Ann Blair


On her book Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age

Cover Interview of July 06, 2011

A close-up

My favorite chapter is the one on note-taking (chapter two).  It is about how students and adults in the Renaissance were taught and encouraged to take notes.

Humanist pedagogues argued that note-taking served as a crucial aid to memory in two ways. First, it involved slowing down one’s reading to write out the best parts and thus helped the reader attend to and retain the material better. Second, note-taking created a stock of written material which could be accumulated, sorted and indexed, and used throughout a lifetime as a storehouse from which to draw examples and quotations in speaking and composing new texts.

For the most committed note-takers one German professor, Vincent Placcius, published in 1689 instructions for building a large closet in which to store one’s notes taken on slips of paper: when opened out the closet could store up 3,000 topical labels, each with a hook onto which to stick the slips that corresponded to that topic. Vincent Placcius, De arte excerpendi (1689), following page 153 in the book.  Placcius notes that he was drawing on an earlier English manuscript from the 1640s, a copy of which is preserved at the British Library, and which has recently been identified as the work of Thomas Harrison, active in the circle of Samuel Hartlib.

Placcius boasted that the closet could be especially useful for collaborative projects. For example students working together or the members of a learned society could pool their notes in one closet and then draw there from the collective stock of notes. At least two of these closets were built in the late 17th century, though we know of none that survive today.