Duly Noted: The Past, Present, and Future of Note-Taking

There's an art to our scribbles, and it's changing with our technology.

Joe Biden's notes from the vice-presidential debate (AP)

Ten years ago, as a reporter at a radio debate between then-Senator Joe Biden and his hapless, sacrificial-lamb of a Republican challenger, Ray Clatworthy, I asked a question about a bridge in southern New Castle County, and whether it should continue to be maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers. Clatworthy hedged, seeming to imply that the topic was beneath consideration in a Senate debate.

Biden wrote "Bridge" on a folded piece of paper, underlined it once, and then sat there wearing the Ol' Joe smirk. After Clatworthy stumbled to the finish line, Biden waited a beat, then said, "The answer to your question is 'yes'..." and spun out a long, impassioned statement about the federal government's commitment to Delaware.

The answer no longer matters. What has stuck with me for a decade is the passionate answer Biden produced from the simple mnemonic of that one underlined word.

Harvard English professor Leah Price, one of the co-organizers of TakeNote, a conference dedicated to the history, theory, practice and future of note-taking, opened her introductory remarks with a much-circulated picture of Biden holding up his notes after this year's vice-presidential debate. To the extent Biden's jottings are decipherable -- "No Apology," "Egyptian People" and maybe a few others -- I recognized the method immediately. It's satisfying to laugh at -- the potential vastness of the subject each bullet point alludes to reinforces the theme of Joe Biden as larger-than-life cartoon. One would not be surprised to see on the list a twice-underlined "Malarkey".

The conferees at Harvard's Radcliffe Institute did laugh at the Veep, and then we laughed at his erstwhile opponent from four years ago when Price flashed a shot of the note Sarah Palin had scribbled on her palm. Price used these photos as a framing device. Looking at this sort of note -- scribbled, ephemeral, beside the point if not for the note-maker's identity -- Price suggested, might give us some insight into the way democracies "wrestle with the role writing plays in a putatively oral process." Indeed, the history of note-taking has involved the jotting down of things people say more often than it has involved textual commentary, such as is found in the Talmud.

Historically, notes were not always well preserved. Pliny the Elder, for instance, took "prodigious" notes, according to the conference's other co-organizer, Harvard history professor Ann Blair. Pliny would have first made notes on clay tablets before copying them to parchment. But no third copies were made, and we only know that Pliny the Elder was a serious note-taker because Pliny the Younger said so.

The notes that do survive, Blair said, have done so thanks to "long periods of benign neglect, combined with crucial moments of careful stewardship" by various libraries and other institutions. This conference was held in part to highlight such stewardship at many of Harvard's libraries, and the fact that anyone can now view digitized versions of these annotations here. You can examine high-resolution images of John Hancock's commonplace book, say, or pages from William James' diary. You might also follow one or more of the guided itineraries through the collections, curated by conference participants and others. (Price's tour is here; Blair's is here.)

While there was plenty of fascinating history (Did you know that "off the cuff" originally referred not to the practice of extemporaneous speaking, but to a speaker's surreptitious glance at penciled notes on his starched shirt cuff? Or that Elizabethan-era theater-goers used to crib from plays not the main plot points, but the funniest jokes or the best pick-up lines?), the conference considered the future of note-taking.

Because it does have a future. We're not talking about failed collegiate attempts to scribble down everything your history professor said. It's becoming ever easier to record something. The trick is to be selective about what you make it a point to remember.

"When you take down almost everything, it becomes a disease." Peter Burke, emeritus professor at the University of Cambridge, (ahem) noted.

Bob Stein, the founder of The Institute for the Future of the Book, had some thoughts about how we might combat this disease. "The idea that reading is something you do by yourself is very, very recent," Stein said.

His institute created Social Book, a platform for annotating books with your friends. Stein wants us to reimagine the book as less a physical object than a "place to congregate" and social reading as a communal experience of annotation, rather than "me telling you what I'm reading, and taking out a little snippet and then you going to Amazon and buying it."

Stein gets more radical: He suggested an author's own annotations might provide an ideal path through that author's text -- a road map for skimming.

The road map for skimming this conference, as it were, can be found at the Twitter hashtag #radtakenote, at which attendees and live-streamers annotated and enriched the conversation. The conference will be available for viewing in its entirety, in three weeks, here.

In the spirit of the social ethos of collaborative annotation, feel free to correct misrepresentations -- of which I hope there are none -- or to complicate oversimplificiations -- of which I'm sure there are many. I will do my best to respond.