Explore a Digital Archive of Student Notebooks from Around the World (1773-Present)

To bring back mem­o­ries of your school­days, there’s noth­ing quite like the sight of your old exer­cise books. This holds true whether you went to school in Ghana in the 2010sItaly in the 90s, France in the 80sChi­na in the 70sJapan in the 60s, or India in the 50s. All of these exam­ples and many more have come avail­able to view at the Exer­cise Book Archive, an “ever-grow­ing, par­tic­i­pa­to­ry archive of old exer­cise books that allows every­one to dis­cov­er the his­to­ry, edu­ca­tion, and dai­ly life of chil­dren and youth of the past.” All of the entries include the rel­e­vant book’s front cov­er — already a Prous­t­ian view­ing expe­ri­ence for any who had them grow­ing up — and some fea­ture scans of the inte­ri­or pages, stu­dent writ­ing and all.

One girl’s note­book describes the bomb­ing of her small town in 1940s Switzer­land,” writes Col­lec­tors Week­ly’s Hunter Oat­man-Stan­ford. “Anoth­er boy’s jour­nal chron­i­cles dai­ly life in rur­al Penn­syl­va­nia dur­ing the 1890s; the diary of a Chi­nese teenag­er recounts his expe­ri­ences in prison dur­ing the 1980s.” The arti­cle quotes Thomas Pololi, co-founder of the orga­ni­za­tion behind the Exer­cise Book Archive, on the his­tor­i­cal val­ue of books con­tain­ing “com­po­si­tions about war, pro­pa­gan­da, or polit­i­cal events that we now rec­og­nize as ter­ri­ble.

But in the nar­ra­tion of chil­dren, there is often enthu­si­asm about the swasti­ka in Ger­many, or the Duce in Italy (dic­ta­tor Ben­i­to Mus­soli­ni), or for Mao in Chi­na.” (Thanks to the work of vol­un­teers, these and oth­er exer­cise-book writ­ings have been tran­scribed and trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish.)

These young stu­dents “tend­ed to see the pos­i­tive side of trau­mat­ic things, per­haps because their main goal is to grow up, and they need­ed to do it the world they lived in.” Their exer­cise books thus offer reflec­tions of their soci­eties, in not just con­tent but design as well: “In Spain or in Chi­na,” for exam­ple, “you see beau­ti­ful illus­tra­tions of pro­pa­gan­da themes. They are often aes­thet­i­cal­ly appeal­ing because they were meant to per­suade chil­dren to do or think some­thing.” Edu­ca­tion­al trends also come through: “Before, there were main­ly exer­cis­es of cal­lig­ra­phy with dic­tat­ed sen­tences about how you have to behave in your life, with phras­es like ‘Emu­la­tion sel­dom fails,’ ” which to Pololi’s mind “implies that if you are your­self, you risk fail­ing. That’s the oppo­site of what we teach chil­dren nowa­days.”

Some­how the most mun­dane of these stu­dent com­po­si­tions can also be among the most inter­est­ing. Take the jour­nal of a group of Finnish girl scouts from the ear­ly 1950s. “The train to Lep­pä­vaara arrived quick­ly,” writes the author of one entry from April 1950. “At the sta­tion it start­ed to rain. We walked to the youth house, where we sang ‘Exalt the joy’ etc. Then we went to the sauna where we had to be. We sang and prayed. We then ate some sand­wich­es.” Could she have pos­si­bly imag­ined peo­ple all around the world read­ing of this girl-scout day trip with great inter­est sev­en­ty years lat­er? And what would the young man doing his pen­man­ship near­ly a quar­ter-mil­len­ni­um ago in Shrop­shire think if he know how eager we were to look at his exer­cise book? Bet­ter us than his school­mas­ter, no doubt. Enter the Exer­cise Book Archive here.

via Col­lec­tors Week­ly

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Ancient Egypt­ian Home­work Assign­ment from 1800 Years Ago: Some Things Are Tru­ly Time­less

Muse­um Dis­cov­ers Math Note­book of an 18th-Cen­tu­ry Eng­lish Farm Boy, Adorned with Doo­dles of Chick­ens Wear­ing Pants

Down­load 20 Pop­u­lar High School Books Avail­able as Free eBooks & Audio Books

200 Free Kids Edu­ca­tion­al Resources: Video Lessons, Apps, Books, Web­sites & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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