Take Note

An exploration of note-taking in Harvard University Collections

Houghton Library

Littera scripta manent: the Latin tag meaning “the written word remains” was a favorite motto of Houghton Library’s former manuscript department, inscribed on pencils ordered for an anniversary then thriftily distributed to readers. From the earliest days of the Treasure Room and the Harvard Theatre Collection and continuing with the 1942 founding of Houghton Library as a star in the Harvard College Library constellation, pencils were mandatory for note-taking in the Reading Room. Ink is still forbidden, but now laptops and digital cameras are more favored by readers taking notes than pencil and paper.

The first part of this adopted motto is Verba volant: spoken words are fleeting. This means not just that they can be more easily lost, but also more easily disowned. From a librarian’s point of view, though, the permanence of the written record is cited more as a goal than a caution. The written evidence of every subject of study at Harvard College eventually finds its way to Houghton’s stacks, and it has become our job to ensure the continued legibility of all kinds of digital records (authors’ word-processed drafts, audio and video recordings, and cataloguers’ bibliographical tracings, in all their technological iterations) just as we have done for the media of earlier days: papyrus, potsherds, vellum, paper.

Today’s ephemera is tomorrow’s primary source, and for the significance of what we pursue, catalogue, and protect please read Marks in the Fields: Essays on the Uses of Manuscripts edited by Rodney G. Dennis and Elizabeth Falsey on the occasion of Houghton’s fiftieth anniversary (Cambridge, 1992) and Roger Stoddard’s exhibition catalogue, Marks in Books, Illustrated and Explained (Cambridge, 1985.) William Stoneman’s Of current interest: recent research on Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts in Houghton library (Cambridge, 2006) surveys newer work on older manuscripts. Or browse through any issue of the Harvard Library Bulletin. The strongest and most various testimonial voices of all can be heard in the thousands of theses and scholarly articles and books acknowledging the resources of Houghton Library.

Here are a few examples of notes taken or left by a variety of writers beginning in Egypt in the third century and ending in St. Petersburg at the beginning of the twentieth. For many more examples of note-taking from Houghton collections, please see the commonplace books and marginally-annotated material digitized for the Open Collections Program “Reading” site: