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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?

A promptbook of Macbeth annotated by Edward Gordon Craig, an actor, producer, and set designer who lived from 1893 to 1964.

Houghton Library, Harvard University

A promptbook of Macbeth annotated by Edward Gordon Craig, an actor, producer, and set designer who lived from 1893 to 1964.

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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From the advent of publishing, generations of readers marked their books with thoughts and responses, sometimes very detailed, to what they were reading. The lectures of great philosophers, artists, and doctors were attended by students who took copious notes which, occasionally, survive. Card catalogs, family Bibles, and scientific field books are full of information jotted down in the moment and often preserved nowhere else. All of this amounts to a trove of data about the world scattered in libraries and archives that only now is becoming possible for researchers to share and study easily.

As they do, what these academics are finding is that notes hold the key to unlocking the conversation around great works—both the thinking that went into them, and the way the world used and received them. In examining the scribblings once dismissed as detritus at best and graffiti at worst, they are unlocking real insights into the way people in the past read, thought, worked, loved, and joked. In some cases, they reveal hidden authors of a book; in others, they show that medical students learned something quite different from the official curriculum.

In English and history departments and in relatively young subfields like the history of reading, scholars are producing books and articles on such topics as marginal notes and bureaucratic paperwork. The journal Intellectual History Review devoted a special issue to note-taking in early modern Europe. Rare book dealers and collectors now prize editions with the kind of marginal notes they once bleached to remove. And “Take Note,” a conference Nov. 1 and 2 at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, is assembling experts from disciplines including history, literature, and computer science to address the rise of these
once-marginal jottings as a topic in their own right.

Houghton Library, Harvard University

A copy of Virgil annotated by a French student circa 1560.

“This stuff has been in the margins for hundreds, and in some cases thousands of years,” historian Bill Sherman, the author of a 2007 book about how readers marked books in Renaissance England, said. “But like a lot of things from the past it only becomes visible when there’s a meaning, or potential meaning, attached to it.”

Amid all the research momentum, however, lies a challenge. As marginalia has become more visible to scholars, it is also beginning to disappear from the world around us, or at least to change profoundly. Readers and writers are producing more incidental lines than ever—from text messages to Tumblrs—but these digital traces may be even more ephemeral than their paper ancestors. So, as a new generation of scholars culls significance from millennia of miscellany, the question inevitably haunting their work is this: Now that we’ve figured out the value of notes, just what is their future in the 21st century?

Note-taking might sound obscure, but notation has occupied the minds of some of the great artists and cultural figures of the past centuries. William Blake studiously underlined and annotated even friends’ books with comments like “Bravo” and “This is Folly Itself”; Graham Greene covered the 3,000 books in his own library (now owned by Boston College) with plot summaries and dialogue snippets. Published volumes of Samuel Coleridge’s marginal notes total 6,000 pages. One of them reads: “I have looked thro’ this book with some attention, April 21, 1803—, and seldom indeed have I read a more thoroughly worthless one.”

The scribblings of anonymous or at least nonfamous readers, however, have traditionally been disregarded as something closer to graffiti. This began to change over the course of the 20th century, as history and literature departments began turning their attention from text to context. Instead of valorizing individual achievements, scholars became more interested in how those achievements arose, which means unearthing the conversations and collaborations that preceded and followed them—what one researcher calls “reminders that books never work alone.”

Technology both encouraged this line of research and made it possible. The 1980s revolution in personal computing made academics aware that their own methods of note-taking and record-keeping were hardly eternal. “Nothing had really changed in the basic techniques of scholarship, not just from World War II but from World War I to my time,” Princeton’s Anthony Grafton, a pioneer in the history of the book, explained. “All of a sudden one was doing things in radically different ways, and so all of a sudden the way scholars did things in the past came to seem interesting.”

Soon, the Internet ensured that any contemporary reader with access to a university library could pore through old copies of Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene”—not just the text, but the quirks and annotations in individual copies. Web resources include huge collections like Early English Books Online, and specialized assets like Annotated Books Online a soon-to-launch “virtual research environment” in which scholars can view high-quality scans of marked-up early modern texts.

As academics began to look at printed works’ periphery, they found a glimpse into readers’ live reactions, habits, and stray thoughts—the kinds of things that tend to remain tantalizingly out of grasp for historians. Friends or lovers during the Renaissance would conduct conversations through their books, exchanging copies and guiding each other through the text with marginal jottings like, “What a noble sentiment.” Where a 19th-century professor’s published syllabus expressed his ambitions for the class, his students’ lecture notes revealed how he actually taught.

Notes turn out to have the power to revise our understanding of history, too. When leading marginalia scholar Heather Jackson surveyed hundreds of old copies of “The Life of Samuel Johnson” in university libraries, she found many versions with notes from readers who had known Johnson and disagreed, sometimes vehemently, with Boswell’s depiction of his life. Politician Horace Walpole pointedly dismissed Boswell’s explanation for why exactly he loathed Johnson, for example; he also identified some of the anonymous figures in the book, filling in names that Boswell had politely rendered as dashes.

By closing the distance between readers present and past, researchers get a whole new window on history. “You are sort of sitting next to, and getting into the mind of some otherwise lost voice from the past,” Ann Blair, a Harvard historian who organized the upcoming conference with her colleague Leah Price, explained. She discovered the value of marginal notes while working on her dissertation on 16th-century French thinker Jean Bodin. Poring over his argument for natural philosophy, “it was looking very Aristotelian to my untrained eye,” she said. But when she happened upon a copy that had been heavily annotated by a contemporary reader, 163 of the book’s 600 pages had references to “Aristotle criticized.” The book, she realized, represented a very different intellectual achievement than it first appeared: Rather than a staid restatement of accepted views, for its time it was in fact a stinging critique of a great ancient thinker.

Sometimes a single note can unlock a contribution that would otherwise have remained invisible to history. Popular 19th-century minister and author Edward Everett Hale inscribed several books to his personal assistant Harriet E. Freeman with variations on the phrase “From one of the authors to another,” adding in one case, “So much of this was printed from your pen.” Those fond jottings suggest a coauthorship, Blair says, that went completely unacknowledged in print.

Other kinds of notes wielded influence within their own era. Tiffany Stern, a theater historian at Oxford, has been studying artifacts called “tablebooks,” which audiences in Shakespeare’s time used to take notes during the show. They would jot down favorite lines in the small erasable books, then tote them home and transcribe them in a larger commonplace book. Those lines were likeliest to be quoted to friends and family members, and to serve as word-of-mouth advertisements for the play.

Stern has come to believe that playwrights actually wrote with tablebook critics in mind. She cites a line from Hamlet in which the Danish prince assures his father’s ghost, “Yea, from the table of my memory / I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records....And thy commandment all alone shall live / Within the book and volume of my brain.” Stern explained, “Hamlet is a think-y writing person and Shakespeare is writing that anticipating a think-y writing audience, who themselves will give a knowing smile as they write down in their tablebooks what Hamlet says he should write down in his tablebook.”

Stern’s research on tablebooks indicates that “To be or not to be” was not considered the most quotable line when Hamlet was first performed. That honor belonged to the phrase “here, there and everywhere.” She suggests that publicity-minded playwrights began to include such catch phrases in their work on purpose, the way TV has encouraged politicians to craft sound bites to be quoted the next day. She calls them “early modern forms of advertising.”

If many of the insights from note-taking seem to date from hundreds of years ago, there’s a reason: Over time, most people stopped writing in their books as they read, and stopped using bound books to preserve the things they wanted to remember.

People do, of course, take notes in notebooks, on scraps of paper, and on index cards. But these are far less likely to survive. Paper tends to be saved based on its importance: Books are saved, while spiral notebooks and loose-leaf sheets are thrown away at the end of every semester. This amounts to a looming problem for a field that has only just begun to discover the value of this wide swath of historical ephemera: The 21st-century equivalent is disappearing before their eyes. “In 200 years I don’t know if there will be a Post-it collection,” Ann Blair said. “That would be wonderful, but it’s not likely to happen.”

Historians are also grappling with a more recent shift: Much note-taking has moved onto computers. Whereas Post-it notes often don’t survive, electronic notes have a different problem: They may technically endure on a hard drive or disk, but will they actually be readable in the future? The speed at which software and hardware evolve make even 10-year-old documents difficult to access. And instead of producing multiple discrete drafts, each of which leaves a record, writers now rework the same document over and over in Microsoft Word.

That, at least, was when we still stored documents on our computers rather than in a giant, intangible “cloud.” Today, the notes that exist online have become nearly immeasurable: One newspaper article or TV episode can spawn thousands of comments or tweets, all of them theoretically recorded. But whether they’ll actually be accessible even 20 years from now is a real question. In 2009, for example, Yahoo shuttered GeoCities, the service that powered some 38 million of the Web’s early home pages—suddenly putting a huge swath of the history of the Web in danger of being lost forever. (Thanks to the efforts of a worried band of digital preservationists, much of that data was captured and saved.)

At university libraries, digital preservationists are doing their part to figure out ways to save the current generation of notes before they’re lost for good. Archivists at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, for instance, are preserving not only CDs and 8-inch disks from the 1970s, but also the hardware to access them.

The conference will touch on these problems, as well as what exactly the tools of the future might looks like. Whether the field can keep pace with changing note-taking media, though, is anyone’s guess. E-readers including the Kindle allow for readers to make notes, though they could easily be lost as technology evolves. Meanwhile, some fear that many people will be hesitant to bequeath their PCs to posterity the way they once did with their personal libraries. (Do you want grad students poring over your every Google search and screen grab?) “We’re now in a moment where we’re leaving behind fewer traces of our reading than ever before,” Bill Sherman said. “We may have moved to the turning point where...we’ll have to find new ways to leave more behind.” Historians of the future are depending on it.

Ruth Graham is a writer in New Hampshire.
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