Given the timing, it wasn’t surprising that the Institute’s November 1–2 “Take Note” conference on the history and future of note-taking included a nod to the role of notes in presidential elections. In her welcoming remarks, Leah Price, a conference co-organizer and a senior advisor to the humanities program at Radcliffe, mentioned former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s famous reliance on notes penned on the palm of her hand and President Obama’s apparent preoccupation with his own notes during the first 2012 presidential debate.
Had the gathering happened a few days later, Obama’s “Four more years” election-night tweet might have entered the discussion in the context of the most fundamental question conference panelists considered: What is a note? “Tweets are not usually considered notes, maybe because they are not instrumental,” ventured Geoffrey Nunberg, an information scientist from the University of California at Berkeley, who shared the podium with scholars from the fields of literature, history, media studies, and computer science. “Tweets aren’t used in the process of doing something else. They just are, by themselves,” he continued, sparking debate and some dissent among correspondents who were contributing their own tweets while following the conference online.
The “doing something else” essence of notes was highlighted in Tiffany Stern’s presentation on note-taking in Shakespeare’s era. “The early modern period was a time in which different bits of material were being gathered up and put into logical order,” said Stern, a professor of early modern drama at Oxford University. In that era, she said, a student would copy “snatched fragments” from texts, “creating his own book from the books around him.” These “commonplace books,” which helped their compilers organize and store information for later reference, differed from the “table books” of the same era. People attended sermons and plays with their table books—which Stern called “something like an iPad now”—not just to record memorable excerpts for sharing later with others (or even for publishing illicitly), but also to show off their own literacy.
Because table books had erasable pages, their contents were often short-lived. This ephemeral quality of notes was underscored in a panel on the past and future of note-taking. In that session, Lisa Gitelman, an associate professor of media and English at New York University, talked about the services-for-hire, lost pet, and yard sale notices that are posted, read, and torn off utility poles in modern cities, leaving a “tangled crosshatch” of empty staples. “It’s impossible to know who takes the notes down or, indeed, who has taken note,” Gitelman observed.
In contrast, Peter Burke, an emeritus professor of cultural history at the University of Cambridge, cited examples of extraordinary notes, such as those inscribed on clay tablets in ancient Rome, that have survived the ages and now reside in museum collections. The panel moderator, Harvard Divinity School professor David D. Hall, referred to the richness of notes that have been preserved in Harvard’s libraries and other collections of ephemera, despite the “vast amount of bills of credit, money, forms, and almanacs which simply have vanished from the archive of print.”
The conference opened with the launch of a virtual exhibition of notes from Harvard’s extensive collections and featured a half-day of field trips to the libraries and museums that contributed to the online display.
“Catching thoughts on the wing” was Burke’s poetic description of the experience of studying the notes of distinguished scholars from the past, bringing to mind the Radcliffe dean and social historian Lizabeth Cohen’s remarks at the beginning of the conference, when she called notes “the tracks we leave in the sand as we head toward our ultimate goal of discovery, publication, or policy.” Although the panelists were drawn from diverse institutions and academic fields, they shared the perception that notes are artifacts of creative thought. As Ann Blair, a conference co-organizer and the senior advisor to Radcliffe’s humanities program, observed, notes “offer unique insights into the content and methods of thinking of previous generations.”
The impact of the digital age on note-taking was the focus of a panel moderated by the Harvard professor Jeffrey Schnapp, the director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Schnapp said, “The process of designing tools for the future practices of notation is connected to ideas we have about the cognitive role of notes.” David Karger, a professor of computer science at MIT, shared his experience developing NB, an innovative software program that, he said, “turns annotation into a synchronous collaborative discussion.” A next generation of online discussion forums, NB enables students to read, comment, and ask professors or classmates questions about assignments in real time, on shared PDFs. A key advantage of the tool, Karger said, is the facilitation of peer learning.
Bob Stein, the founder and a codirector of the Institute for the Future of the Book, observed that putting texts in browsers gives us the advantage of one another’s intelligence. “The power of multiple points of view focused on a text—not about a text, but in a text—is incredibly exciting,” he said.
The University of Washington professor David Levy left participants to ponder the question “If we now have the most remarkable tools for scholarship and learning the world has ever known, how is it that we have less time to think than ever before?” The driving force behind technology development has been a “more, better, faster” mentality. The challenge scholarly note-takers will face in the future, Levy predicted, is the tension between the power and speed of technology and the imperative to read and think deeply.
Harvard’s Exhaustive Notes
“Take Note” opened with the launch of an online exhibition of notes from Harvard’s extensive collections and an afternoon of site visits hosted by the librarians, curators, and scholars who contributed to the online project. Participants chose from sessions that broadly spanned interests, languages, continents, and centuries, from a talk on field notes about nature at the Museum of Comparative Zoology to a discussion of stories told by East Asian materials at the Harvard-Yenching Library.
Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library hosted two site visits, titled “Women Take Note,” that featured a selection of diaries, annotated publications, and other materials.
In a presentation titled “The Social Life of Objects,” scholars from Harvard’s meta-LAB demonstrated how new technologies can enhance and expand students’ access to and understanding of museum-held artifacts. The senior researcher Matthew Battles, who presented along with metaLAB’s director, Jeffrey Schnapp, and the senior researcher Yanni Loukissas, observed that capturing objects’ dimensionality and annotating other vital information in visually rich online records can spark discoveries by establishing something akin to a “social network” that links objects to related artifacts and documents.
At the Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library, the recordings curator Robert Dennis and the reference and digital program librarian Kerry Masteller invited visitors to study handwritten notations on sheet music and other documents that illuminate composers’ and conductors’ nuanced intentions and provide historical context for well-known works.
Deborah Blagg is a freelance writer.
Photographs by Tony Rinaldo