Take Note

An exploration of note-taking in Harvard University Collections

Science in Notes

Alex Csiszar

Sites of scientific knowledge-making are also sites of prodigious note-taking, whether they accompany practices such as reading, observation, calculation, or experiment. In fact, note-taking serves not simply to register traces of such practices, but it profoundly shapes them, focusing the attention in particular ways and even structuring how they unfold.

Pace Francis Bacon’s injunction that natural philosophers shun the knowledge contained in books in favor of learning from nature herself, most of what every scientist knows is learned not from direct observation but from authoritative predecessors, whether through books, classrooms, or apprenticeships. This is true not only of deductive sciences such as logic – see this 13th-century commentary on ancient logic by Walter Burley, with marginal notes spanning five centuries -- but of practical ones such as medicine. Compendia of knowledge, such as the 15th-century Canon medicinae, were used not simply as texts at medical schools, but on a daily basis as guides to clinical practice. In fact many scientific books are intended by their authors to function as instruments for mediating observation in the field and for structuring observers’ own records. Carl Linnaeus’s monumental Systema Naturae (10th ed. 1758-9) is a case in point, having inspired 18th-century botanical and zoological note-taking on a massive scale (see the poet and historian Thomas Gray’s massive collection of Linnaean notes). Staffan Müller-Wille and Sara Scharf have argued that the immense popularity of Linnaeus’s works derived in large measure from their providing “a perfect template for keeping one’s own botanical notes, be it in the field, or in one’s own natural history cabinet, and for communicating one’s discoveries to others, not the least Linnaeus himself.”*

Like reading notes and marginalia, many kinds of scientific notes are for more than private consumption; they are crucial aspects of scientific communication. The physicist John Strutt (Lord Rayleigh) observed in 1894 that “a knowledge of science, like a knowledge of law, consists in knowing where to look for it.” He added that “even this kind of knowledge is not always easy to obtain.”** During the 19th century, as scientific knowledge increasingly came to be seen as lodged in articles rather than books, investigators developed increasingly elaborate systems to keep their own specialized literary world in order, making bibliography into a central scientific practice. The classified index of medical periodicals kept by Oliver Wendell Holmes beginning from the middle of the 19th century was absolutely typical. The massive index to zoological works compiled by his zoological contemporary, Louis Agassiz, though originally intended for his private use, was eventually edited and printed by the Ray Society as the Bibliographia zoologiae et geologiae (4 volumes, 1848-54).

Modern scientific disciplines produce as many different genres of note-taking as there are observational and experimental practices. Thus twentieth-century archaeologists and anthropologists have developed sophisticated writing practices for the field, and these are increasingly integrated with acoustic and visual recording technologies, as well as mediated by new writing technologies. The notebooks of French archeologists and art historians André and Yedda Godard, from fieldwork done in Iran during the 1930s are one example. The more recent field notes (produced on a typewriter) of Richard Frye, also in Iran, demonstrate the ways in which still and motion photography transform (without at all diminishing) the nature and function of note-taking in the collection of data.

Similarly, graphic inscription technologies have been central to note-taking in the sciences since the 19th century. The automatic registration of phenomena is usually only a single step in the observational process. As in this photographic plate produced by the Harvard Observatory station in Arequipa, Peru (1897), the resulting inscription may be subject to analysis, annotation, and correction, as the data is prepared to be integrated into catalogs and classifications (and then subject to further revision and annotation: see the printed tables of astronomical data produced by the observatory.) Finally, the output from an early version of Philip Drinker’s breathing machine at Harvard Medical School (the precursor to the iron lung), pasted into a laboratory notebook (1927-8) indicates the porous boundary between mechanical inscription technologies, observational records, and note-taking.

Note-taking is a central component of the jottings, scrawls, doodles, and other written traces that constitute scientific work, and which make up the intermediate zone of play between the concrete objects that investigators study, and the carefully manicured texts in which they communicate their results to their peers.


* Steffan Müller-Wille & Sara Scharf, “Indexing Nature: Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) and his Fact-Gathering Strategies”, LSE, Economic History, Working papers: The Nature of Evidence: How Well Do 'Facts' Travel?, 36 (2009)
** “The Scientific Work of Tyndall,” Chemical News 70 (1894): 17-20, p. 17.

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