The Book of McBees
A few weeks ago, The New York Times Magazine published an intriguing profile of Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, a librarian and food historian engaged in a decades-long attempt to catalog all the world’s recipes in a single database. The whole article—written appropriately enough, as we’ll soon find, by Bee Wilson—is fascinating, but this was the part that caught my eye:
In the 1970s Wheaton discovered McBee cards. They were a primitive data system, in which different pieces of information could be encoded by punching holes to designate broad categories (date, gender, country). “After the cards are properly punched, whole packs of them can be searched by running a knitting needle through the desired hole in the pack and lifting it up,” Wheaton explained in a talk last summer at a food symposium held at Oxford. “When, if one is lucky, gems of information will drop out.” McBee cards had obvious limitations, however. “My categories kept expanding, and the cards did not.” Wheaton tried to improve the cards by adding color-coded edges, but then she ran out of colors.
I was immediately captivated by the idea, and I soon found another article on the subject by Kevin Kelly, of Wired and Cool Tools fame. Back in the day, McBee cards came perforated on every edge by tiny holes, and the user employed a special tool to cut a notch—associated with a particular category—that allowed a card to fall out of the deck when the rest of the cards were skewered together. Given more than one needle, or successive selections, you had the equivalent of logical and and logical or functions. Kelly notes that the cards, sold under the brand name Indecks, were used to create the database of items at The Whole Earth Catalog, in which Stewart Brand wrote:
What do you have a lot of? Students, subscribers, notes, books, records, clients, projects? Once you’re past fifty or one hundred of whatever, it’s tough to keep track, time to externalize your store and retrieve system. One handy method this side of a high-rent computer is Indecks. It’s funky and functional: cards with a lot of holes in the edges, a long blunt needle, and a notcher. Run the needle through a hole in a bunch of cards, lift, and the cards notched in that hole don’t rise; they fall out. So you don’t have to keep the cards in order. You can sort them by feature, number, alphabetically or whatever; just poke, fan, lift and catch…They’ve meant the difference [at the Catalog] between partial and complete insanity.
Reading over these descriptions, I began to wonder whether McBee cards would be useful as a writing tool, as a replacement or supplement to the index cards that many writers accumulate in such quantities. In some ways, a standard corkboard or separate stacks of conventional cards might seem preferable: they provide a necessary visual overview of the whole, rather than a single opaque deck, and the cards can be more easily recategorized and rearranged. (You can’t unnotch a McBee card.) But the McBee system offers some enticing advantages. For one thing, it’s portable: you can collapse the piles of cards that cover your desk into one rubber-banded deck, shuffle it, throw it into a backpack, and then easily restore the original order. Cards can also be sorted into more than one category, which is a genuinely useful feature. Let’s say you’re writing a novel like The Icon Thief, with multiple points of view, locations, and themes. Using the McBee system and some appropriate categories, you can quickly find all the scenes in which Maddy Blume appears, or the scenes set at Archvadze’s mansion, or the scenes in which the characters discuss the Rosicrucians—as well as any combination of the above. Instead of linearly categorizing each card only by where it appears in the book, you can “stack” cards across multiple dimensions with nothing but the thrust of a few needles. And I suspect that this method would yield connections and patterns that wouldn’t otherwise be visible.
Obviously, you can do much the same with a database or spreadsheet. But the tactile use of cards, as I’ve said elsewhere, confers other advantages: writing on physical cards with ink and manipulating them with your hands seems to yield insights and surprises that don’t appear when everything is in digital form. As a result, I’m seriously considering using McBee cards for my next big project—assuming that I can get my hands on some. As Kelly points out, there are “no sellers on eBay, no fan sites, no collector sites, no historical web pages, and no evidence that anyone is still using them. They are gone. Blasted out by the first computers.” But there might still be a place for them. They’d be particularly useful in applications in which the categories are clearly defined, as with Wheaton’s recipes, or with the bird or tree identification decks that are still gathering dust somewhere. Users could combine the easy searchability of a database with the rougher, more intuitive benefits that come from shuffling and stacking. (They’d also be a fantastic tool for tabletop games.) At least one writer has described making a deck at home, but the process seems unnecessarily laborious. They seem ideally suited for a modest Kickstarter campaign: all you’d need was a machine for punching the perforations, a supply of notching tools and knitting needles, and the cards themselves, presumably in colors and patterns cute enough to appeal to the hipster crowd. It’s a razor and blades model: once you sell someone a set, you can keep selling them the replacement decks, or starter kits with templates for recipes or other standard uses. If anyone reading this is an entrepreneur looking for an idea, consider this a freebie. I’d buy one in a second, and for a lot of other writers, I think they’d be the bee’s knees.