Take Note

An exploration of note-taking in Harvard University Collections

The Note-Taking Self

Lisa Gitelman

One of the curiosities presented by notes and note taking is the way that they assume a subject. Note takers may be more or less self-conscious, that is, but they are invariably taking notes about something else, something that is not note taking. Or not just note taking. For as certain as notes are to be about something else, they must also in some measure reflect the person who took them and the notation process within which she or he is engaged. The subject of note taking is in this sense always double: one takes notes on something but also inevitably if incidentally on oneself.

The double subject of note taking becomes particularly obvious in cases where note takers describe subjective phenomena, such as color. Professor Arthur Pope’s lecture notes on color his student Henry Edwards Scott’s class notes about the same subject differ significantly. As systematic as he tries to be, Pope is rendering his non-linguistic subject—color—into words (he calls it a “’language’” in scare quotes), while Scott renders that rendering in his own way and amid personal distractions that are evidenced partially by the doodles that overtake his writing. Neither man’s notes include color, though presumably Pope’s students also created color studies.

Whether they admit the double subject of note taking or not, note takers strive to be objective. That is, they work to capture something as it is. Lucky then when the subject of one’s notes is not an experience but an object, something small and flat that can fit onto a notebook page. Alice Rice Northrop’s botanical notes about Jamaica include actual specimens of a Jamaican plant, as well as a photograph illustrating the plant’s habit. Notes, specimens, and photograph each differently reinforce each other in the making of botanical knowledge.

In other circumstances, photographs and other media work more explicitly to displace the observer, as if nature were taking notes on itself. Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison call this “mechanical objectivity,” as when a telescope is used to expose a photographic plate or a machine is used to record respiration. Here the note-taking self is saved from the possibility of making subjective intrusions into the phenomena observed, at least until the automatically registered results themselves have to be interpreted.