NEH Summer Seminar: “Take Note and Remember”

“Take Note and Remember: The Commonplace Book and Its American Antecedents”

Deadline: March 1, 2016

Dates: July 17-July 31, 2016

Location: Asheville, NC

Program Link

How do we manage information overload and make our own sense of the world? How, why, and in what ways do we take note and remember? Feeling overwhelmed with information is not only an aspect of the digital age. Earlier attempts to manage and make sense of information are found from the medieval period on, but especially in commonplace books and scrapbooks from the 18th through the 20th century. Commonplace books (books containing noteworthy text and images copied from other sources) and their descendants, the scrapbook, photo album, memory book, journal, anthology, and others, are holders of meaning, memory, identity, and place. Today many take the form of Pinterest or blogs. All are attempts made to manage and make personal sense of information.

We look forward to bringing together a diverse, collegial, interdisciplinary group of college and university teachers from across the United States to join us in the beautiful, historic region of Asheville, North Carolina. Together we will create an immersive experience with these exceptionally rich artifacts, which capture in words and/or images records of lived experience.

Throughout a long and varied history, commonplace books have been compiled by individuals to record and preserve ideas that they wish to remember. Different from diaries, which were more literary, and from letters, with their abundance of conversation, commonplace books, we will see, were a record of lives, eclectic bits, and ideas recorded over a lifetime. Artists and public figures Leonardo da Vinci, John Locke, and George Washington among them, created and/or used commonplace books. The history of commonplacing is directly related to thinking and learning. They were attempts to “select…organize and reorganize, revive and transform…thought” (Havens, 2001). Oftentimes they included visual miscellany. Today we know Leonardo da Vinci in the main through his works on paper. In his commonplace books (Lester, 2013) he recorded his artistic and scientific inquiries as sketches and notes.

John Locke made an attempt to systematize and organize the collecting by designing pre-printed books. Yet the hand-scribing and commonplacing – which indeed had by then become a verb, as scrapbooking is today, continued – had became for some, a daily practice. Travelers recorded their journeys, often with sketches. Compilers gathered a hodgepodge of items: jokes, recipes, remedies, and paragraphs from fiction, sermons, or speeches. All can be considered under the umbrella of commonplacing. This flexible and constantly changing form has played many different roles throughout history. During the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries commonplace books and scrapbooks became the “material manifestation of memory” (Tucker, Ott, Buckler, p. 3), the precursors to 21st century blogs. Autobiographical in the sense that they were a record of the compiler, each was uniquely based on the choices and arrangement of its maker. By the mid-19th century people were “inundated by printed matter, as cheap newspapers proliferated” (Garvey, 2013, p. 3). The invention of chromolithography and photography only added to the visual and informational assault. Scrapbooking became a useful and creative way of making sense of these phenomena. The cutting and pasting of images and clippings became individual, family, and group activities. Scrapbooks also became a place for the formulation and recording of identity and aspiration.

Scrapbooks are a descendant of the commonplace book, differing because of the inclusion of photographs and printed matter, annotated with personal writing. Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Susan B. Anthony, and Willa Cather along with every day folk, created and used a scrapbook. Scrapbooks, full of clippings and notations of text, have a variety of forms and bindings, often expressing through material what the compiler could not say in words.

The study of such books is, then, a study of material culture, and has become a rich interdisciplinary field attracting scholars and artists from history, the arts, art history, music history, literature, material and cultural history, gender studies as well as other areas. We will explore with our participants this process of gathering, remembering, organizing and creating.


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