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.”
I f 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.