Take Note

An exploration of note-taking in Harvard University Collections
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Interactive Exhibition

38. A common place book, upon the plan recommended and practised by John Locke, Esq

Precepts put into practice

George Ripley

Harvard University, 1822-1840

Commonplace blank book with a printed title-page, intended for those who wished to follow the model of John Locke’s Adversaria. George Ripley (1802-80) began making entries in this notebook when he was a twenty-year-old student at Harvard University and its last entry was made twenty years later. After graduating in 1823 Ripley went on to become a Unitarian minister; in the early 1840s, he was one of the founders of Brook Farm, the Transcendentalists’ experiment in communal living in Harvard, Massachusetts. In this notebook Ripley indexed his entries alphabetically by author or subject, and included excerpts and whole poems, as well as his own observations or reading notes about John Locke, Edward Gibbon, John Milton, Francis Bacon, Jeremy Taylor, and others. The last several entries concern Brook Farm.
The entries in the notebook are dated and supply a reference to the author, title, and page number of each source. Ripley does not indicate the edition used but, following a method of referencing advocated by John Locke, he notes in the right margin the page number in relation to the total number of pages in the book he consulted (for example: 7/407 = p. 7 in a book of 407 pages); in this way he could locate the passage not only in the same edition, but also in other editions, by adjusting the relative position of the page sought to the overall number of pages of any edition (e.g. in an edition of 600 pages you should look around p. 10 for the passage in 7/407). Ripley uses the left margin to call attention to the topics under discussion in each passage.
Locke's system of commonplacing as fully articulated in this imprint of 1706 (among others) also involved a way of keeping track of the pages on which a heading was continued when successive pages became filled. The system involves indexing the headings using a published chart--entering each heading under its initial and first vowel and listing the pages of the notebook on which the heading started (say, p. 5), and was continued as necessary, using the next available blank page. The notion of following Locke's commonplace method became widespread, though the 1822 blank notebook did not in fact include the crucial indexing grid, nor did Ripley follow Locke's indexing scheme very closely. Ripley's notebook does begin with a number of pages set up for an alphabetical index, but he hardly filled in the index. Thus none of the entries we see above for Gilpin, Hett and Ferguson appear in the index under F, G, or H. Successful note-taking often involves ignoring advice about note-taking like Locke's and abandoning schemes that the note-taker set up initiallly, lest a too cumbersome method discourage note-taking altogether.

English.
Paper.
. MS Am 860 .
HOLLIS Catalog: 009892484
Keywords: 
commonplace books, blank books, George Ripley

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