Take Note

An exploration of note-taking in Harvard University Collections

Knowledge in Motion

David D. Hall

Notes are about knowledge, and as the exhibits so richly demonstrate, knowledge exists in a great many forms and rhythms—by which I mean that the pace of production and accumulation varies from one form of knowledge to another. Take, for example, the interleaved treatise on the law. The practice of inserting blank pages into printed books, sometimes at the end, sometimes concurrently with printed pages, was fairly common in the early modern period in books that were effectively serials. A good example is collections of statute laws, which fell out of date almost as soon as they were published for the simple reason that laws continued to be enacted or suspended or eliminated. For this reason, many copies of the second (London, 1684) book of laws for the royal colony of Virginia (not part of the exhibition) were bound with blank pages that owners used to record sessions laws that were passed after 1684.

Another rhythm is evident in Oliver Wendell Holmes’s attempt to index periodicals and especially medical periodicals. As the pace of periodical production in the natural and medical sciences quickened in the course of the 19th century (the rate of growth was astonishing), learned societies and libraries scrambled to find some means of guiding readers through what was being published—a notable example being the American librarian William F Poole’s Index to Periodical Literature, which grew from 154 pages in its 1848 printing to 1469 pages in its third iteration (1882). But in Edward Holyoke’s sermon notes knowledge is compressed into a few catchwords and phrases that Holyoke was able to expand into (probably) an hour long sermon, itself a vehicle for teaching a handful of commonplaces to his congregation. Here, knowledge is not growing but repetitive—hence the possibility of compressing it into such a small compass.