of a field, whether it’s Islamic art or German history. The student sits before a panel of professors, answering questions drawn from the book list.

To prepare for this initiation, I bought a lifetime supply of index cards. On each four-by-six rectangle, I distilled the major points of a book. My index cards—portable, visual, tactile, easily rearranged and reshuffled—got me through the exam.