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Tuatara: Volume 13, Issue 2, July 1965

A Punched Card Indexing System to Literature for the Biological Research Worker or Institution

A Punched Card Indexing System to Literature for the Biological Research Worker or Institution

Individuals and Large Institutions alike have the difficulty of indexing literature under sufficient subject headings to be useful while avoiding laborious procedures. The maturing biologist tends to start a simple card index of references with his thesis and this grows with the years until the unwieldy mass of cards either chokes the system to death or maintenance parasitises its creator of excessive time.

It is extraordinary that no better system of recording references has been put forward for graduates to consider at the start of their careers. That set out below is offered to individual researchers as a great advance in the following respects:—


One card alone suffices for a multiplicity of subject headings (thus saving the tedium of writing a copy for each subject: and reducing the size of the index).


Cards do not have to be kept in any special order.


A partially remembered reference can be tracked by several routes, i.e. by author, date, subject, format or location.


The fact that only one card is used for an article dealing with several subjects means that its reverse can be used to record (a) loan and return of that article or, (b) an abstract of the article.


Economy of effort encourages possibly useful literature to be indexed without close perusal.

Institutions have all the problems of the individual worker but multiplied by diversity of staff interests and exaggerated by the page 78 inpouring flood of literature. Many institutions lack a librarian yet, even if one is available, the index is scarcely more helpful than a knowledgable scanning of the shelves. Conventional library indexing is inferior to that set forth here because it is less detailed. In all libraries many valuable articles lie on the shelves unread because unadvertised, and the poorer the library the more important it is to draw an investigator's attention to every article present at well as to important literature than can be found in libraries nearby.

Thus, the system below has the same advantages for institutions as it has for individuals with these in addition:—


Resources are maximally exploited (further comments on this are given below).


The article is easier to find on the shelf than by the usual index system (further comments below).


Borrowings are simply recorded, and advertised to all, without requiring a librarian's attention.


Stocks on the shelf can be checked against the index very simply, by unqualified staff.


No great expense in outlay, maintenance or staff is involved.

The system was designed by the author for the library of the Edward Percival Marine Laboratory, Kaikoura, and expanded by request to include the reprints in the Department of Zoology of the University of Canterbury. The example proffered below is, therefore, zoological with a marine bias but it may serve as a model for adaptation by other biological institutions.

The author was astonished to find no existing suitable model that could be used and interest shown in this one suggests that publication would be welcomed. The following account will briefly describe the system and will end with some general comments for guidance. For instructions on how to handle sorting needles, to check card alignment etc., consult Casey, Perry, Kent and Berry (1958) whose book is a mine of information on various punched card systems.

Preparing the System

Incoming literature is scanned and articles of interest are indexed. Here, one recognises that much literature is irrelevant to one's interests and a burden to one's library. Books and reprints that are irrelevant are disposed of or segregated from hose that are useful which are indexed. All numbers of relevant journals are kept and each interesting article in them is ticked in the index of the journal and a library index card prepared for it.

After being indexed, books, reprints and journals are stamped with the library stamp and shelved. They are divided into three page 79 collections: (1) a book collection, (2) a reprint collection, (3) a collection of journals grouped geographically.

The index card is 5in × 8in, purchased ready punched, and then printed as desired (see figure 1).

The central ‘box’ of the card is self explanatory and, after its details are entered, clips are made of relevant punched holes in the various peripheral boxes or ‘fields’.

Author Field: The author's initial is clipped: in cases of multiple authorship the initial of the senior (first) author is the only one clipped (this simplifies stock-checking).

Date Field: A clip of the ‘Pre-20th century’ hole indicates former centuries: nil, one or two clips in the “Decade Sub-Field’ indicate the numbers that must be added together to give the decade: another hole indicates whether the date of publication is in the first half of the decade (unclipped) or the second half (clipped).

Format Field: The format of the article determines in which collection of the library it will be placed. Reprints and slim separates go alphabetically into boxes in the reprint collection; books and bulky separates go individually on the shelves in the book collection. [This field (a) tells the investigator where to look and (b) segregates collections for purposes of stock-checking].

Location Field: This tells the investigator to which library the article belongs, i.e. a clip of the “E.P.M.L.’ hole means that it is in the library of the Edward Percival Marine Laboratory at Kaikoura: and a clip of the “Zool. Dept.’ hole means that it is in the library of the Zoology Department, University of Canterbury, at Christchurch. The “Elsewhere Sub-field’ indicates, by addition of the clipped numbers, a number between one and fourteen: each of these aggregate numbers corresponds to a library as listed in a master list, e.g.:—
  • 1 = Canterbury University Library.

  • 2 = Canterbury Museum Library.

  • 3 = Royal Society Library at Christchurch.


[This field (a) tells the investigator where to look and (b) is necessary for stock-checking if useful references are indexed that are not actually possessed, e.g. rare books].

General Subjects Field: Fifteen holes are numbered and two holes, or numbers, must be clipped to indicate the subject matter of the article according to a dual-number code (see Appendix I). Discretion must be used in clipping when an article embraces several subjects for it is seldom profitable to indicate more than the two (or perhaps three) most important subjects without causing extraneous subjects to be “indicated’, e.g.:— A paper describing underwater diving techniques and then describing the ecology of page 80 observed infratidal rocks as compared to intertidal rocks could be clipped thus:—
Methods and Techniques1 + 15
Marine ecology: intertidal rocks10 + 14
Marine ecology: benthos10 + 9
Extraneous subjects apparently “indicated’ are those corresponding to 1 + 10, 1 + 14, 1 + 9, 15 + 10, 15 + 14, 15 + 9, 14 + 9: an investigator looking for references on any of the subjects to which these codes refer would find the card for this paper, which would be of no interest to him, amongst those selected by the sorting process. A better selection would be:—
Methods and Techniques1 + 15
Marine ecology: general10 + 15

In fact, the coding has been devised to avoid many extraneous indications by using ‘15’ for general categories and avoiding ‘1’ in every instance except in the widely applicable code ‘1 + 15’.

Morphology and Taxonomy: Primary and Secondary Sorting Fields: Any number of holes may be clipped in the Primary Field in correspondence with the contents of the article being indexed but a subtle approach is required if the service of the Secondary Field is also desired.

The Primary Field is designed to allow an investigator to get references to his general field of interest as simply as possible; the Secondary Field is designed to allow extraction from these references, by a subsequent operation, of a far finer specialisation of interest (see Appendix II).

In the Secondary Field a code of two holes, or letters, indicates each subject and the codes for several subjects may be clipped as relevant but with the limitation already mentioned for superimposed coding of this type i.e. that extraneous subjects become ‘indicated’. This limitation means that if several of the holes of the Primary Field are clipped then confusion will result in the Secondary Field.

The rules to follow are therefore:—

If reference to the article is desired at a low taxonomic level (necessitating use of the Secondary Field) then only one hole should be clipped in the Primary Field and the Secondary Field should be clipped as necessary (seldom with more than two codes).


Such articles as faunal lists may profitably cause several holes of the Primary Field to be clipped and the Secondary Field to be ignored.

page 81
Fig. 1: The printed punched card used for the Edward Percival Marine Laboratory and Canterbury University Zoology Department libraries (shown here mounted against black background).

Fig. 1: The printed punched card used for the Edward Percival Marine Laboratory and Canterbury University Zoology Department libraries (shown here mounted against black background).

page 82

Books of wide scope such as the ‘Natural Histories’ may simply be indicated by clipping the ‘General morphological texts’ hole.


Useful articles such as keys to identification, bibliographies and indices may be indicated by clipping this hole in addition to holes above.

Using the System to Find a Reference

It is assumed that you want to obtain a sheaf of references to either (a) a group of animals or plants, or (b) a general subject.

Finding references to a group of animals or plants:

Use the Morphology and Taxonomy Primary Sorting Field and with one needle select the relevant group.


Then use the Morphology and Taxonomy Secondary Sorting Field: with two needles together select the appropriate combination of letters for the sub-group desired.


You can then group your cards by author's initial or by five year date groups using the appropriate fields.


Check interesting cards to see where article is (Location Field) and what to look for (Format Field).

Finding references to a General Subject:

Use General Subjects Field: with two needles together select appropriate combination.


You can then group your cards by author's initial or by five year date groups using the appropriate fields.


Check interesting cards for location and format of literature.

If an article is borrowed: sign and date the back of the appropriate card and put this card in the ‘Loans’ drawer. When the article is returned: enter date of return onto the card and then return the card to the body of the index.

Suggestions for Adaptation of this Model

Cards of different colours may be used for libraries of individuals within a department or for the libraries of departments of overlapping interests.

The temptation to erect numerous subject categories has to be strenuously resisted. A system that is ‘perfect’ in relation to the subject matter of the literature is unwieldy for hand-sorted cards.

The system set out here is a compromise. If the card for an item of literature is given a clip for every possible relevant category then the proportion of unwanted cards that drops during a selection process grows unmanageably large.

page 83

People clipping cards should limit themselves to clips for the most comprehensive and most relevant categories; and people using the index should remember this limitation.

When starting an index it is useful to define its purpose and scope so that investigators will know whether or not the literature of their particular field of interest has been indexed, e.g.:—

General scope of E.P.M.L. index:— the marine environment and life of New Zealand and adjacent seas extended:

to estuaries and brack water,


to the Antarctic and Sub-antarctic Islands,


to local palaeontology,


to relevant geology, meteorology, botany, etc.

A list of journals should be maintained recording for each the earliest and the latest number that have been scanned for indexing.


Casey, R. S., Perry, J. W., Kent, A., and Berry, M. (Ed). ‘Punched Cards: Their Application to Science and Industry’, 2nd ed., Reinhold Publishing Corp., New York. 1958.

Appendix I: Coding for General Subjects

Methods and techniques 1 + 15
History and biography 13 + 14
Geology 13 + 15
Palaeontology 2 + 3
Physical and Chemical data 14 + 15
Expeditions 2 + 13
Zoogeography 2 + 14
Deep sea region 2 + 15
Tropical regions 2 + 7
Temperate regions 2 + 6
Polar and sub-polar regions 2 + 5
Oceanography: general 3 + 15
Waves and swell 3 + 14
Marine plankton: general 4 + 15
Marine plankton: identification of 4 + 14
Freshwater plankton 2 + 4
Marine Ecology: general 10 + 15
Marine Ecology: intertidal rocks 10 + 14
Marine Ecology: intertidal beaches 10 + 13
Marine Ecology: harbours 10 + 12
Marine Ecology: fouling and buoys 10 + 11
Marine Ecology: benthos 10 + 9
Marine Ecology: corals 10 + 6
Marine Ecology: estuarine, brackish and supersaline 10 + 5
Freshwater Ecology: general 10 + 3page 84
Freshwater Ecology: flowing 2 + 9
Freshwater Ecology: standing 2 + 10
Terrestrial ecology 2 + 11
Conservation and control 2 + 12
Production, biomass 7 + 15
Fisheries: general 5 + 15
Fisheries: fishes 5 + 14
Fisheries: crustacea 5 + 9
Fisheries: molluscs 5 + 13
Fisheries: whaling 5 + 12
Fisheries: sealing 5 + 11
Statistical methods: general 6 + 15
Population dynamics and studies 6 + 14
Speciation and evolution 6 + 13
Competition 6 + 12
Genetics 6 + 11
Life histories and breeding 6 + 9
Taxonomy: principles and procedures 6 + 8
Physiology and anatomy: general 8 + 15
Physiology and anatomy: special senses 8 + 14
Physiology and anatomy: nervous system 8 + 13
Physiology and anatomy: digestive system 8 + 12
Physiology and anatomy: locomotion 8 + 11
Physiology and anatomy: skeletal system 8 + 10
Physiology and anatomy: muscular system 8 + 9
Physiology and anatomy: endocrine system 8 + 7
Physiology and anatomy: blood system 8 + 5
Physiology and anatomy: reproduction 8 + 4
Physiology and anatomy: feeding methods 3 + 4
Physiology and anatomy: osmoregulation 3 + 5
Physiology and anatomy: excretion 3 + 6
Physiology and anatomy: respiration 3 + 7
Embryology 8 + 3
Parasitism, commensalism, etc. 9 + 15
Migration 9 + 14
Orientation, taxes, tropisms, etc. 9 + 13
Social and sexual behaviour 9 + 12
Biochemistry 9 + 3
Pathology 11 + 15
Cytology and histology 12 + 15

Appendix II: Coding of Morphology and Taxonomy: Secondary Field

Viruses, Bacteria
Viruses A + T
Bacteria A + Spage 85
Plants: general B + T
Myxomycetes B + S
Algae: general B + R
Myxophyceae B + Q
Chlorophyceae B + P
Phaeophyceae B + N
Rhodophyceae B + M
Diatomacea B + L
Fungi B + K
Lichenes B + J
Bryophyta B + H
Pteridophyta B + G
Spermatophyta B + F
Protozoa: general C + T
Flagellata: Phytomastigina C + S
Flagellata: Zoomastigina C + R
Sarcodina C + Q
Sporozoa: Telosporidia C + P
Sporozoa: Neosporidia C + N
Ciliophora: Ciliata C + M
Ciliophora: Suctoria C + L
Parazoa, Coelenterata
Porifera: general D + T
Porifera: Calcarea D + S
Porifera: Hexactinellida D + R
Porifera: Demospongiae D + Q
Coelenterata: general E + T
Hydrozoa: general E + S
Hydrozoa: Calyptoblastea E + R
Hydrozoa: Gymnoblastea E + Q
Hydrozoa: Hydrida E + P
Hydrozoa: Trachylina E + N
Hydrozoa: Hydrocorallina E + M
Hydrozoa: Siphonophora E + L
Scyphozoa: general E + K
Scyphozoa: Stauromedusae E + J
Scyphozoa: Discomedusae E + H
Actinozoa: general E + G
Actinozoa: Alcyonaria E + F
Actinozoa: Zoantharia E + D
Ctenophora E + Cpage 86
Platyhelminthes, Nemertea
Platyhelminthes: general F + T
Turbellaria: general F + S
Turbellaria: Acoela F + R
Turbellaria: Rhabdocoela F + Q
Turbellaria: Alloiocoela F + P
Turbellaria: Tricladida F + N
Turbellaria: Polycladida F + M
Trematoda: general F + K
Trematoda: Monogenea F + J
Trematoda: Digenea F + H
Cestoda: general F + G
Nemertea: general F + C
Other Acoelomates
Nematoda: general G + T
Nematomorpha G + S
Acanthocephala G + R
Rotifera G + Q
Gastrotricha G + P
Kinorhynchia G + N
Priapulida G + M
Endoprocta G + L
Annelida: general H + T
Polychaeta H + S
Oligochaeta H + R
Hirudinea: general H + Q
Archiannelida H + L
Echiuroidea H + K
Sipunculoidea H + J
Crustacea: general J + T
Branchiopoda J + S
Ostracoda J + R
Copepoda J + Q
Branchiura J + P
Cirripedia J + N
Mystacocarida J + M
Leptostraca J + L
Stomatopoda J + K
Syncarida J + G
Mysidacea J + D
Cumacea J + C
Tanaidacea J + Apage 87
Isopoda K + T
Amphipoda K + S
Euphausiacea K + R
Decapoda K + Q
Insecta: general L + T
Collembola, Thysanura, Diplura, Protura L + S
Neuroptera, Odonata L + R
Plecoptera L + O
Ephemeroptera L + Q
Trichoptera L + P
Orthoptera, Dermaptera L + N
Isoptera L + V
Coleoptera: general and Adephaga L + M
Coleoptera: Scarabaeoidea, Cerambycoidea, Chrysomeloidea and Curculionoidea L + K
Coleoptera: other Polyphaga L + D
Hemiptera L + A
Mallophaga, Siphunculata, Thysanoptera, Psocoptera L + W
Hymenoptera I + A
Lepidoptera I + B
Diptera: general and Nematocera I + C
Diptera: Brachycera I + D
Diptera: Cyclorrhapha I + E
Myriapoda, Arachnida
Myriapoda: general M + T
Myriapoda: Chilopoda M + S
Myriapoda: Diplopoda M + R
Chelicerata: general M + V
Merostomata M + W
Arachnida: general M + Q
Arachnida: Araneida M + P
Arachnida: Acarina M + N
Arachnida: Phalangida M + K
Arachnida: Pycnogonida M + D
Other Arthropoda
Onychophora N + T
Trilobita N + S
General O + A
Amphineura O + B
Gastropoda: general O + C
Gastropoda: Prosobranchia O + D
Gastropoda: Opisthobranchia O + Epage 88
Gastropoda: Pulmonata O + F
Scaphopoda O + G
Bivalvia O + H
Cephalopoda O + I
Other Coelomates
Ectoprocta P + Z
Brachiopoda P + X
Chaetognatha P + V
Pogonophora P + U
Phoronida P + T
General Q + Z
Asteroidea Q + Y
Ophiuroidea Q + X
Somasteroidea Q + W
Echinoidea Q + V
Holothuroidea Q + T
Crinoidea Q + R
Other Pelmatozoa Q + P
General R + Z
Hemichorda: general R + Y
Hemichorda: Enteropneusta R + X
Hemichorda: Pterobranchia R + W
Hemichorda: Graptolita R + V
Urochorda: general R + U
Urochorda: Larvacea R + T
Urochorda: Ascidiacea R + S
Urochorda: Thaliacea R + P
Cephalochorda R + C
General R + N
Fishes: general S + Z
Fishes: Agnatha (fossil) S + Y
Fishes: Agnatha: Cyclostomata S + Y
Fishes: Placodermi S + W
Fishes: Elasmobranchii S + V
Fishes: Actinopterygii: general S + U
Fishes: Actinopterygii: Palaeoniscoidei S + T
Fishes: Actinopterygii: Chondrostei S + Q
Fishes: Actinopterygii: Holostei S + P
Fishes: Teleostei S + O
Fishes: Crossopterygii S + I
Amphibia: general T + Zpage 89
Amphibia: Stegocephalia T + Y
Amphibia: Urodela T + X
Amphibia: Anura T + W
Amphibia: Apoda T + V
Reptilia: general T + U
Anapsida: Chelonia U + X
Parapsida: general U + Y
Diapsida: general U + Q
Rhynchocephalia U + Z
Fossil Squamata, Phytosauria U + V
Fossil Lacertilia U + O
Fossil Serpentes U + N
Fossil Archosauria T + I
Fossil Crocodilia U + W
Fossil Synapsida T + O
Aves: general U + M
Archaeornithes, Odontognathae, Palaeognathae U + L
Impennae U + K
Procellariiformes U + J
Pelecaniformes U + I
Mammalia: general V + Z
Prototheria, Allotheria, Pantotheria V + Y
Marsupiala V + X
Insectivora V + W
Chiroptera H + U
Primates H + V
Carnivora: Fissipedia H + W
Carnivora: Pinnipedia H + X
Proboscidea H + Y
Sirenia H + Z
Perissodactyla I + J
Artiodactyla I + K
Edentata, Pholidota, Tubulidentata I + L
Cetacea I + M
Rodentia I + N
Lagomorpha I + P