October 21, 2010
Another matured cite:
From this practice of making notes on separate slips of paper there emerged what became the historian’s indispensable tool until the electronic age: the card index. By using cards of uniform size, punching holes in the margin and assigning different categories to each hole, it became possible, with the aid of a knitting needle, to locate all cards containing material related to any particular category.From Keith Thomas' essay on research methods at the LRB.
These various techniques were codified in the guides to research which proliferated with the rise of academic history-writing. In one of the most influential, ...the authors warn that history is more encumbered with detail than any other form of academic writing and that those who write it must have those details under control. The best way of proceeding, they say, is to collect material on separate slips of paper (fiches), each furnished with a precise indication of their origin; a separate record should be kept of the sources consulted and the abbreviations used to identify them on the slips. If a passage is interesting from several different points of view, then it should be copied out several times on different slips...
Prescriptions of this kind reached their apotheosis in the little essay on "The Art of Note-Taking" which Beatrice Webb included in My Apprenticeship (1926). It propounded the famous doctrine of 'only one fact on one piece of paper'. ... [T]he late John Burrow records his perplexities when this injunction was conveyed to him by his graduate supervisor, George Kitson Clark: 'I brooded on this. What was a fact? And what made it one fact? Surely most facts were compound. How would I know when I had reached bedrock, the ultimate, unsplittable atomic fact?'