Take Note

An exploration of note-taking in Harvard University Collections
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Interactive Exhibition

73. The note closet (from London, 1640s to Germany, 1689)

The ultimate piece of office furniture

Vincent Placcius

London, England; Hamburg, Germany, 1640s-1689

In this 1689 book on the art of excerpting, the German teacher Vincent Placcius (1642-99) offers advice on how to take notes, contributing to a genre of note-taking manuals which was well developed in the German academic context in the 17th century. Placcius recommends the use of slips of paper (which were not available for sale but would have to be cut from sheets by the user) because of the ease of rearranging them. But slips posed the risk of becoming disordered. So Placcius describes ways of storing mobile slips safely. He shows how to keep them in a book form held together by strips of leather from which they could be removed, or, better, in a note closet. In describing the note closet Placcius was reproducing a manuscript first written in London in the 1640s by Thomas Harrison, a member of the circle of Samuel Hartlib (1600-62), a religious refugee from the central Europe, who was inspired by Francis Bacon's writings to promote science and collaborative work. Harrison's manuscript survives today in the British Library, and it is likely that a copy of that manuscript found its way to the academic German circles in which Placcius moved which were also keen on innovative methods of information management.
The note closet was a costly piece of furniture. Only two such closets are known to have existed--Placcius's own and one used by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716); neither survives. Using swiveling slats, the closet offered space for up to 3000 headings arranged alphabetically. Each heading inscribed on a panel on the front of the slat corresponded to a hook on the back onto which the slips would be stuck, so that they would stay safely in place, but could also be moved around. The whole closet could also be closed and transported on a cart, though it was much more cumbersome than the paper notebook that it was meant to replace.

Latin, German.
Wood, Paper.
. *GC6.P6904.689d.
HOLLIS Catalog: 003052953
Keywords: 
Vincent Placcius, organization, storage

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ryanski1@aol.com's picture
Submitted by ryanski1@aol.com on

For centuries, Germany has been recognized for its inventiveness and creative brilliance in its body of historical achievements. The birth of the automobile (1886; Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler), the world's first printing press (1450; Johannes Gutenburg), and even the helicopter (1936; Heinrich Focke) are excellent examples of irreplaceable contributions credited to German resourcefulness; Vincent Placcius's note closet, one of only two seventeenth-century furniture pieces used for the purpose of storing and cataloging notes alphabetically and placing them on individual hooks, embraced this same mood of acclaimed national tradition.

Brendan Ryan

The Brendan Ryan Company
Houston, Texas

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