Notes surround us. Whether in the form of lab notebooks, fieldnotes, sketchbooks, class notes, or surreptitious shorthand notes on plays and sermons, notetaking forms the basis of every scholarly discipline as well as of most literate people’s daily lives. Millennia after a potsherd from second-century Egypt, notes remain the lowest common denominator of information management. Like written responses to reading, manuscript records of speech cut across different cultures, different fields, and even different phases of life: students take notes on their professors’ lectures, which in turn form the product of professors’ notes on books. And from Aristotle's philosophy to the works of 20th- century thinkers like Saussure and Wittgenstein, many of the foundational texts of Western culture have been transmitted or even generated by notes. Yet the definition of notes remains contentious: should we be speaking of “annotation” or “notetaking”? The former emphasizes something done to a text, the latter a more freestanding kind of writing; the former shades into commentary or metadata or marginalia, the latter into transcription of oral delivery.
The contributions to this virtual exhibit exemplify the great range of note-taking that furthers intellectual or artistic activities (excluding commercial or administrative kinds of notes, among others). Most past note-taking does not survive at all, either because the notes were designed to be temporary (like notes on post-its today) or because they were discarded intentionally or unintentionally at some point. When notes survive, institutions such as libraries and archives have typically played a key role in their survival. This exhibit celebrates the role of agents of preservation as well as the role of note-takers themselves in offering us a glimpse into the working (and thinking) methods of past readers and writers.