How do we shuffle our cards?

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).

Card catalog drawer pulled out displaying card stack in profile
“Library of Congress Reading Room Open House 14” by Ted Eytan

“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.

4 Replies to “How do we shuffle our cards?”

  1. As always, great post! I love the metaphor you use about a card catalog–particularly since it speaks to notecards and the traditional way of writing a paper. A great explanation of what digital history is, why it’s something to be embraced instead of feared, and why it’s not such a giant leap from what we’ve been doing all along. Bravo!

    1. Thank you so much! I read Christensen’s book back in late 1990s or early 2000s, and the card metaphor has been stuck in my brain since we started classes in August. I doubt it was what Christensen had in mind, exactly, but it applies so very well to digital history and other sub-fields or methods which have been regarded with suspicion or trepidation.

      I like to think of databases as a card-shuffling tool; visualization, text mining, etc are other ways to reorganize your stack.

  2. You’re quite welcome–I felt like you summed up the promise of digital history extremely well. I haven’t read Christensen, but will have to add to my reading between May and August. Based on your summary, though, it sounds like Christensen would support your application of his ideas! Great way to think of databases.

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