When we think of notebooks and science, the modern hardbound and gridded laboratory journal comes to mind. These little volumes are designed so all data and experimental results are recorded faithfully and accurately, at least that is the intent. In my past career as a molecular biologist, my own notebooks featured graphs, smudges of dye, sketches of cells and their organelles, and photographs of ghostly electrophoresis bands to determine the components of a macromolecule at a glance. The humanist commonplace notebook of the sixteenth century had an equally idealistic, if different, intent: to stockpile memorable phrases from the classics to adorn one’s own writing – Ovidian tropes rather than microscopes.

It has often been assumed (incorrectly) that the humanist note-taking mentality became extinct in the seventeenth century, at the time when direct scientific observation became supreme. Seventeenth-century natural philosophers employed notebooks just as much, if not more, than their humanist predecessors. Early scientists had the same impulse to relieve and prompt memory, but experimented with new ways of organising and recalling information as well as with elements of the natural world. Thus bar graphs, and various forms of indexing, mnemonics and language systems, were invented in this period to cope with the onslaught of scientific data.


‘An abstract of the meteorological diaries communicated to the Royal Society, with remarks upon them. By Wm. Derham, D.D.’: printed copy of the paper published in Philosophical Transactions volume 38 (1733-1734), with manuscript annotations and corrections, several on pasted-in slips of paper. Royal Society L&P/121/1/5.


There was, after all, so much more information to sort and remember. Flora and fauna from the New World presented a bio-information crisis, and the botanist John Ray knew ‘that lost notes meant lost information.’ Ray also knew that good notes about sharp observations enhanced the chances of intellectual breakthrough. Early modern English natural philosophers had to consider their notes not just as personal carriers of information or memory prompts, but also as serving future collaborative research purposes. This was a challenge for the early Royal Society as it is for modern scientific archives: what was one to do with such an archive, what was to be the location, arrangement, and administration of the papers, and what would be their posthumous fates?

These questions, among others, will be addressed on 2 June at Archival Afterlives, an international conference hosted by the Royal Society where we explore how these (often) disorderly collections of paper came to be ‘the archives of the Scientific Revolution.’ How can the organisation of an archive reveal what scientific knowledge past investigators valued, discarded or repurposed, and their assumptions about what ‘science’ was? How does the creation of the posthumous scientific and medical archive influence the management of scientific genius and reputation? Whatever our answers, we will see that scientific activity, then, as now, is a collective endeavour in which scribes, archive and library keepers, editors, digital humanists and naturalists’ surviving friends and family members all had a stake. Hmmmm … now where did I put that old lab notebook?


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