Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 15, No. 161.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Date: Sat, 04 Aug 2001 08:00:47 +0100
From: Willard McCarty <email@example.com>
Francois Lachance, in Humanist 15.158, becomes both serious and playful
with my comments on use of the Palm hand-held machine for note-taking. He
wonders first, if I read him correctly, what happens once the brevity
imposed by pen-and-3x5card note-taking is no longer necessary. I have
wondered about that too, as I have noticed myself transcribing the author's
words on the Palm rather than summarising them as I once had to, especially
the case when I am able to use the fold-out keyboard. A gain or a loss?
I'd say a difference for sure, a new set of conditions to adapt to. The
only reliable test I know in the short-term is the "don't-look-back" test,
which in practice seems a difficult one for new gizmos to pass. (No, this
has nothing to do with Lot's wife nor the Bobby Dylan song....) The
electronic OED passed it effortlessly -- I have literally not opened the
covers of my printed edition since the OED on CD came into my life, except
for a brief and frustrating period when some bits of my computer weren't
working. Experience suggests that the Palm will pass it too.
Certainly going back to the book is the mark of a good book as well as of a
careful scholar. During a session of note-taking one tends to "highlight"
parts of a book relating to immediate interests, and under the
circumstances in which I usually take notes, varying moods and states of
attention can profoundly affect what I notice while doing it. So in my more
serious bouts of note-taking, I either buy the book in question or
photocopy the relevant bits so that going back is as easy as possible. I
have tried scanning in these bits, so that I could paste the text into the
annotation field of my bibliographic manager, but as you can imagine this
really is impractical. When all the techie props are unavailable, I fall
back on the note-taking method I was taught during my MA year, in a
research methods course that is one of the few (post)-graduate courses I
can actually remember the contents of. I think this fact of memory says
something about (post)-graduate training, but that's another topic.
Although I have great respect for handwritten notes, letters &c., I do find
the transcribing of them from the travelling 3x5 slips to be highly
problematic and frustrating. Often I am simply unable to understand the
necessarily very brief note and/or why I took it -- brevity not allowing
for enough explanatory gloss. Very closed behind is the frustration of
trying to find the noted text on the page when the note shares no obvious
words with it. The liberty to transcribe a bit means that a few ipsissima
verba can be put down to aid the finding. Then, too, bouncy vehicles mess
up handwriting; the Palm mechanism filters out most unwanted jiggs and
joggs. The difficulty of transcribing into the computer in fact means that
it usually doesn't happen, so my notes remain scattered, easily lost, very
difficult to search etc. Slips also tend to fall out of the book, ending up
on the floor of the tube train or wherever, and only sometimes do kind
people notice and point to them.
It is salutory when thinking about note-taking techniques, especially so
the more obsessive one gets, to remember Eric Auerbach in Istanbul during
the war, without any of his books. It can indeed be very liberating not to
be compelled to furnish references, simply to say what one thinks and
perhaps even knows. Public lectures are very useful in that respect. From
the reader's perspective, too, notes can be annoying. Both Northrop Frye
and Jaroslav Pelikan tried out various alternative devices to avoid the
nagging little superscripted pointers-to-more -- though they are hardly
worse than the hyperlink. Norbert Hinske, a German philosopher I met a few
months ago, infamous for the number and detailed quality of his footnotes,
wrote and published a little book entitled Ohne Fussnoten after he retired,
he said (as I recall) to mark his liberation from all that.
But to return to the notes out of which footnotes are made, or not. One of
my favourite devices still is the 3x5 card, whose ease and flexibility of
multiple rearrangement simply isn't to be matched in the electronic
environment. If only one could have something like Powerpoint for
note-taking that would produce 3x5 slips on one's printer. Note-taking
software really should have the option to produce slips.
Once upon a time I did some amateur interviewing as part of a project to
develop note-taking software. My colleagues and I identified a number of
people in the University, divided them up, interviewed each about his or
her note-taking techniques. I was greatly surprised to discover the extent
of variation, all the way from no note-taking whatever to the most detailed
kind. So I concluded that when one talks of these things, one should not
assume much common understanding of what the practice actually consists of.
I suppose the fundamental question is always how to reach one's intended
audience in the best way possible with the tools at hand -- or not at hand,
if they would get in the way. How not to fall in love with the devices of
communication, or to love the act of communication more, which does not
necessarily mean giving up handy tools but can. My expressed enthusiasm for
the Palm is of course contingent. I do what works for me, and this changes
from one project to the next.
We might find it useful and stimulating to discuss the technology of
annotation, about which precious little work has been done for the kind of
note-taking humanists are most familiar with. Comments?
Dr Willard McCarty / Senior Lecturer /
Centre for Computing in the Humanities / King's College London /
Strand / London WC2R 2LS / U.K. /
+44 (0)20 7848-2784 / ilex.cc.kcl.ac.uk/wlm/
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