Ann Blair: ‘ Note Taking as an Art of Transmission’

“Note taking can take many forms — oral, written or electronic. At its deepest level, whatever the medium, note taking involves variations on and combinations of a few basic maneuvers, which I propose to identify as the four Ss: storing, sorting, summarizing and selecting.” (p.85)

“Each method of storage carries with it constraints of reliability, preservability, and accessibility.” (p. 86)

“Each method of sorting, too, entails constraints and easements in the retrieval of the stored material.” (p. 86)

“Francis Bacon outlined the two principal methods of note taking in a letter of advice to Fulke Greville (…): “He that shall oout of his own Reading gather [notes] for the use of another, must (as I think) do it by Epitome, or Abridgement, or under Heads and Common Places. Epitomes may also be of 2 sorts: of any one Art, or part of Knowledge out of many Books; or of one Book by itself.”” (p. 86)

“Michel Foucault reportedly expressed a desire to study copybooks of quotations because they seemed to him to be the work[s] on the self … not imposed on the individual.” (p. 88)

“Yet even today note taking generally remains an area of tacit knowledge, aquired by imitation rather than formal instruction and about which there is little explicit discussion.” (p. 89)

“But there is little so far that addresses how note taking is changing as new tools have become and continue to become available, from the Post-it and the highlighter to software programs and the Palm Pilot.” (p. 89)

“There are many possible criteria on which to draw up a typology of note taking broadly conceived: by field (commercial, legal, medical, literary, philosophical), by type of source (from listening, from reading, from travel and direct experience, from thinking), by intended audience (for short- or longterm use, for sharing with others or for private use), by general purpose (rhetorical, factual, playful).” (p. 90)

“Robert Grosseteste, for example, drew up a topical index to his readings using 217 symbols that linked collections of citations kept in a seperate manuscript to the corresponding passages in the books he owned in his library” (p. 95)

(About Robert Grosseteste:

(Other persons that Blair discusses are Francesco Sacchini (who wrote On How to Read Books with Profit, that is De ratione libros cum profectu legendi libellus, first published in 1614) and Jeremias Drexel, author of Aurifodina, or The Mine of All Arts and Sciences, or the Habit of Excerpting (1638).)

“Early Modern scholars praised for their memories did not rely on the techniques attributed to Simonides but rather on abundant note taking; indeed pedagogues in the humanist tradition are routinely hostile to the arts of memory from Erasmus to Drexel.” (p. 97)

“Instead he [Drexel] concludes that “human memory is slow, narrow, volatile and unfaithful unless it is strengthened with memory aids” ( A, p. 3) (p. 99)

“The association of note taking with moral worth has proved persistent. Many a self-improvement program in the eighteenth century and beyond involved the promise to keep one’s diary or reading notes more religiously.”

(Drexel call for 3 kinds of notes: lemmata (bibliographical references), adversaria (copied quotations), and historica or exempla.)

“On Drexel’s account the note is an aid to memory because it triggers recall of the reading or experience recorded, and one should study one’s notes in order to remember them. “One seeks from excerpts aids, not to exercise one’s memory less, but in order to help memory more happily in its activity” ( A, p. 67). (p. 103)

“The memory function was explicitly delegated to paper because, according to Chavigny, “too much memorizing can be harmful to the higher intellectual qualities.”.” (p. 106) [This is in the 1920’s, Chavigny was a medical professor].

“Today we delegate to sources that we consider authoritative the extraction of information on all but a few carefully specialized areas in which we cultivate direct experience and original research. New technologies increasingly enable us to delegate more tasks of remembering to the computer, in that shifting division of labor between human and thing. We have thus mechanized many research tasks.” (p. 107)

“[I]f every text one wanted were constantly available for searching anew, perhaps the note itself, the selection made for later reuse, might play a less prominent role.” (p. 107)

“Notes must be rememorated or absorbed in the short-term memory at least enough to be intelligently integrated into an argument; judgment can only be applied to experiences that are present to the mind.” (p. 107)

All quotes from Ann Blair: ‘ Note Taking as an Art of Transmission’, in Critical Inquiry 31 (Autumn 2004).

I know: too many quotes….

Complete text available here:

en,quotations,ubiscribe | August 3, 2006 | 14:25 | Comments Off on Ann Blair: ‘ Note Taking as an Art of Transmission’ |


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