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Data Mining

New Year’s resolutions spark a myriad of promises. While losing weight, paying off debt, or getting a better job usually top the list, getting organized or clearing clutter will fall to the bottom. At home, clearing clutter means cleaning the garage; in the office, it means organizing your personal contacts. For some, this means updating the Rolodex.

Arnold Neustadter, who graduated from Erasmus Hall High School and New York University, invented a number of products using the ‘-dex’ suffix such as the Swivodex (a spill-free inkwell), Punchodex (hole punch), and Clipodex (reading tool for dictation). But it was the spring-mounted Autodex phone directory that sat near telephones around the globe. My wife has used the same Autodex to catalog all of her friends & family since we met in 1998, but unlike the millions of other Rolodex users, I’ve never taken advantage of the spinning card catalogs even though they are one of the most secure and reliable means for housing contact information.

Autodex Directory Popped Open

Classic Rolodex

Flat Rolodex

The Rolodex filing cabinet on wheels (what we know as the Classic Rolodex) helped Neustadter’s Zephyr American Corporation take off thanks to Neustadter working with engineer Hildaur L. Neilsen, who made dramatic improvements to the Wheelodex card catalog. Little has changed since its invention, and today Rolodex is part of the Newell Rubbermaid family of products: Sharpie, Rubbermaid storage, Goody hair products, and the like. Formally, the Rolodex unified the clutter of business cards and scraps of paper into a singular, flexible, and expandable system that can save time and energy. And with a little imagination, it became something more! Making a Rolodex flip-book animation, made you all the envy at parties. And who remembers visiting the small public library with a Rolodex card catalog, that classified listings with the Dewey Decimal System?

Sure, it wasn’t always used as a "high tech" address book, but that’s what made it popular. From a business and strategic standpoint, the owner’s Rolodex came to stand for power: "It’s not who you are, but who you know." To many executives, the Rolodex meant more than their job. A New York Times article about the HBO series Entourage provided one anecdote about Gavin Polone, a former agent, who clung to his Rolodex with dear life for fear of losing his contacts upon losing his job. At one time my wife had Leonardo DiCaprio’s cell phone number listed in her Autodex, and sure enough, when I called it in 1999, I got Leo’s voicemail (I never asked her—and she never told me—how she got the number).

Some Rolodex users like my wife, treat their catalogs with utter care by writing neatly on each card’s face with pen; although I knew an accountant in Seattle, and she swore by pencil so she could update the contact cards when people moved from place to place, or job to job. When I asked why she never migrated to a Palm Pilot, she said, "I never had the time." Those that have the time are the spick-and-span Roloretentive card filers, who create templates in Microsoft Word: the cards all have matching typography in a unified layout, giving the appearance that Edward Tufte himself constructed the listings. For as many Rolodex users that design their catalogs neatly from A-Z, there are just as many who treat them like a junk drawer. (It’s the messy ones that I enjoy most because owning a tool that creates order, but having it look like a convoluted mess of paper tickles me.) I adore catalogs with business cards taped to the Rolodex cards and Post-It notes splintering outside the cylinder, where multiple colors and sizes dance in an accordion fashion from the front to back. I’ve aptly coined these the Skittledex—a rainbow of paper.

Skittledex: as Represented by Comstock

It’s hard to gauge what kind of Rolodex user I could have been if I adopted one, but I came into contact management through spreadsheets on the Mac Plus. (As a young tech geek, I cataloged all of my comic books in a massive spreadsheet, not a Rolodex card catalog like my friends.) And earning a free Rolodex at work didn’t help convince me. My first desk job in 1992 provided me with a computer, telephone, IBM Selectric, MicroFiche reader, and Rolodex. As excited as I should have been about having a Rolodex, I never took the time to transfer items from my database into its card system—it seemed like backwards technology compared with an Excel spreadsheet. Although I adopted spreadsheets and e-mail as early 1992, I didn’t use a Palm Pilot until 2001 when many of my peers had already adopted smart phones. Devices like the Palm Pilot, BlackBerry and iPhone seem poised to kill the Rolodex within the next five to ten years.

Despite the technical wizardry that companies like Apple, Palm, and BlackBerry offer us, Rolodex continues to takes pride in being what they deem the "organizational authority when it comes to innovative, easy-to-use products for the home, office and in transit." Really. Plenty of iPhone and BlackBerry junkies would consider Rolodex archaic, and few of my teenage to twenty-year-old students recognize them during my design history lectures. Rolodexes may be "old fashioned" or "old school" to some, but don’t give up on them yet.

Rolodex Business Card Holder, Handy for Travel in Foreign Lands

I had a graduate school mentor who used a Rolodex business card holder with its sticky vinyl sleeves to catalog all of his contact information (he had them all in a Palm Pilot too, talk about methodical). I have seen this system put to use during a visit to Beijing China, when our mentor pulled cards (with English and Chinese) from his file and gave the destination’s business card to the taxi driver, who read from the card’s address and drove us where we needed. Anytime we arrived someplace new, he would take a business card at the cashier or reception desk, and file it for future use.

Chalk one point to Rolodex. (Besides this winning example, I see few reasons to maintain a Rolodex system and fewer reasons for Rolodex to continue to stay in business with their existing product line.) Still, they stay in business. Maybe it’s because Rolodexes are free of crashes after upgrading to Leopard. Perhaps they survive thanks to business card holders, and users who travel to foreign lands. Or maybe it’s because of the nifty desk accessories they now sell—I may buy the handy cord organizers to declutter behind my desk. But the company as a whole seems poised for extinction, posing the question, When will we see the last Rolodex sold? Soon. How soon is anyone’s guess, as the cell phone is looking more and more like today’s Rolodex. New content management tools will bridge information from our phone to our personal computer to our calendar to our e-mail, putting our contacts everywhere (sometimes for everybody else to use).

One of Many Rolodex Graveyards

This Orwellian issue of everybody else comes into play when the the likes of LinkedIN, Facebook, or MySpace have users import contacts from Gmail, Yahoo!, or Hotmail. (For a frightening look at scraping, read the Jan. 2008 Wired.) Having contacts bartered or sold from one source to another seems like just cause to dig up your Rolodex and lock down your valuable contact lists behind your office door. You can rank that What If the Good Old Days Were Here to Stay a close second to teenagers tethering landline phones from the kitchen into their bedroom with 20-foot cords to have "private" conversations behind closed doors. Neither will happen anytime soom because nobody wants to turn back the clock. People love their gadgets. Holding a cell phone, BlackBerry, or iPhone in the aesthetic plane of your hand is more pleasing (and more portable) than flipping fingers through a card catalog. Why doesn’t Rolodex realize this?

As computer technology becomes more pervasive, we may see less and less of the Rolodex card catalog, but as privacy and security issues arise Rolodex could create paperless, pervasive, secure, and private contact management systems to compete in today’s technologically-ridden market. Until that happens, I will need to find a new Autodex for my wife, since the current one broke. Problem is, not only do the Amazon.com reviews make the product sound like a counterfeit, but they’re also in short supply. With the Autodex becoming an endangered species, I feel like we’re nearing the Rolodex twilight.

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ARCHIVE ID 4266 FILED UNDER Hardware/Software
PUBLISHED ON Jan.04.2008 BY Jason A. Tselentis
Jen Montgomery’s comment is:

I have actually been thinking of switching to a classic rolodex because I like to have the actual business cards archived in a physical form. I went into Office Depot looking for a standard wheel rolodex that was wide enough to accommodate taping in business cards and the sales representative looked at me like I ha two heads and then she told me about the many benefits of having a crackberry. Upon further research, I stumbled upon this rolodex from pottery barn:


I might get that.

On Jan.04.2008 at 10:57 AM
Jen Montgomery’s comment is:

I recently tried to purchase a classic wheel rolodex wide enough to tape business cards into. After searching in all the logical places—Office Depot, Target, the Internet, etc.—I finally asked a sales person at Staples and she looked at me like I had two heads and tried to tell me the many benefits of owning a crackberry. She even showed me a business card scanner marketed to older people who are in transition from analog to digital. Maybe I am old fashioned, or maybe it is the print designer in me, but I prefer a physical way of archiving tactile business cards. I set my search aside and a few months later I stumbled upon this (http://www.potterybarn.com/products--p8067--index.shtml)lovely rolodex from Pottery Barn. I am strongly thinking about purchasing it, but wondering if I should just get with the times.

On Jan.05.2008 at 12:08 AM
Niki’s comment is:

I would also much rather have the physical cards than just the info.

That Pottery Barn rolodex is gorgeous! I personally love the Pepperpot business card holder because its portable and girly.

On Jan.05.2008 at 03:36 AM
Mike’s comment is:

As much of a "young tech geek" as I am, I will always have a rolodex. To me, there is an intrinsic value in them that a product like the iPhone (which I also adore) cannot replace. For example, the phone numbers that I learned as a kid, pre-cellphone, totally random ones, ones that I'll probably never call again, I will never be able to forget. I had no database to fall back on, no fully integrated apple-syncing software, just my memory and maybe a sticky note at some point. But it's the fact that I can still remember them that makes me smile. I feel the same about my rolodex.

Although modest in breadth, each card or contact in it was handwritten or hand placed, not typed in with a touch-screen keypad. I feel that by recording these relationships in a more personal manner, it makes them that much more valuable and memorable.

On Jan.05.2008 at 11:28 AM
Tselentis’s comment is:

Mike, your reference to memory is valuable, although I did not take the time to introduce it in the piece above. Writing can help many of us to visually commit things to memory, and I for one appreciate what you're saying. Others would argue that writing itself has crippled our memory, because we must rely on notes as a crutch instead of fully memorizing them within our brain. Neil Postman wrote about this in Technopoly.

On Jan.05.2008 at 02:36 PM
Armin’s comment is:

This is my rolodex at the moment. God knows what's in there. But whenever I need something I know it's there. Somewhere.

On Jan.05.2008 at 05:27 PM
Michelle French’s comment is:

After reading this, I am suffering from separation anxiety from my Rolodexes. It was once a really big deal when you got your first one at your office.

One writer that I worked with once suggested that since my Rolodex had gotten bigger than the phone book, it was time to throw it away. I retired that version and began another.

There is just something about that richness of having the tactile business card, with notes about meeting this person scribbled on it that just doesn't come with having someone's V-card. Did this person or company pay a designer? Is it engraved, letterpress or did they get the free ones online? Did I party with them at the Speakup party in Boston at the AIGA conference? Did I meet them at Women in Communication?

I recently sent my current ones into storage (John Feldhouse can mine them for info if he needs to). I had two flat ones in a very nice photo archival box with the space around them crammed with even more cards. A classic round one held the cards of people that I needed routinely and quickly.

With a flick of my wrist I could find the paper or print rep's card faster than going to Entourage, pulling up the address book and then searching for the person or business that I needed.

So, now I have a few business cards with me and the info that is on my computer.

How long will it take before I have a little box with all the new cards I'll collect?

On Jan.06.2008 at 11:53 AM
Peter Whitley’s comment is:

I have a heap of cards next to my rolodex that I can't decide to file under the individual's name or the company's name. Dilemma!

At many conventions these days you can have your badge scanned by a reader at each booth. This enables the vendor to quickly capture your contact info and send you all sorts of wanted and unwanted literature. Unfortunately it's a one-way system. Combine it with GPS and my badge could guide me to the booths I want to visit. If I want some sales literature from the vendor, why can't I just plug in my USB badge and get whatever they have to give in PDF? What's wrong with these people!?

I wouldn't mind seeing this technology expand to the general public. If I had a small, versatile device that could both read and deliver contact information quickly, I might use it. If someone hands me a business card the last thing I want to do is retype it into my phone, blackberry, or even write it onto a blank rolodex card. I'll just staple the business card right into the rolodex where it's safe and sound. Then, when I most need it, I know it's sitting quietly at my desk...and this is usually when I'm in a different city or looking for a building I've never been to before. I call my coworker and ask her to flip through my cards to find the person I'm looking for..and that makes me look like an idiot (fairly), a status I'm fairly uncomfortable with.

Maybe rolodex could come up with some sort of holster like they have for cell phones. That would be so sweet! Nothing says "I know people" like a massive coil of colorful paper attached to your waist.

The system of capturing someone's cell phone number by having them call you is brilliant. That's the standard of laziness that contemporary
devices need to meet or beat.

Rolodexes (and yes, I also have one that spans at least a decade) are great because they're tactile. Touching is fun. Beyond that they're flawed beyond measure, or so sayeth I.

On Jan.07.2008 at 01:19 PM
Joe Moran’s comment is:

Ha! Guess an upgrade is in order. Good stuff Jason. Still using the old "elastic fasteners" (rubber bands) and "horizontal storage units" (shelves) for business cards. Or the "circular file" (trash can).


On Jan.07.2008 at 01:35 PM
marian bantjes’s comment is:

Nothing says "I know people" like a massive coil of colorful paper attached to your waist.


On Jan.07.2008 at 03:56 PM
pesky’s comment is:

I need to get one of those! I swear, I can't keep the elastic bands straight around the wad of business cards anymore. My new year's resolution is to get myself organized.

On Jan.07.2008 at 06:02 PM
Randy J. Hunt’s comment is:

Sorry to be sour grapes, but I can't be the least bit sentimental about a Rolodex. I'm happy to toss out business cards as soon as I've entered the info in Highrise.

Okay, I saved maybe 3 last year, because they had kick-ass design. Most cards are so boring though, mine included, that I certainly don't need to keep them around for design's sake.

On Jan.09.2008 at 03:40 PM
Joe Moran’s comment is:


You'll be sorry!


On Jan.09.2008 at 06:23 PM
Tselentis’s comment is:

Saved only 3 business cards?! That is something you should be sorry about, I agree with Joe. (Maybe you'll be sorry about Highrise too, Randy.)

On Jan.10.2008 at 11:16 PM
Michael Bierut’s comment is:

I've had my Rolodex since 1980, although it's been a long time since I used it to find a name. The cards each have so much history that I can't bear to part with it.

On Jan.11.2008 at 02:50 PM
Randy J. Hunt’s comment is:

Cut me some slack guys. I think I'll be more sorry if I break a promise I made myself: "don't keep so much 'stuff'."

On Jan.12.2008 at 06:22 PM
Tselentis’s comment is:

"don't keep so much 'stuff'" now that's a New Year Resolution worth making.

On Jan.12.2008 at 07:02 PM
Tan’s comment is:

I'm glad blogspam bumped this thread back up. I'd missed it originally.

I used to live by my well-organized rolodex. It's one of the fancy black and metal ones you'd get from a design fetish store, circa early 90s. In fact, I have two of them, one for A-L and M-Z.

But I don't remember the last time I used them or updated the cards in them. I just have them tucked away on top of a rolling cabinet beneath my desk. It's now more of a design artifact, an office prop, rather than a day-to-day tool. The realization of that is rather sad to me.

Nowadays, any new cards that I get, and deemed worthy to keep (usually less than 5%), I just add to a stack of cards that I keep in one of my old business card boxes in my drawer. Eventhough these cards are fairly current, I still probably only refer to them twice a month or so.

On Jan.09.2009 at 03:06 PM