The exhibition showcases notebooks in NYU Libraries’ Special Collections, illuminating how blank books have for centuries served as powerful devices for storing and managing information, and as windows into different worlds and psyches

Martha Smith: [Martha Smith her booke]. ca. 1655-1697. New York University Special Collections.

New York University’s Division of Libraries presents Portable Devices, 1574-1998: Notebooks from NYU Special Collections—an exhibition showcasing historical notebooks from the University Archives, Fales Library, and Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives to offer insight into the notebook’s different material forms and organizational schemes—on view from April 14-June 21 in the Second Floor Special Collections Gallery at NYU’s Elmer Holmes Bobst Library. The exhibition is open to external visitors by appointment only.

Portable Devices features different examples of notebooks, ranging from the limp vellum bound recipe book of a seventeenth-century English housewife to the pink notebook of a twentieth-century American diplomat for the antiwar movement, to shed light on the notebook’s role as a tool for organizing and storing information critical to the running of worlds—whether they be personal, domestic, social, educational, political, or institutional.

“The notebook is a fascinating object, not only because of the role it can play in illuminating emotions, plans, desires, and creative practices, but also because of the object values of the pieces themselves. Whether intentionally small to fit in a pocket or a larger sketchbook to help sketch out grid calendars, the material qualities of the notebook play a significant role. The notebook’s organizational structures offer an ineluctable mirror of the psyche,” said Nicholas Martin, Curator for the Arts & Humanities, NYU Special Collections.

“The items in the exhibition demonstrate the myriad ways people turned the blank notebook into a powerful device for carrying out a range of activities, from learning, planning, negotiating, managing, cooking, and remembering, to living itself,” said Julie Park, NYU Special Collections Dean’s Fellow and exhibition co-curator.

The exhibition is based on Julie Park’s current book project Writing’s Maker, which examines the materiality of self-inscription formats (commonplace books, pocket diaries, extra-illustrated books and penmanship copy books) as channels of thinking, creating, and record making for writers of the eighteenth century and today. Five curators have collaborated on the exhibition to offer different perspectives on the role of the notebook and give viewers a window into the vast array of materials in the NYU Special Collections.

The exhibition is divided into six sections: In the first, Shannon O’Neill, Curator for Tamiment-Wagner Collections, presents The View from Here: The Affective Experience of Radical Politics in James Jackson’s Notebooks. As members of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA), the Cooper Jacksons committed themselves to the fight for racial and economic justice. The eighty-six notebooks in the James and Esther Cooper Jackson collection trace the history of the CPUSA from the 1960s through 1991.

“Jackson’s politics were inseparable from any other aspect of his life, and, at times, the notebooks read like letters to oneself, giving them a deeply affective quality. Jackson’s emotions come through to the reader via ripped pages, underlining, doodles, notes tucked away in the recesses of blank pages. Jackson’s notebooks, as corporeal and emotional extensions of his politics and political life, are a chronicle of his time: a life as a “dedicated revolutionary”, said O’Neill.

University Archivist Janet Bunde presents Class and Lecture Notebooks from the New York University Archives, which features notebooks created and saved by professors or students, preserving evidence of teaching and learning and engagement with text and observation. From marbled covers to three-ring binders, these notebooks also highlight the changing technologies of the notebook itself–and, by extension, how students and instructors have inhabited the classroom and the campus over time.

Julie Park’s Paper Tools for Everyday Life presents different notebook forms that were prevalent throughout eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe: commonplace books, friendship albums, pocket diaries, diaries, library catalogs, ship logs, and recipe books. Each reflects the notion of a notebook as a record-keeping system in book form.

“Through making key graphic and conceptual decisions–how to divide blank spaces, assign places for specific categories of information, or fill in empty cells already created by a printing press–the notebook owner turned the book into a paper-tool. Inside these paper-tools, the most ephemeral but often critical facets of daily life, from daily expenditures and the expression of friendship to recipes and the weather, were captured and preserved, and found a home,” said Park.

Speculative Scrawl: Lists from the Downtown Collection, curated by Nicholas Martin, examines lists as raw and unmediated representations of its creator’s thoughts. Notebooks on display in this case explore the prevalence of lists in notebooks from NYU’s Downtown Collection—which documents the downtown arts scene that evolved in SoHo and the Lower East Side during the 1970s and through the early 1990s —offering clues into Downtown artists’ process and planning, and showing the interplay between the artists’ creative, personal, and professional lives.

Martin also curated Metronome of a Life: Diaries from the Fales Library which spotlights the self-reflexive nature of lifelong diaries through two writers: Edward Rob Ellis and Elizabeth Robins. Their diaries, in their intentionality and duration, serve as windows into their growth, their times, and the shaping of their selves. Ellis, a newspaper reporter whose diary is cited in the Guinness Book of World Records as America's longest, wrote in his diary daily from 1928 until his death in 1998. It became a major aspect of his life’s work. Elizabeth Robins, playwright, actress, novelist and suffragette, kept a periodic diary from 1873-1952. Robins’ annotations in her diaries reveal how she used them as a source, a way to look back and follow the development of themes through her own story.

The final section, Documenting the Antiwar Movement’s Radical Diplomacy: Howard Zinn’s Notebooks from North Vietnam, 1968-1972, is curated by Michael Nash Research Scholar/Archivist and Ewen Center Coordinator Michael Koncewicz and features notebooks that document historian Howard Zinn’s trips to Cambodia, Laos, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam in 1968 and 1972. As both a witness of the destruction caused by American bombs and a participant in the antiwar movement’s exchanges with North Vietnam, Zinn offers researchers a powerful snapshot of unofficial diplomacy in the middle of a war.

This exhibition builds upon NYU Libraries’ existing work partnering with museums and galleries to offer contextual and unmediated insights into creative practice through archival materials. For example, in 2018, NYU Libraries loaned materials, including journals, from the the David Wojnarowicz Papers housed in NYU's Downtown Collection to the Whitney Museum of Art for use in their sweeping retrospective, History Keeps Me Awake at Night, helping to contextualize the symbolism and ideas pervading Wojnarowicz’s body of work. Archival materials offer context for art and finished works, but this exhibition foregrounds the archival materials to raise new questions about historical objects and spark deeper interest in NYU’s collections.

Associated programming includes a Bullet Journaling 101 Workshop on Wednesday, April 20 at 4 p.m.; a lecture with Julie Park on Life Writing as Line-Making in the 18th-Century Commonplace Book on Wednesday April 27 at 2 p.m.; and a lecture with Eliane Ayers, historian of science and faculty member in the Program of Museum Studies at NYU on Botanical Records and Scientific Colonialism on Tuesday May 3 at 2 p.m. Register free via Eventbrite:

Pieces written by the curators further exploring the exhibition’s themes and ideas will roll out through April and May on the Special Collections’ Back Table Blog.

Portable Devices, 1574-1998: Notebooks from NYU Special Collections is on display in the Special Collections Gallery at Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, 70 Washington Square South (at LaGuardia Place) from April 18, 2019. [Subways A,C,E, B,D,M to West 4th Street; 6 line to Astor Place; R train to 8th Street.]. The exhibition is free and open to the public by appointment only.

About the NYU Special Collections
A college student in the early 20th century had the quixotic idea to collect every novel in English; his dream is now the ever-expanding Fales Collection. A 1980s subculture of young, feminist activists expressing themselves in zines and music still reverberates in the Riot Grrrl Collection. NYU faculty refused to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities; their struggle and anguish are documented in the University Archives. A battalion of young Americans took up arms against fascism in the Spanish Civil War; today their idealism still awes and inspires in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archive. These are just a few of the individuals, communities, and institutions documented in Special Collections: more than 40,000 linear feet of archives, hundreds of thousands of print volumes, photographs, audio and moving image, electronic files, and ephemera. Cared for by a dedicated staff of professionals, these vast and continually expanding collections offer exciting new insights and discoveries to students, scholars, artists, and filmmakers across NYU and around the world.

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