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Professors Ann Blair, left, and Leah Price organized the “Take Note” conference at Harvard University. The conference centered on the different ways people have jotted down bits of information through the centuries.

Charlie Mahoney, New York Times

Note-taking's past, deciphered today

  • Article by: JENNIFER SCHUESSLER
  • New York Times
  • November 21, 2012 - 3:11 PM

Every day in lecture halls nationwide, students sit quietly taking notes on laptops and in old-fashioned notebooks, or at least pretending to. But earlier this month some 250 academics and civilians gathered at Harvard for a more self-conscious exercise: a chance to take notes on note-taking.

The occasion was "Take Note," a conference concluding a four-year initiative to explore the history and future of the book, sponsored by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. The event attracted historians, literary scholars, psychologists and computer scientists, including more than a few "note-makers" (as the current terminology would have it) eager to play with the possibilities of paper and screen.

"I thought I'd take my notes in a new way today," said Judith Davidson, an associate professor of education at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, who was using Penultimate software and a stylus to inscribe cursive notes onto her iPad -- when she wasn't filling every bit of blank space with colorful abstract doodles, that is.

"I'm a felter, so sometimes I slip into thinking about felting [wool]," she explained. "There are all these other things that go on in your head when you take notes."

The far-flung things that go on in scholars' heads when they think about notes became clear at the daylong gathering. Presentations touched on talking points scribbled on Sarah Palin's hand during a speech, fliers stapled to utility poles and Twitter posts about the conference itself that were read from the stage all day (the event was live-streamed), many of which expressed anxieties about listeners' own note-taking abilities.

But the conference was more than a celebration of quirky marginalia and academic navel-gazing. The study of notes -- whether pasted into commonplace books, inscribed on index cards or scribbled in textbooks -- is part of a broader scholarly investigation into the history of reading, a field that has gained ground as the rise of digital technology has made the encounter between book and reader seem more fragile and ghostly than ever.

"The note is the record a historian has of past reading," said Ann Blair, a professor of history at Harvard and one of the conference organizers. "What is reading, after all? Even if you look introspectively, it's hard to really know what you're taking away at any given time. But notes give us hope of getting close to an intellectual process."

Not that note-taking was presumed to be an entirely wholesome activity. During the first panel, when asked if enthusiastic note-takers weren't more like "compulsive hoarders," Peter Burke, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Cambridge in England, recalled one of his own teachers warning that any student caught taking notes would be sent out of the classroom for inattention.

He himself was never as strict, Burke said. "But I distrusted the students who took lots of notes as much as the students who didn't take any." He added, "If you take down everything, it becomes a disease."

Get out your 'table books'

For many scholars here, however, particularly experts on earlier periods, the real problem is often scarcity. New digital resources like Annotated Books Online, a project initiated by Utrecht University in the Netherlands, will provide more systematic access to marginalia-filled books in libraries around the world.

In a talk on note-taking in Shakespeare's time, Tiffany Stern, a professor of early modern drama at Oxford University, described the way people carried "table books," with specially treated erasable pages, to sermons and plays, not just to take notes but to advertise themselves as note-takers -- much as an iPad might today. ("They said you are highly literate, and wish to write all the time," she said.)

Few table-book notes survive, but the printed record bears traces of the controversies they sometimes caused. They gave listeners a sense of ownership, Stern said, much to the exasperation of ministers and playwrights who inveighed against unauthorized texts published from audience notes. Such people, Ben Jonson wrote in 1600, "where'er they sit concealed, let them know, the author defies them and their writing-tables."

But Stern also sees evidence that some playwrights wrote with table-book-toting audiences in mind, hoping that much-copied and repeated lines would serve as publicity.

"They were possibly thinking in sound-bitey terms," she said.

An online exhibition of 73 note-related artifacts from Harvard's collections compiled for the conference includes a 1581 table-book, though the notes on the erasable pages apparently date from the 19th century. The exhibition also presents other examples of predigital note-taking technology, including a second-century potsherd used like scrap paper, and a 17th-century German engraving of a note-closet, in which slips of paper could be hung on hooks corresponding to up to 3,000 alphabetized headings.

The giant digital drain

Anxiety over the potential mindlessness of note-taking took on particular urgency during the digital annotation session, at which panelists debated whether the Internet and social media had ushered in a golden age of notes or doomed us to watch all our fleeting thoughts -- if not our brains themselves -- sucked down a giant digital drain, beyond the reach of future historians.

At one point a tweet from David Weinberger, a technologist at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, was read aloud from the stage: "Private note-taking seems selfish to me. Make it all public, using standards. Big clouds of notes!"

Others defended the essential intimacy of the note-taking process, which one audience member summed up in the cri de coeur, "My notes are none of your business."

"There's something you're losing out on when a note is not in your own hand, when you can't immediately look at it and know that it's your own note," Stern said. "It's not yours in a certain way."

Not that the old-fashioned pen-and-paper method doesn't carry its own risk of alienation. "I try to avoid taking notes," Markus Krajewski, a media historian at Bauhaus University in Weimar, Germany, said while packing up his laptop after the final session. "I can't read my own handwriting."

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