A Little Story of Note-taking

Like many universities in the US and the UK, Stanford University in California has a page on its website displaying advice on how to take good notes. Crammed between chemistry study tips and recommendations on how to read in college, four links lead to pages that help students evaluate themselves and improve their note-taking skills. Note-taking advice might seem futile, and no course is directly dedicated to this subject in American and British schools, but good note-taking is a theme that has interested scholars starting from the 15th century. Ann Blair, is the author of Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age, as well as earlier articles on note-taking and information storage. She explains that during the 15th century, the invention of printing expanded the production of paper, allowing people to write things down more liberally as paper was way cheaper than its predecessor: parchment (Blair 2010; 17). Witnessing the increasing profusion of paper and books, Renaissance humanists decided that taking and classifying notes on a large scale would help pass on their knowledge to the generations to come (Blair 2010; 32).

The goal behind good note-taking can be summed up in a word: efficiency. It was accompanied in the 15th century by a change in the way people read, going from intensive to extensive and selective reading. This selective reading provoked a need to take notes in order to be able to summarize the important notions of a book. We still read this way today, and this is why note-taking remains a contemporary issue.

I will compare the way note-taking was addressed during the Early Modern period and today, exploring to what extent the technologies that are available nowadays change the way we regard note-taking.

During the 15th century, scholars devised techniques to address extensive and selective reading and wrote manuals on how to take notes efficiently. These procedures were aimed not only at students, as is the case on university webpages devoted to advice on note-taking, but also to whoever wanted to read efficiently. Although note-taking was mainly seen as a reading tool, it was also said to help individuals to remember and process what they saw or heard, during their travels, for instance (Blair 2003; 19).

Interestingly, the information on the Stanford University website shows a switch in interest from written to oral material as worthy of being taken down in notes. Almost no mention is made of writing down an account of books, but rather, advice is given on how to take notes effectively during a lecture. The existence of the Internet might be a reason for that, as information on many books such as their summaries can easily be found on the web. This is not the case for a lecture in a classroom, which is more individually specific.

However, if the subject of the notes has changed, the reasons put forward as to why it is beneficial to take notes have remained essentially the same. The Stanford University website is in line with what scholars during the 15th century advised on this matter. Taking notes is said to help note-takers to better remember what they write by focusing on what they hear or read. Note-takers also honed their analytic skills, both in the Early Modern period and today, as note-taking is not tantamount to writing everything down, but to selecting and synthesizing the key elements of the lecture or the book.

In the fashion of a lot of universities, Stanford promotes the Cornell note-taking system.

Nina Bourne, Cornell Note-Taking System, 2015, Learnu
Nina Bourne, Cornell Note-Taking System, 2015, Learnu

This method was devised by Walter Pauk, a professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, in the 1950s, to help his students take better notes in a standardized way. The Cornell method requires the note-taker to go back to the notes and reflect upon them, thereby making him remember those notes even more accurately. The sheets of paper on which the students take notes are divided into three sections. One is used for the notes themselves, and the two others – for the key concepts and the summary – are written after the notes were taken, forcing the note-takers to go back to their notes and reflect actively upon them. This method is especially helpful to students as it is a great tool for revising for tests, and Cornell note-taking lined paper pdf generators can be found online, allowing people to create their own note-taking sheets. A link to such generators is provided on the Stanford University website (Stanford University).

  • Nina Bourne, Cornell Note-Taking System, 2015, Learnu
  • Featured image
  • The President and Fellows of Harvard College Books made of notes take on slips of paper, 2012, Center fro Hellenic Studies of Harvard University

During the 15th century, scholars also encouraged the filing and organizing of notes in order to be able to consult them readily. They could be classified in commonplace books under topical headings which summarized the concept of the extracts (Blair 2003; 19), just as the ‘key points’ section in the Cornell system does. Some advised people to write notes on loose slips of paper then tying them together in book form using strips of leather. This method permitted the note-taker to remove the sheets and rearrange them at will. In the 1640’s, Thomas Harrison devised a note closet which could contain up to 3000 headings ordered alphabetically. But this piece of furniture was expensive, and the two that are known to have been built have disappeared (Take Note – An Exploration of Note-taking in Harvard University Collections). The advantage of this closet rested on the fact that it allowed group work since various individuals could contribute to it (Blair 2010; 31).

Today, people do not bother with such cumbersome devices anymore. With the introduction of computers and technological devices, new ways of storing notes have emerged. Various websites and applications are dedicated to storing and sorting notes. A user of Evernote, one of these numerous applications, wrote “It’s great to have ALL the information you need indexed and searchable across every single platform you have. I love opening it up in a meeting and recording the meeting audio right along with my typed notes on my iPad.” (Gordon). What is practical about this kind of application is that you do not need any physical medium to store them, and you can access them from anywhere there is an Internet connection. However, storing the notes does not mean that you remember information. Being able to store an almost infinite amount of information can result in the user skipping the selecting part of the note-taking process, which is crucial for memorization. The ability we now have to simply record lectures like the Evernote user does, means that synthesizing lectures is not an obligation anymore. This too can come as an obstacle in remembering as, when recording a lecture, individuals do not need to focus as much as they would if they were taking notes. The beneficial effect of recording is that one can complete one’s notes after the lecture, as the elements one failed to record do not disappear into thin air anymore.

Although it is essential to be able to refer to ones notes easily, both scholars from the Early Modern period and the Stanford University website agree in saying that taking notes should not exempt people from learning some passages by heart (Blair 2003; 19). A 1773 poem by John Byrom shows this concern with memorizing one’s favorite quotes:

In reading Authors, when you find

Bright Passages that strike your Mind,

And which perhaps you may Reason

To think on at another Season,

Be not contented with the Sight,

But take them down in Black and White;

Such respect is wisely shown

As makes another’s thought your own. (Byrom 59).

And this poem appears again more than a century later in Kate Sanborn’s Memories and Anecdotes, where she tells how her father made her memorize it when she was still a student. This shows the importance that has been given to memorization across the ages (Sanborn).

We could think that with the rise of social media leading to more and more sharing of information, notes would no longer be dedicated for personal use only and would enter the public sphere. However, the Stanford University website shows otherwise. It advises students to personalize their notes, telling them to reform notions into their own words and not to pay particular attention to grammar and spelling. Yet a notion of cooperation lies in the recommendation made to students to share their strategies for good note-taking amongst themselves and to compare their notes. In addition although it has been proved that typing allows one to take more words down than writing by hand, the advice is still to use pen and paper. This, too, results in notes being for personal use as one is used to reading one’s own handwriting, but not necessarily being able to decipher the writing of others (Stanford University) .

Despite the humanists’ dream to see their notes passed down to future generations, the record we have of notes of the Early Modern period show that they too could only be used for personal purposes. When annotating their books, people used abbreviations and symbols they invented themselves, and they did not use a key, so it is hard – if not impossible – for historians to decipher them. And even at the time, these abbreviations could only be understood by their creator (Blair 2010; 27).

Although new technologies have transformed the subject of our notes and the way we store them, the alleged benefits one can gain from note-taking have remained virtually the same. We now have more options for how to share our notes than people in the Renaissance did, but notes still are still mainly meant to be kept private, as was the case back then.

1 Comment

  1. With the invention of the TRANSLATOR note-taking has become simpler, easier and much more convenient to use Note Taking Shorthand [Stanford University] with the use of personalized dictionaries and the automatic decoding process incorporated with templates and organizers like Cornell Notes, Mind Mapping, Outlining, Sentences and Charting — Dr. Paula D. RUBY and Dr. Ralph Ruby, Jr. [Arkansas State University]

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