the role of note taking in the information age 12.03.2005, 3:19 PM
posted by lisa lynch
An article by Ann Blair in a recent issue of Critical Inquiry (vol 31 no 1) discusses the changing conceptions of the function of note-taking from about the sixth century to the present, and ends with a speculation on the way that textual searches (such as Google Book Search) might change practices of note-taking in the twenty-first century. Blair argues that "one of the most significant shifts in the history of note taking" occured in the beginning of the twentieth century, when the use of notes as memorization aids gave way to the use of notes as a aid to replace the memorization of too-abundant information. With the advent of the net, she notes:
Today we delegate to sources that we consider authoritative the extraction of information on all but a few carefully specialized areas in which we cultivate direct experience and original research. New technologies increasingly enable us to delegate more tasks of remembering to the computer, in that shifting division of labor between human and thing. We have thus mechanized many research tasks. It is possible that further changes would affect even the existence of note taking. At a theoretical extreme, for example, if every text one wanted were constantly available for searching anew, perhaps the note itself, the selection made for later reuse, might play a less prominent role.
The result of this externalization, Blair notes, is that we come to think of long-term memory as something that is stored elsewhere, in "media outside the mind." At the same time, she writes, "notes must be rememorated or absorbed in the short-term memory at least enough to be intelligently integrated into an argument; judgment can only be applied to experiences that are present to the mind."
Blair's article doesn't say that this bifurcation between short-term and long-term memory is a problem: she simply observes it as a phenomenon. But there's a resonance between Blair's article and Naomi Baron's recent Los Angeles Times piece on Google Book Search: both point to the fact that what we commonly have defined as scholarly reflection has increasingly become more and more a process of database management. Baron seems to see reflection and database management as being in tension, though I'm not completely convinced by her argument. Blair, less apocalyptic than Baron, nonetheless gives me something to ponder. What happens to us if (or when) all of our efforts to make the contents of our extrasomatic memory "present to our mind" happen without the mediation of notes? Blair's piece focuses on the epistemology rather than the phenomenology of note taking -- still, she leads me to wonder what happens if the mediating function of the note is lost, when the triangular relation between book, scholar and note becomes a relation between database and user.
Amy on December 4, 2005 9:46 AM:
Nice summary, I think while the data may still be stored elsewhere - either in databases or locked under a glass display case - the academic's value added is in being able to make the connections and provide a justification for the linking. That kind of abstract thinking can't be yet be filed into tables and tagged with keywords.