Think back to your childhood. What did you take with you when you went to school? Many of us would have set off with a backpack brimming with notebooks, erasers, a ruler, pens, pencils and perhaps a handful of sweets to enjoy when the teacher wasn’t looking. Even in today’s digital classrooms, students use these tools to learn how to write, draw and calculate on sheets of paper that, when clipped, stapled or glued together, become a notebook.
Today there is much debate over the benefits of handwritten notes. Cognitive scientists underscore the fact that the acts of writing and drawing facilitate hand and eye movements that significantly aid how we remember information. Despite this fact, the time and resources that schools devote to teaching handwriting skills have declined in recent years. Students are now dazzled with new digital technologies that are marketed as being ‘like’ a notebook and which operate on laptop computers called ‘notebooks’.
The paper notebook is of course an ancient learning tool. But is it in any way similar to the digital notebooks that we use in today’s classrooms? And is it appropriate to compare a computer screen to the page of a student notebook rendered centuries ago? The truth is that these questions are difficult to answer at present because scholars have devoted relatively little attention to how students learned to make and use notebooks in the past. Though it is clear that student notebooks were important, the day to day techniques required to write, rewrite, draw and redraw them have only just begun to be explored.
As a historian, I have spent much of my career holding notebooks created by students living during the long eighteenth century, a time in which literacy and scholarly learning became more accessible to middle class families who sent their children to schools, academies and universities. These notebooks have taught me that the spread of enlightened knowledge was closely linked to how a person could organize facts and observations in a useful manner on paper.
For much of modern history the paper notebook was an essential learning technology. In pre-digital times it was the ultimate real-time tool that required students to constantly inscribe and shape pieces of paper into gatherings that could then be ordered, reordered, indexed and bound. In many respects the school notebook was one of the largest artifacts that students made before they got married or entered a profession. Consequently, holding one puts us in direct contact with the material and visual world that shaped their learning experiences.
Consider the beautifully crafted school notebook depicted in Figure 1. It was designed and assembled by an anonymous student who attended Scotland’s renowned Perth Academy during the 1790s. At first glance it might appear as a singular object, a manuscript book complete with a title page and a leather binding. But when we begin to thumb through its pages we quickly learn that it was anything but a static object. The tell-tale clue occurs on page 103, which, due to overuse, is now detached from the binding.
The page is actually the front side of a larger sheet of paper that was folded in half to form a booklet of four pages. Manuscript historians call this medium a bifolium, and its material form reveals just how students learned to assemble a notebook. They started with a blank sheet, folded it in half and then proceeded to copy out their notes. If mistakes were made, the bifolium was simply discarded and a new, rewritten version was made to take its place. Once a collection of bifolia was finished, students stacked them into a desirable order to be bound.
The detached bifolium offers insight into a world of flexible information management techniques that transformed student notebooks into adaptable and rearrangeable knowledge platforms suited to carry the useful facts and figures so treasured by the popular Enlightenment that spread through Britain and other European countries over the course of the eighteenth century. It reflected the enlightened notion that the mind, like a sheet of blank paper, was a self-organized entity. It allowed students to make mistakes, to try out writing, folding and drawing techniques they had practiced on other sheets of paper, thereby making each page a noteworthy object of historical enquiry with its own backstory.
The exquisite penmanship and accessible word patterns skilfully rendered in the Perth notebook speak to the long and expensive training process through which many students learned how to visualize the placement of words, numbers and symbols on a grid in advance. Likewise, its customized surveying illustrations of local architecture and landscapes (Figure 2), several of which were rendered in fresh pastel pink and blue watercolours, speak to the prior training of students and to the geometric sense of place the was the hallmark of eighteenth-century education more generally.
Rather than existing as a fixed object, the notebook’s words and images thrived in an adaptable world of representation, one in which misdrawn lines and misapplied watercolours could be reinscribed and repainted on a fresh piece of paper. This adaptability allowed students to write out notes that were arranged according to methods, rules, problems, and examples, that is to say, the quintessential apparatus associated with reason.
The Perth notebook, like so many student notebooks made during the long eighteenth century, is a snapshot of knowledge in motion. Its very fabric presents us with evidence of the visual and material capabilities of self-organized knowledge that operated in conjunction with the facts and principles that were embedded in rational discourse, as it was understood during the Enlightenment.
Thinking about the nature of pre-digital student notebooks offers unique insight into the historical relationship between learning and notekeeping. In an age preoccupied with the future, it helps us to intelligently judge the relationship between past and present forms of knowledge. Perhaps most importantly, it helps us to conceptualize how reason was literally rewritten, giving us the ability to understand the value of future learning technologies as well.
Anonymous Notekeeper, Perth Academy Notebook (1790), Bound MS, National Library of Scotland, MS 14291, ff 103-104.
Anonymous Notekeeper, Perth Academy Notebook (1790), Bound MS, National Library of Scotland, MS 14291, f. 20.
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