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Online Forum Takes Notes on Note Taking

People seem to have their own systems when it comes to keeping the minutiae of everyday life in order—jotting down lists in a Moleskine, tapping reminders into an iPhone, papering cubicles with Post-its, you name it.

While most people pay little attention to the disposable reminders that get them through the day, a group of media scholars with the New Everyday—a blog-journal hybrid set up by the digital scholarly network MediaCommons—has opened up an investigation into how those notes are created and used in contemporary life.

“A note can be anything,” said Shannon Mattern, an assistant professor at the New School who has been curating the discussion on note taking. “We were asking, ‘What is the category of thought that warrants a note if a note can take on so many different material forms?’”

The investigation, entitled “Notes, Lists, and Everyday Inscriptions,” is being hosted online as a “cluster” of expert commentary and back-and-forth discussion by the New Everyday. As the cluster curator, Ms. Mattern sought commentary from academics, students, and artists about what they found interesting about note taking, and allowed them to freely discuss the topic in new and creative ways. The site features commentary by media scholars at eight universities, a Smithsonian manuscript curator, and an independent artist, and is open to anyone interested in the topic.

Contributor Andrew Piper, assistant professor of German studies at McGill University, focused in on the use of notes, outlines, and marginalia by writers like Goethe, Poe, and Nabokov. “What began to interest me was a longer history of how people have thought about this ‘morphological’ process of moving from one medium of writing to another (handwriting to print) and then how that might be breaking down today as we increasingly take our notes on computers,” he said.

Although the discussion is varied and eclectic—covering everything from the archival dangers of the paper clip to tape trading among Grateful Dead fans—Ms. Mattern was especially interested in the contributors’ collective fascination with what she calls the “accoutrements of note taking,” including high-tech devices like the iPad and Blackberry and their low-tech analogues like grocery lists, manuscripts, and planners.

Ms. Mattern said the release of the Apple iPad in April has raised questions about the “materiality of reading and writing,” and the cluster was auspiciously timed to get participants talking about the hardware of note taking in everyday life. “Every few weeks, every few months, there’s a new device,” she said. It’s something that should be addressed critically but is perhaps so quotidian “we rarely think about it.”

Nicholas Mirzoeff, coordinating editor for the New Everyday and a professor of media, culture, and communications at New York University, said the note-taking cluster fits perfectly into the blog’s mission to turn a critical eye on the quotidian. “The cluster shows the full range of the idea [of the everyday] from media history to new digital formats for note taking, artistic uses of the note, the shopping list, and even the screenplay,” Mr. Mirzoeff said in an e-mail message.

The note-taking cluster began on September 9 and will be open for discussion through October 20. It’s the blog’s second cluster, following last spring’s discussion on everyday violence. That discussion used the story of Jorge Steven López Mercado, a gay teenager murdered in Puerto Rico last November, as its starting point.

As the project moves forward, Mr. Mirzoeff said, he is excited to see where scholars and Web contributors take discussion on contemporary everyday life. “Whatever the everyday now is,” he said, “it’s global, not local, and extraordinary rather than banal.”

What began to interest me was a longer history of how people have thought about this “morphological” process of moving from one medium of writing to another (handwriting to print) and then how that might be breaking down today as we increasingly take our notes on computers.
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