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Ideas

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Hidden in notes, the secrets of history

Annotations, jottings, even doodles are drawing serious interest from scholars. Will Post-it notes ever do the same?

As tablets replace magazines, apps replace grocery lists, and GChat replaces love letters, a fetish for handwritten bits and pieces has blossomed in certain corners of the culture. Found magazine celebrates discarded mash notes, mail-art project PostSecret compiles confessional postcards, and Letters of Note publishes scanned missives written by celebrities and regular folks. There are Pinterest boards devoted to penmanship, and fonts that imitate the vanishing messiness of handwriting.

Most of this interest is aesthetic, a kind of retro fetish triggered by our quickening shift into a digital culture. But the scholarly world is now in the midst of a parallel—and much more ambitious—rediscovery of notes as well. After disregarding them for generations as the side matter to more significant work, academic researchers are increasingly focusing their attention on the bits of writing that appear around, before, and underneath the text of books and other supposedly finished printed products.

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