Pliny the Elder: an early adopter of the index card?

Pliny the Elder would, I have no doubt, have loved everything about the information age and the PKM options available to us now.

I’ll let you look up the details about who Pliny the Elder is, but what you need to know for this post is that he was a Roman polymath who lived in the 1st century AD, known for his prolific writing - in particular, his Naturalis Historia (Natural History) - and his death in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.

He had a nephew, helpfully named Pliny the Younger (51-103 AD), who is responsible for providing us with a huge amount of information about the Elder’s life.

In a letter to his friend Baebius Macer, shortly after 79 AD, he describes his uncle’s way of working:

“(10) After a short and light refreshment at noon some author was read to him, while he took notes and made excerpts (liber legebatur, adnotabat, excerpebatque). Every book he read, he made excerpts out of; indeed, it was a maxim of his, that no book was so bad but some good might be got out of it.

(11) ... During supper-time, a book was again read to him, which he would take down running notes upon (super hanc liber legebatur, adnotabatur et quidem cursim) ...

(14) In the country, his whole time was devoted to study excepting only when he bathed. In this exception, I include no more than the time during which he was actually in the bath; for all the while he was being rubbed and wiped, he was employed either in hearing some book read to him or in dictating himself (audiebat aliquid aut dictabat).

(15) In going about anywhere, as though he were disengaged from all other business, he applied his mind wholly to that single pursuit. A shorthand writer constantly attended him, with book or tablets (ad latus notarius cum libro et pugillaribus) ...

(17) Through this extraordinary application, he found time to compose the several treatises I have mentioned, besides one hundred and sixty volumes of extracts he left me in his will, consisting of a kind of commonplace, written on both sides, in very small hand (electorumque commentarios centum sexaginta mihi reliquit, opisthographos quidem et minutissime scriptos); so that one might fairly reckon the number considerably more.”

(Pliny the Younger, Epist. III, 5, 10-17, translation as per Dorandi, 2016.)

In the preface to his Natural History, Pliny the Elder boasts that he had consulted over 2,000 works - with a schedule as described above, that is unlikely to be a spurious claim. Pliny certainly did not subscribe to Seneca's disdain for broad reading and book collecting (see Seneca Epist. II).

Early index cards?

The process he seems to have used roughly goes as such:

  1. He reads or has a text read to him.
  2. He makes notes or has a shorthand writer copy out indicated passages onto tablets, using ‘keywords’.
  3. These excerpts are then copied out onto commentarii, again classified using these ‘keywords’.
  4. Pliny then prepared his work using these notes.
  5. He then wrote the final text (likely with drafts, mind).

The exact nature of what commentarii were - in a physical sense - is unclear. Tiziano Dorandi suggests they would likely be similar to 'Vindolanda' tablets, i.e. postcard-sized 'cards' of very thin wood, which were written on in ink (Dorandi, 2016, pp. 40-41). (If you want to see what these would have looked like, check out this site.)

Dorandi notes that another scholar, Valérie Nass in her Le projet encylopédique suggests that he may have indeed used a card index, but unfortunately I can't track that text down (not in English, anyway) to be able to see what her actual argument is. Ann Blair, on the other hand, suggests that they may simply have been scrolls (Blair, 2010, p. 81).

Either way, here we can see what I argue is a precursor to the idea of fleeting notes vs permanent notes (see Ahrens 2022) - as well as an early example of commonplacing using headings.


Ahrens, S. (2022) How to take smart notes: One simple technique to boost writing, learning and thinking. Sönke Ahrens.

Blair, A. (2010) Too much to know: managing scholarly information before the modern age. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Dorandi, T. (2016) ‘Chapter 1: Notebooks and Collections of Excerpts: Moments of ars excerpendii in the Greco-Roman world’, in Forgetting Machines: Knowledge Management Evolution in Early Modern Europe. BRILL.

Pliny the Elder, Dedication to Naturalis Historia. Link

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