Confessions of a Compulsive Note-Taker

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The prospect of summarizing the Radcliffe Institute’s Take Note conference is daunting. The conference began Thursday, November 1 with an invitation to attend site visits across the Harvard University campus. Ever the medievalist, I selected the site visits with a strong historical connection. I first visited the Weissman Preservation Center in the center of Harvard Square. The center works on Harvard Library’s special collections—we saw conservators working on medieval manuscripts, documents printed on vellum, musical scores, photographs, and various artistic works. It was breathtaking to see the detailed work that went into preserving these precious items. My next visit took me to Houghton Library, where I stood in the room lined with books handcrafted before the era of Gutenberg’s press. Visitors toured each of the various rooms the library, viewing the collections of Samuel Johnson, Emily Dickinson, and other luminaries of the literary world.

One may wonder what goes into a conference about annotations and note-taking. A full slate of panel discussions was scheduled for Friday, November 2. Throughout the course of the day, I took more than 14 pages of notes about taking notes. During the various question and answer periods between panel discussions, questions and comments from the audience produced lively conversations on Twitter. The hashtag (#radtakenote) was one of the most active I’ve ever seen at such an event. Someone questioned whether happy note-takers were in fact compulsive in nature, thereby not completely engaged with the content that they were writing about. A common reaction both in the room and on Twitter was that for some people, writing served as a method for processing information. Moleskine journals were mentioned so frequently I had to wonder if they were soon to see an uptick in sales.

Every form of note-taking was considered: from marginalia in books, notes in captain’s logs, field notes used by anthropologists, case studies, and the old “why you were out” pads used by secretaries. Even leaflets stapled to telephone poles and other public places were discussed. There was a clear distinction between casual and formal note-taking. For example, Thomas Edison used notes taken by his workers as a means to work on his patents. In the casual realm, much fondness was exhibited for doodles and sketches that enhanced everyday journals and notebooks. The question was raised whether note-taking is actually a discipline. The consensus seems to be that it is.

There was an interesting corollary between ancient tools in modern devices. Tablets and styluses from ancient times are not so completely unlike the tablets we use today when one considers the purpose. The development of shorthand long ago served to make note-taking easier. One of the most interesting things I learned was about object called a table book (also called a writing table). A portable journal, people used a metal stylus to carve their notes about plays or sermons they were attending. Once the notes were no longer useful or copied elsewhere, and wet piece of bread or sponge was used to soak up heavy parchment so that the carvings made by the metal stylus were erased. Shakespeare made numerous references to the table book in the play Hamlet. With the description of the table book came many questions and thoughts about ownership and copyright. These were the days before copyright law. However, artists and preachers were often concerned with the copying and publishing of their work without their consent. Inaccurately produced texts often drove the eventual official publication of the work that has been copied.

Polymath Gilberto Freyre, relaxed in his chair, presides over the panel discussion, larger-than-life. The notes he left in margins of books often showed a wide-range of ideas that while not directly part of the book, were leaps of thought and inspiration taken from the text.

Polymath Gilberto Freyre, relaxed in his chair, presides over the panel discussion, larger-than-life. The notes he left in margins of books often showed a wide-range of ideas that while not directly part of the book, were leaps of thought and inspiration taken from the text.

One of the most fascinating sessions was about digital annotation tools. David Karger from MIT did a demonstration of an annotation tool developed there to place a text used in class side-by-side with the discussion taking place online. Known as NB, it has become a popular tool for many schools. Bob Stein, founder and codirector of the Institute for the Future of the Book, talked about Social Book, a site where people can share the reading experience socially online. As an author, I wondered how Social Book may be used to engage with readers about my own books. Is this a way to facilitate a new kind of reading that formerly had taken place in brick and mortar bookstores? With a global audience, this may be a way to establish a broader reach.

Making notes and annotations is obviously a key aspect of engaging in dialogue with books and research as a process of contemplation and immersive attention. From childhood, I have been what some would call obsessed with taking notes. This experience was paralleled by one of the speakers who described practically copying entire texts in his youth to help him understand the material. As one matures, the note-taking becomes more selective. I still take many notes. As an author of historical fiction, I read dozens of history books. My process is long and involved. I take notes by hand on the back of edited manuscripts before keying them neatly into the computer. I prefer to write by fountain pen. However, years of writing and carpal tunnel pain have forced me to utilize new tools such as the Dragon Naturally Speaking software. This is the first blog post I am writing using the dictation software.

I keep notes everywhere. I regularly annotate my life using the SpringPad app, Workflowy (my new favorite!), and the extensive annotation capabilities of Scrivener software. My life would feel incomplete without my notes.

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There is much more I have to say about this amazing and informative conference, but I’ll have to save that for another time. As some may know, it is NaNoWriMo season, and I have yet to meet my minimum quota of words for the day. Until next time!

(Originally published November 2012; NB–I planned a second half to this post, but alas, there was a perfect storm of work-life issues at the time, and I never got around to writing about it. My only hope is that someday, the Radcliffe Institute may revisit this fascinating topic with more wonderful site visits around the university’s campus!)  

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