Take Note

An exploration of note-taking in Harvard University Collections

The Fragment and the Whole

Tiffany Stern

Notes can take two radically different forms. They can be brief records of works that do not yet exist, preceding speech or publication; and they can be brief summaries of works that do exist, succeeding speech or publication.

If they precede speech or publication, they are authorial. Examples in this collection include Increase Mather’s notes towards a royal charter for Harvard College, and Joseph Willard’s notes for a Greek grammar. Notes of this kind, with their potential to be added to, erased, reordered, or rethought can be more compelling than the completed work to which they gesture. Willard never actually published his Greek grammar, for instance, so for him these private notes were the work.

Notes that succeed speech or publication are not usually ‘authorial’; they are summaries or epitomes taken down by a listener or reader. Examples in this collection include synopses of sermons by eager congregation members, and digests of lectures by students. Such notes may be complete or partial, vague or incisive. As the noter always adds something of him or herself – in handwriting and phraseology, if not in doodles and personal observations – the notes rework the original text, as Lisa Gitelman explains.

Some collections combine both varieties of notes. From the early modern period onwards, literate people were encouraged to record the precepts they found interesting or compelling – by themselves or others – in erasable ‘tablebooks’. Hamlet, for instance, has ‘tables’ in which he notes a thought of his own: ‘My tables! Meet it is I set it down / That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain’ (Hamlet, 1.5.107-8). The content of tablebooks would later be transferred into ‘commonplace books’, which were written in ink and organized under carefully chosen headings. As the compiler of a commonplace book might combine extracts from written texts, verbal texts, and personal observation, the book gave a shared look and authority to passages garnered from completely different media. It would be individual in organization, but co-created in content.

This exhibition contains several commonplace books that reveal, in their order, a great deal about their compilers’ interests and methods of thinking (and, in their sources, a great deal about their compilers’ reading and listening). John Hancock’s is religious; it is organized into topics including ‘God’, ‘prayer’ and ‘vanity’. Samuel Locke’s is educative and self-consciously American: it has literary citations, information about the constellations, and passages on the discovery of America. George Lyman Kittredge’s is work-focused; it is compiled from undergraduate notes which have been added to and reused later in life; it includes marginal notes on its own notes.

An individual note could easily be swamped or lost in a commonplace book, however: unless one remembered the heading under which it was catalogued, it could be hard to find and impossible to reposition. One solution to this problem was the seventeenth century Note Closet, made up of swiveling slats onto which separate notes could be latched; these could be rearranged at will, ordered alphabetically, and shut to form a box for travelling. A less furniture-reliant solution was put forward by philosopher John Locke in 1706; this collection’s ‘A common place book, upon the plan recommended and practised by John Locke, Esq’ is a blank book, to be filled according to his system. George Ripley, the book’s owner, has organized poems and extracts alphabetically and provided clear information about their source, as Locke recommends; he has only, however, supplied a partial version of the index also required by Locke’s method. This miscellany is a useful focus for questions raised by all varieties of note-taking. With its printed title-page stating Locke’s ownership, and its handwritten content penned by Ripley (and created by others), who is the ‘author’ of this book? With its system created by Locke, and its use and selection by Ripley, how individual is this collection? With complete poems by some authors and extracts by others, what does this book say about ‘notes’ – indeed, what is the definition of a ‘note’ or ‘notebook’? Behind all these questions is another that could be asked of every book in this fascinating collection. Must a note, by definition, always be partial and fragmentary – or could a note, or a note collection, ever be a complete creative work in its own right?