“Notes, Lists, and Everyday Inscriptions”: Introduction

Even before it hit the shelves in the US in early April 2010, the iPad was “already a revolution.” This “crazy powerful” device could do everything your iPhone did – but with more memory, a higher resolution screen, a bigger keyboard, and iPad-exclusive applications, it allowed you to watch videos without squinting, carry around “more books than [you] could read in a lifetime,” and type without tangling your fingers. The company “redesign[ed], reimagin[ed], and rebuil[t] every single [iPhone] app from the ground up,” specifically for the iPad (see video below). The reborn device promised to “change the way we do the things we do everyday.” 

"Magical” though the iPad seemed to be, it was also comfortingly familiar. Because it drew on so many metaphors of common media forms – the double-page spread, the day-timer, the well-lit wooden bookshelf, the QWERTY keyboard – “[we] already kn[e]w how to use it.” It cast the brand new, the ineffable, the stuff that “exceeds [our] ability to understand how it works,” in recognizable forms and frames. Even the unmappable global rhizome that is the Internet had the potential to become as tangible, possessible, and portable as the book; “It just feels right to hold the Internet in your hands.”


Yet many critics wondered if this remediation, the fallback to these print-era metaphors and book-based functionality, represented a lost opportunity – an opportunity to think about the relationships between interfaces, media morphologies, their underlying intellectual architectures and digital codes, and the types of human-machine interactions and media consumption and production practices they make possible. How might a new device with new capabilities raise questions about how we collect and archive media, and how we read and write and record (especially across media formats), how we organize our schedules, how we “do the things we do everyday”? Apple, ever the good Catholic, wanted its new device to streamline, aestheticize, and naturalize these functions. “If you see something, you just reach out and tap it. It’s completely natural. You don’t even think about it. You just do”  (see video above).

Quotidian inscriptions – annotating, jotting notes, making lists – are some of those “things we do everyday” that, despite their everydayness, are constantly being denaturalized, reimagined, and redesigned for different writing substrates and media platforms (from clay tablets to quipu to Blackberries to the back of your hand) and different populations and settings and applications (from professional conferences to the grocery store). Digital reading devices and applications, despite their frequent attempts to approximate the look of the printed page, often frustrate readers’ desire to mark up the page as they would a printed book; highlighting, annotating, and underlining work differently – or not at all – across these platforms. Software developers have created a dizzying array of applications for taking and organizing notes. Choosing amongst these options requires that we reflect on how we organize our thoughts, and how we want software to help us become the more efficient, better organized, more productive note-takers we want to be. 

What platforms will allow us to become our idealized note-taking selves? Apple’s own Notes app offers a digital legal pad for text-based notes and lists of all kinds; I use mine to store user names, shopping lists, and geographically-organized lists of all the exhibitions I want to see around the city. Evernote encourages an expansive definition of “the note”; everything from text and voice memos and meeting notes to photos, videos, screenshots, and pdfs can be organized into your notes file and separated into different “notebooks,” then made searchable across various devices. (This raises the question: What does it mean when, as contributor Andrew Piper puts it, “all is note”?) Popplet is a new application for individually or collaboratively “curating,” or spatializing the relationships between, notes. Rather than the notebook or file box metaphor, Popplet offers a virtual whiteboard on which you can organize your notes into a concept map. There are plenty more applications where these came from. Yet even these few examples raise the question of what constitutes a “note” on each of these platforms. How do their interfaces and underlying code inform the way users conceive of, create, organize, and navigate between notes, lists, memos, etc.? 



Examining the way individuals or groups of people take notes, historian Ann Blair (2004) suggests, can “shed light on cultural expectations and material practices that are representative of a particular historical context” and can reveal how “methods of note taking…contribute to shaping the modes of thought and argument characteristic of that milieu” (89). Blair acknowledges that a “spate of recent work” has begun to “uncover the culturally specific practices of note taking in various European contexts ranging especially from antiquity to the eighteenth century.” Through this research, we learn about ancient bookkeeping, Biblical lists, commonplacing, readers’ use of notes as a means of dialoguing with texts and authors, the outsourcing of annotation, collective note-taking practices, and changing conceptions of note-taking as a means of either strengthening or externalizing memory (see Blair 2003, Daston 2004, Yeo 2008).

But what about the new everyday? Despite the fact that the cultural context for note-taking, and the materials about which and with which we take notes, have changed dramatically since the eighteenth century, Blair (2004) says, “there is little [work] so far that addresses how note taking is changing as new tools have become and continue to become available, from the Post-it to the highlighter to software programs and the Palm Pilot” (89; see Adam 2008 for a discussion of the history of lists, from Sumerian tablets to computer programming languages).

Education scholars often examine the pedagogy of note-taking, and some social scientists, especially those whose work focuses on aging and memory, have studied list-making. But few of these formal studies address the new materiality of notes and lists. It seems fitting that those heeding Blair’s call to action are debating the new digital tools of note-taking through some of those very tools. A group of tech-savvy academic bloggers – the ProfHacker collective – has sparked lively discussions about annotation software; personal note-managing databases like Evernote; note-taking, outlining, and writing programs like Scrivener; and to-do list managers like Things. The “Taking Note” blog focuses on the “nature of note-taking and some of its practical as well as theoretical implications”; its blogger is particularly vexed by the number of note-taking programs that make gratuitous use of print notebook and index card metaphors.

In this cluster of The New Everyday we examine new everyday inscriptions, both the scholarly and the utterly mundane – from the grocery list to the collaboratively organized and annotated archive. The nine essays in this cluster focus on notes both physical and virtual, found and made, formal and informal, collaboratively and individually created, means-to-ends and ends-in-themselves. We begin with Heidi Wilkins’ description of SP-ARK, filmmaker Sally Potter’s online documentation of her filmmaking process, and the participatory processes through which users navigate and annotate “pathways” through the collection, thereby animating the archive. Users, Wilkins suggests, “increase the significance of the already valuable items featured on SP-ARK by adding their personal notes and ideas.” 

The scholarly value of notes and other everyday inscriptions is a question at the center of Dan Cohen’s essay. Cohen examines the “calculus of importance” behind the Library of Congress’s decision to archive all public Tweets created since 2006. He argues that the resources and effort expended to secure what some might regard as a “mass of worthless and mundane musings” are well worth it, considering the cost of archiving tweets compared to the expense of storing physical media – and bearing in mind the potential historical value today’s digital ephemera might have for future historians. 

Katie Harvey then describes another collectively-constructed collection that, although perhaps not (yet) of interest to the L.O.C., is of tremendous importance to the fan community that created it and to those whose life’s work it documents. Harvey discusses the analog-to-digital evolution of Grateful Dead “shared tape” lists, which generated their own notational language and elaborate listing protocols and which, over time, have come to codify not only the history of the Dead, but also “the history and future of [its fan] community.” 

While the language and protocols of Harvey’s lists are meant to make tape sharing accessible and intelligible to a wide community, other types of list-making and note-taking needn’t make sense to anyone but the list-maker. As John Thompson explains in his examination of the grocery list, the seeming informality and triviality of these lists often belies a complex, culturally-informed selection, sorting, and inscription process. The grocery list can serve as a place where we negotiate between the competing rhetorics and ideologies of global agribusiness and genetic engineering, on the one hand, and “slow food” and localism, on the other. The mundane grocery list “might take on a function of constitutive rhetoric,” helping us define who we are as consumers. 

Do such personalized lists represent anything to anyone other than those who create them? Laura Bergeron and Linda Levitt consider how the found notes and lists posted to Found Magazine can foster relationships between visitors, cryptic inscriptions, and their anonymous writers. In the comments section of the site, visitors often construct narratives about the imagined authors of these textual artifacts, and, in the process, occasionally learn something about themselves. 

While Found’s commenters often use found lists to engage in amateur psychoanalysis of their imagined authors, scholars and curators can find tremendous research value in everyday lists uncovered in the archive. Liza Kirwin proposes that the myriad lists in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art – from artists’ to-do lists to visual and verbal lists of artworks – can “give insight into the list-maker’s personal habits and enrich our understanding of individual biographies,” or “reveal the process by which [creative or mundane] decisions are made.” Ad Reinhardt’s graphic thumbnail listing of his black paintings, for instance, “reveals their underlying geometry” – an infrastructure hard to discern from their seemingly uniform surfaces. Some lists, like Alfred Konrad’s picture list of the contents of his suitcase on a 1963 trip to Cairo, “can be works of art in and of themselves.” 


Some contemporary artists are exploring the new materialities of the note and annotative mapping. At the same time, many of these creative explorations lead back to the old everyday of note-taking – marginalia, index cards, the analogue “palm pilot”, the Moleskine (see video). Lisa Gitelman considers the old and new materialities of note-taking – and their aesthetics and politics – within the context of the archive. She argues that a small but significant apparatus of note-sorting, the paperclip, because of its tendency to puncture documents or stain them with rust, has been “banished from the historical record,” thereby obscuring one of the “micro-logics by which bureaucratic labor collects and connects.” The new everyday of email attachments and paperclip icons, she explains, alters the identities of and relationships between documents and their attachments. Looking back to various forms of the analogue paperclip, “each in its ingenious intricate morphology,” Gitelman suggests, can help us to consider a “model of attachment on distinctive terms.” 

Morphologies are also central to Andrew Piper’s exploration of the relationships between notes and books – a relationship that is changing as “our notes and our books increasingly belong to the same medium.”  He explores myriad writers’ conceptions of the note and their understanding of its role in visualizing the writing process, in making and undoing ideas, in advancing the “metamorphosis surrounding composition,” in materializing the relationship between writing and thought. Piper proposes that “in a world of digital notes the printed book will continue to argue for the morphological nature of writing.”

Kate Eichhorn, who offers the final piece in this cluster, finds that her messy, overstuffed analogue day-timer makes just such an argument. As “its guts lay bare a body torn apart by the need to live in many worlds,” Eichhorn’s planner reflects the poetics of her everyday life, its “specific rhythm, visuality and structure of feeling.” Despite feeling the pressure to join the digerati and adopt a Blackberry, Eichhorn considers the morphologies and materialities of both analogue and digital planners. In order for the Blackberry to win her over, it has to prove its value not simply as a “tool for information management” or a mnemonic device, but as a “palimpsest of everyday practice and innovation.” 

We welcome all MediaCommons participants to join us in examining the “new everyday” of notes, lists, and everyday inscriptions. Before we begin, however, we'd like to express our gratitude to Brian Hoffman, Alberto Ortiz Flores, and Mark Reilly from NYU's Digital Library Technology Services for their fantastic work on the new TNE interface, which, thanks to their efforts, has opened up new opportunities for interactive scholarly publishing.

Adam, Alison. "Lists" In Mattthew Fuller, Ed., Software Studies: A Lexicon (Cambridge, MIT Press, 2008): 174-178.

Blair, Ann. "Note Taking as an Art of Transmission" Critical Inquiry 31:1 (Autumn 2004): 85-107.

Blair, Ann. "Reading Strategies for Coping with Information Overload ca. 1550-1700" Journal of the History of Ideas 64:1 (January 2003): 11-28.

Daston, Lorraine. "Taking Note(s)" Isis 95:3 (September 2004): 443-448.

Yeo, Richard. "Notebooks as Memory Aids: Precepts and Practices in Early Modern England" Memory Studies 1:1 (2008): 115-136.


I've put together a short "list of ten" bibliography that might be useful for those considering the nature of lists:

Belknap, Robert E. The List: the uses and pleasures of cataloguing. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

Bowker, Geoffrey C. and Star, Susan Leigh. Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.

Dolezalova, Lucie (Editor). The Charm of a List: From the Sumerians to Computerised Data Processing. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009.

Eco, Umberto. The Infinity of Lists. Paris: Musee du Louvre / Rizzoli, 2009. (Essays on the history of cataloguing and lists).

Foucault, Michel. Les Mots et les choses: Une archaologie des sciences humaines. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1966. (In English translation: The Order of Things, an archaeology of the human sciences).

Jones, William. Keeping Found Things Found: The Study and Practice of Personal Information Management. San Fransisco: Morgan Kaufmann, 2007.

Goody, Savage. The Domestication of the Savage Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977. (Distinguishes between three broad types of early lists, on pages 74-112).

Hakanen, Ernest A. (1998). "Counting down to Number One: The Evolution of the Meaning of Popular Music Charts", Popular Music 17, No.1. (Jan 1998), pages 95-111.

Spufford, Francis (Editor). The Chatto Book of Cabbages and Kings: lists in literature. London: Chatto & Windus, 1989.

Yates, J., & Orlikowski, W. J. (1992). Genres of organizational communication: a structurational approach to studying communication and media. Academy of Management Review, 17 (2), pages 299-326.

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