Over the past few months I’ve had a quote, more of an idea really, rattling around in my head. The artist James C. Christensen wrote about how he thinks about creativity and new ideas using the metaphor of a library’s card catalog.
I never knew card catalogs, so in time the cards in the metaphor have gone from being library catalogs to the index cards I was taught to use to organize quotes and ideas when writing research papers. What follows is the first and last parts of the section where Christensen uses the metaphor (the whole discussion spreads out over two pages).
“The way I see creativity and imagination is something like a library’s card catalog, except that the cards are made up of concepts, ideas, visions, pictures, all the faces of one’s personal life experiences …. The exercise comes about when one practices combining the cards and putting them together in new ways. All the Edisons, Einsteins, and da Vincis of the world were building upon stored information (cards they already had in their files), but they combined the cards in new ways. Their astonishing inspirations came about because they took what was known and saw it in a new light.” – James C. Christensen. A Journey of the Imagination: the art of James C. Christensen. With Renwick St. James. (Shelton, Connecticut: The Greenwich Workshop, 1994), 40-41.
Christensen means his metaphor to apply across fields, using the names of an inventor, a physicist, and an inventor-artist to describe the sorts of people who combine and rearrange their cards.
When I think about this metaphor in terms of the study and practice of history, the cards are facts or sources. Some of us rearrange the cards in new ways, to look at history from a previously unexplored perspective. Sometimes people try introducing new cards (race, gender, furniture, clothing, editorial cartoons) to change the way history is seen.
And sometimes we use the cards in completely new and different ways. We lay them out in a grid instead of in a stack, or build castles and houses, or make a long snake of cards overlapping. Digital history isn’t necessarily something completely new and different. We still have the old cards, but we’ve added new ones to the stack and we’re shuffling them in ways no one thought possible thirty, forty years ago. With so many people rearranging their cards, who knows what “astounding inspirations” will be brought to light.