In the library, he takes notes on important passages, references or facts, writing on loose sheets of paper. When he gets home, he cuts them up, and places each note in an envelope, along with clippings, and lists of relevant books - one envelope per theme. As 'the envelopes run into thousands,' Thomas also keeps an index of the themes. I'll quote him at length here:
When the time comes to start writing, I go through my envelopes, pick out a fat one and empty it out onto the table, to see what I have got. At this point a pattern usually forms. As Beatrice Webb rightly said, the very process of shuffling notes can be intellectually fertile. It helps one to make new connections and it raises questions to which one must try to find the answer. So after scrutinising my scraps of paper, I set about reading more systematically, often discovering in the process that somebody somewhere has already said most of what I thought I had found out for myself. If not too discouraged, I add my new notes to the old ones and try to create some coherence out of these hundreds of pieces of paper. This involves dividing the topic into a great many subheadings, writing each subheading at the top of a page of A4, stapling the relevant slips onto the appropriate page, and arranging the sheets in a consecutive order. Only then do I start writing.
In other words, Thomas builds himself a thematically-arranged, analogue database. It is a painstaking, finicky job, and one more quickly achieved nowadays on computer, with digitized manuscripts.
Is his old method somehow more efficient, or expansive? Not really, reflects Thomas. 'I try to console myself with the reflection that they will be less sensitive to the context of what they find,' he writes on his digital colleagues, 'and that they will certainly not make the unexpected discoveries which come from serendipity. But the sad truth is that much of what it has taken me a lifetime to build up by painful accumulation can now be achieved by a moderately diligent student in the course of a morning.'
I've never taken, cut and filed notes with Thomas' precision and patience. This is partly my discipline - philosophy, as I know it, doesn't make use of massed primary historical documents. I don't have to piece together an era, in other words. It's also because I'm younger: my postgraduate years coincided with the move to digital journals, manuscripts, and the like.
Nonetheless, I'm not that old. While I don't have anything stuffed in envelopes (except old tax receipts), I do have fond memories of the large journal repository at the Baillieu - flitting from shelf to shelf, looking for one issue and finding another inches away. I'd hit upon unexpected arguments, facts, theories. I'd insert new passages in my own work, provoked by happenstance: someone left an interesting journal open on the table; someone put a post-it note in a bound journal collection nearby; someone cute in the next aisle wearing an asymmetrical woollen skirt and blue blouse was reading an essay I just had to pick up after she left. (Behold the rigours of academic scholarship.)
In short, I share Thomas' happy recollection of 'the unexpected discoveries which come from serendipity' - it's something I don't encounter in keyword searches, or the immediate access of online journals. Sometimes technology can be too precise or swift; sometimes the search paramaters work a little too well.
I also esteem the rhythms of handwritten research: the memories evoked by coffee-cup rings, specific ink colours, and the marginal notes scribbled as I researched (phone numbers, aphorisms, grumpy asides). From my old red-and-black notebooks, to Moleskines, to my ringbound Clairefontaines, is a Proustian history of my psyche's adventures. It's something not quite captured by tabbing through Microsoft Excel.
As I said, Thomas' cut-out collections are beyond my methods. But I suspect we share an interest in analogue research and filing that goes beyond nostalgia, archaism or the search for some missing authenticity. It's a commitment to the unpredictable world of the tactile and the resonant - and their contributions to the life of the mind.