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15 Studious Facts About CliffsNotes

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For decades, students desperate for a summary of Crime and Punishment or a thematic analysis of motherhood in Toni Morrison’s Beloved looked no further than the yellow and black guides available at their local bookstore. Started by a Nebraska bookworm in 1958, CliffsNotes has been the salvation of many a time-crunched, inquisitive—and yes, downright lazy—student. But who was Cliff, anyway? And who wrote the guides? Consider this your study guide.

1. THERE REALLY WAS A CLIFF.

Born in Rising City, Nebraska in 1919, Clifton Hillegass was a voracious reader who reportedly read five books a week up until his death at age 83. A math and physics major in college, he worked as a meteorologist for the Army Air Corps during World War II and eventually took a job distributing textbooks for the Nebraska Book Company. In 1958, he borrowed $4000 from the local bank and began channeling his love of literature into a series of guide books he called Cliff’s Notes. Within 10 years, his little black and yellow books were a million-dollar business. Hillegrass spent 40 years at the helm of his company, retiring after IDG Books Worldwide (publishers of the "For Dummies" series) bought him out for $14.2 million.

2. BEFORE THERE WAS CLIFF'S NOTES, THERE WAS COLE’S NOTES.

In the 1950s, Hillegass got to know a Canadian book store owner and publisher named Jack Cole, who put out a series of study guides called Cole’s Notes. Cole convinced Hillegass to become the U.S. distributor for his guides, starting with a run of 16 Shakespeare titles. Reluctantly, Hillegass agreed, and in 1958 printed 33,000 copies of the guides. With his wife mailing letters to contacts while his daughter stuffed envelopes, Hillegass ran the business out of his Lincoln, Nebraska basement. He sold more than half of the guides, which he renamed, in the first year, and managed to grow his sales each following year. By 1964, Hillegass’s side business had become so lucrative, he quit his job at the Nebraska Book Company and devoted himself full-time to writing and distributing Cliff’s Notes.

3. THE NAME HAS SUBTLY CHANGED OVER THE YEARS.

By the early '60s, Cliff Hillegass was producing so many of his own study guides, he stopped distributing Cole’s Notes. To signify this break, he dropped the apostrophe, and "Cliff’s Notes" became "Cliffs Notes." For decades the company operated under this name, until John Wiley & Sons, which became publisher in 2001, streamlined the name to CliffsNotes.

4. CLIFF NEVER INTENDED THEM TO BE "CHEATER BOOKS."

With their chapter-by-chapter plot summaries, character descriptions, and analysis of structure, themes and other elements, CliffsNotes' literature guides became, for many students, a substitute for doing the actual reading. This dismayed Hillegass, who always maintained that his booklets should be used as supplemental aides. For decades, the company printed an edict alongside Hillegass’s signature inside its guides: "These notes are not a substitute for the text itself or for the classroom discussion of the text, and students who attempt to use them in this way are denying themselves the very education that they are presumably giving their most vital years to achieve."

5. THE COMPANY STILL MAINTAINS THEY ARE STUDY GUIDES.

With plot summaries, pre-written reports and other shortcuts scattered across the internet, the threat of CliffsNotes seems almost quaint these days. Still, the company (now owned by publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) upholds Hillegass’s vision of CliffsNotes as a literary supplement rather than a substitute. "Most people use CliffsNotes by reading a chapter of the book or an act of the play, and then reading the corresponding section in the CliffsNotes," its website asserts, perhaps wishfully.

6. GRAD STUDENTS WROTE A LOT OF THEM.

CliffsNotes has long promoted the fact that teachers and professors write its literary guides. But in interviews, Hillegass revealed that most of the work fell to graduate students. This was primarily a strategic move, since Hillegass didn’t want to overburden his guides with scholarly details and asides. "Someone involved in 20 years of teaching Shakespeare often has too specialized a knowledge," he said in a 1983 interview.

7. SOME TEACHERS USED THEM.

In a 1985 interview with The Chicago Tribune, the executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English admitted some of his members used CliffsNotes. Many of these teachers utilized the guides when they were students, and found them helpful in planning lessons. Others, meanwhile, read the guides in order to catch would-be plagiarists. Writer Jessica Reaves remembered her mother, an English teacher, kept a collection of CliffsNotes at home. "Every time my mom wrote a test or even a quiz on a book she was teaching, she would first sit down with the corresponding Cliffs Notes (and any spinoff cheater books that were on the scene) and painstakingly write the test around the information in the booklets," Reaves wrote in Time magazine. "In other words, she made it virtually impossible to cheat."

8. …BUT MOST TEACHERS HATED THEM.

"The sole purpose of Cliffs Notes is to get a kid through a course and fake it," one teacher told the Tribune. Said another: "What's onerous is not that they summarize the plot, but that they offer commentary on what to think about literature that is accessible and vibrant." In addition to what they considered pre-packaged analysis and summary, teachers have constantly battled with students who plagiarize the guides. Pre-internet, some instructors tried to stay ahead of the problem by assigning books that had no corresponding CliffsNotes. Others took even more drastic measures, like a teacher in Washington, D.C. who told the Tribune he once went into the bookstore next door to his school and moved all the Cliffs Notes copies of Moby-Dick, which he was teaching at the time, to the romance section.

9. THE COMPANY RESPONDED TO CRITICISM BY REVISING ITS GUIDES.

After years of deflecting claims by angry teachers that it was helping students cheat, CliffsNotes in 2000 began updating its literary guides to encourage critical thinking and get students engaging with the source text. The new guides asked questions, referred students to web sources, and offered more background information about each book’s author and the time period in which it was written.

10. SPY MAGAZINE LAUNCHED A PARODY SERIES IN THE LATE '80s.

In 1989, the satirical magazine Spy put out "Spy Notes," a CliffsNotes parody that focused on hip urban novels by authors like Brett Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney, and Jill Eisenstadt. Sample essay questions included "Who’s cooler, McInerney or Ellis?" and "Why do so many authors rely on dead-mother plot devices?" "Spy Notes" got rave reviews from lit critics, but CliffsNotes was not amused. Thinking the booklets too closely resembled its study guides in form—including yellow-and-black covers—and in content, Cliffs Notes sued Spy and won, but had the case overturned on appeal. Summing up the legal intricacies of the case, Spy founder Kurt Anderson told the Chicago Tribune, "We’re not trying to start a competing line of study aids for lazy students."

11. THE PASS/FAIL GRADING REVOLUTION HURT SALES.

Between 1969 and 1975, sales of Cliffs Notes plummeted from 2.8 million per year to less than 1.8 million. The reason? Hillegass and general manager Dick Spellman blamed the rise of experimental grading systems like pass/fail, which swept the nation beginning in the early '70s. "Students weren’t interested in grades anymore," said Spellman in 1983.

12. THEY GOT SHUT OUT OF BARNES & NOBLE.

In 2002, the bookselling chain abruptly took CliffsNotes off its shelves. This wasn’t because the study guides weren’t selling well—quite the contrary. Rather, Barnes & Noble wanted to exclusively stock SparkNotes, a competing study guide series it had purchased the previous year. The guides appeared on shelves for a dollar cheaper than CliffsNotes, giving Barnes & Noble a big sales boost. Eventually, the company lifted the ban, and these days you can find a trove of CliffsNotes titles on its website. 

13. COLLEGE BOOKSTORES BANNED THEM.

Twenty years ago, a group of professors at Villanova University signed a petition asking the school to discontinue sales of CliffsNotes in its campus bookstore. The university complied, and in doing so joined a growing number of schools like Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore in shutting out the popular study guides. Administrators acknowledged it was mostly a symbolic gesture, since students could simply buy the booklets from another source. "We don’t put our institution’s endorsement behind it," the associate dean for academic affairs told the Associated Press at the time. CliffsNotes, meanwhile, wasn’t taking any of this lying down. The company took out a full-page ad in Villanova’s student paper calling the move "censorship."

14. COMPETITION IS FIERCE THESE DAYS.

CliffsNotes has always had competitors. And for decades, the company was able to win out through the strength of its name and through its ties to bookstores, who would typically only sell a limited number of study guide brands. Nowadays, though, with online sources and digital publishers able to bypass traditional channels, the competition has exploded. Looking for a summary of Crime and Punishment? You have hundreds of options to choose from. Even contemporary titles like The Girl on the Train, an unofficial survey by the Observer found, have as many as 10 summary options available through channels like Amazon Kindle and Google Play.

15. THE COMPANY DOESN’T MAKE MUCH OFF ITS LITERATURE GUIDES ANYMORE.

CliffsNotes, like its competitors, has tried to stay relevant with literature guides (all now available online for free) to contemporary classics like All the Pretty Horses, The Kite Runner, and The Poisonwood Bible. But the growth side of the business these days lies with the company’s study guides, test prep guides, and subscription content. Earlier this year, publisher Houghton Harcourt Mifflin announced a subscription service that would offer personalized feedback for students using its test prep and subject learning guides. CliffsNotes's famed literature guides, though, weren’t right for the service, a company rep told Education Week. "We’re not going to write your paper for you," he said.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Little Women
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Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is one of the world's most beloved novels, and now—nearly 150 years after its original publication—it's capturing yet another generation of readers, thanks in part to Masterpiece's new small-screen adaptation. Whether it's been days or years since you've last read it, here are 10 things you might not know about Alcott's classic tale of family and friendship.

1. LOUISA MAY ALCOTT DIDN'T WANT TO WRITE LITTLE WOMEN.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Louisa May Alcott was writing both literature and pulp fiction (sample title: Pauline's Passion and Punishment) when Thomas Niles, the editor at Roberts Brothers Publishing, approached her about writing a book for girls. Alcott said she would try, but she wasn’t all that interested, later calling such books “moral pap for the young.”

When it became clear Alcott was stalling, Niles offered a publishing contract to her father, Bronson Alcott. Although Bronson was a well-known thinker who was friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, his work never achieved much acclaim. When it became clear that Bronson would have an opportunity to publish a new book if Louisa started her girls' story, she caved in to the pressure.

2. LITTLE WOMEN TOOK JUST 10 WEEKS TO WRITE.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Alcott began writing the book in May 1868. She worked on it day and night, becoming so consumed with it that she sometimes forgot to eat or sleep. On July 15, she sent all 402 pages to her editor. In September, a mere four months after starting the book, Little Women was published. It became an instant best seller and turned Alcott into a rich and famous woman.

3. THE BOOK AS WE KNOW IT WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN TWO PARTS.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

The first half was published in 1868 as Little Women: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The Story Of Their Lives. A Girl’s Book. It ended with John Brooke proposing marriage to Meg. In 1869, Alcott published Good Wives, the second half of the book. It, too, only took a few months to write.

4. MEG, BETH, AND AMY WERE BASED ON ALCOTT'S SISTERS.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Meg was based on Louisa’s sister Anna, who fell in love with her husband John Bridge Pratt while performing opposite him in a play. The description of Meg’s wedding in the novel is supposedly based on Anna’s actual wedding.

Beth was based on Lizzie, who died from scarlet fever at age 23. Like Beth, Lizzie caught the illness from a poor family her mother was helping.

Amy was based on May (Amy is an anagram of May), an artist who lived in Europe. In fact, May—who died in childbirth at age 39—was the first woman to exhibit paintings in the Paris Salon.

Jo, of course, is based on Alcott herself.

5. LIKE THE MARCH FAMILY, THE ALCOTTS KNEW POVERTY.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Bronson Alcott’s philosophical ideals made it difficult for him to find employment—for example, as a socialist, he wouldn't work for wages—so the family survived on handouts from friends and neighbors. At times during Louisa’s childhood, there was nothing to eat but bread, water, and the occasional apple.

When she got older, Alcott worked as a paid companion and governess, like Jo does in the novel, and sold “sensation” stories to help pay the bills. She also took on menial jobs, working as a seamstress, a laundress, and a servant. Even as a child, Alcott wanted to help her family escape poverty, something Little Women made possible.

6. ALCOTT REFUSED TO HAVE JO MARRY LAURIE.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Alcott, who never married herself, wanted Jo to remain unmarried, too. But while she was working on the second half of Little Women, fans were clamoring for Jo to marry the boy next door, Laurie. “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only aim and end of a woman’s life," Alcott wrote in her journal. "I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.”

As a compromise—or to spite her fans—Alcott married Jo to the decidedly unromantic Professor Bhaer. Laurie ends up with Amy.

7. THERE ARE LOTS OF THEORIES ABOUT WHO LAURIE WAS BASED ON.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

People have theorized Laurie was inspired by everyone from Thoreau to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. In 1865, while in Europe, Alcott met a Polish musician named Ladislas Wisniewski, whom Alcott nicknamed Laddie. The flirtation between Laddie and Alcott culminated in them spending two weeks together in Paris, alone. According to biographer Harriet Reisen, Alcott later modeled Laurie after Laddie.

How far did the Alcott/Laddie affair go? It’s hard to say, as Alcott later crossed out the section of her diary referring to the romance. In the margin, she wrote, “couldn’t be.”

8. YOU CAN STILL VISIT ORCHARD HOUSE, WHERE ALCOTT WROTE LITTLE WOMEN.

Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts was the Alcott family home. In 1868, Louisa reluctantly left her Boston apartment to write Little Women there. Today, you can tour this house and see May’s drawings on the walls, as well as the small writing desk that Bronson built for Louisa to use.

9. LITTLE WOMEN HAS BEEN ADAPTED A NUMBER OF TIMES.

In addition to a 1958 TV series, multiple Broadway plays, a musical, a ballet, and an opera, Little Women has been made into more than a half-dozen movies. The most famous are the 1933 version starring Katharine Hepburn, the 1949 version starring June Allyson (with Elizabeth Taylor as Amy), and the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder. Later this year, Clare Niederpruem's modern retelling of the story is scheduled to arrive in movie theaters. It's also been adapted for the small screen a number of times, most recently for PBS's Masterpiece, by Call the Midwife creator Heidi Thomas.

10. IN 1980, A JAPANESE ANIME VERSION OF LITTLE WOMEN WAS RELEASED.

In 1987, Japan made an anime version of Little Women that ran for 48 half-hour episodes. Watch the first two episodes above.

Additional Resources:
Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography; Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women; Louisa May Alcott's Journals; Little Women; Alcott Film; C-Span; LouisaMayAlcott.org.

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6 X-Rated Library Collections
The reading room of the British Library, circa 1840
The reading room of the British Library, circa 1840
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

During the 19th century, some librarians became preoccupied with the morality (or lack thereof) of some of their titles. As a result, a number of libraries created special collections for "obscene" works, to ensure that only readers with a valid academic purpose might access them. Below are six examples, adapted from Claire Cock-Starkey’s new book A Library Miscellany.

1. THE "PRIVATE CASE" // THE BRITISH LIBRARY

At the British Library (or British Museum Library, as it was called then), it was John Winter Jones, Keeper of Printed Books from 1856, who was responsible for the creation of the “Private Case.” Titles that were deemed subversive, heretical, libelous, obscene, or that contained state secrets were kept out of the general catalog, stored in separate shelving, and marked with the shelfmark category “PC” (for private case). By far the majority of books in the private case were pornographic or erotic texts; it's rumored that by the mid-1960s the case contained over 5000 such texts, including George Witt’s collection of books on phallicism and Charles Reginald Dawes’s collection of French erotica from 1880–1930.

What was unusual about the Private Case was that it was so secretive: None of the books were recorded in any catalog, as if the collection didn’t exist. But starting in 1983, all books once in the Private Case have been listed in the catalog, and many have been returned to the main collection—although librarians may still check that a reader has academic reasons for consulting some of the more scandalous titles.

2. L’ENFER // BIBLIOTHEQUE NATIONALE DE FRANCE

General stacks of the Bibliotheque nationale de France
FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images

L’Enfer, which translates as “the hell,” was created in 1830 to house the French national library’s large collection of erotica and other books that were considered “contrary to good morals.” Many of the works were obtained by the library through confiscation, but fortunately the librarians had the foresight to preserve these scandalous texts. The collection—which still exists—has been largely kept private and was only fully cataloged in 1913, when about 855 titles were recorded.

Modern pornographic magazines and erotic fiction do not get cast into L’Enfer: It is only for rare works or works of cultural significance, such as a handwritten copy of the Marquis de Sade’s Les Infortunes de la Vertu (1787) and The Story of O by Pauline Réage (1954). In 2007, the library put on a public exhibition of some of the more fascinating (and titillating) texts in L’Enfer, finally granting the public a glimpse of this hidden collection.

3. TRIPLE-STAR COLLECTION // NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY

The New York Public Library Main Reading Room
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

At the New York Public Library, some obscene works were once hand-marked with "***", which indicated that readers who wanted to consult those volumes had to be supervised. (Librarians regularly collected erotica, including from nearby Times Square, as part of their "mandate to collect life as it was lived," according to The New York Times.This system began in the mid-20th century and caused certain titles to be locked in caged shelves; it also meant that the items could only be consulted in a small restricted part of the reading rooms after special permission was granted.

4. PHI COLLECTION // OXFORD'S BODLEIAN LIBRARY

Radcliffe Camera building, part of the Bodleian Library
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

The restricted collection at the Bodleian Library was created by E. W. B. Nicholson, who was head librarian from 1886–1913. No one is quite sure why it was named after the Greek letter phi, but some have suggested it was because it sounds like “fie!” which you might exclaim when asked to retrieve a book from this collection. Or, perhaps it stems from the first letter “phi” of the Greek “phaula” or “phaulos,” meaning worthless, wicked, or base. The collection included pornography alongside works of sexual pathology, and students needed to ask a tutor to confirm their academic need for a book before the librarians would let them consult any texts with a phi shelfmark. Today, many of the books have been reclassified into the general collection, but the phi shelfmark still persists.

5. "XR" COLLECTION // HARVARD’S WIDENER LIBRARY

 Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University
Darren McCollester/Newsmakers

The Widener Library still holds its restricted collection behind a locked copper door in the basement of the library—not because they still want to hide it, but simply because (it's said) no one has the time to redistribute the collection back into main circulation. The collection was thought to have been set up in the 1950s, after a sociology professor complained that many texts he needed for his class were missing or defaced (the Playboy centerfold was apparently always going astray), and thus the restricted collection was created to protect and preserve rather than to censor. The collection was only added to for a 30-year period and is now closed; however, its classification reveals something of the social attitudes of the times towards titles such as The Passions and Lechery of Catherine the Great (1971) and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). The X part of the shelfmark does not stand for X-rated but indicates that the books are unusual; the R part stands for “restricted.”

6. THE ARC // CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY

Trinity College Library, Cambridge University
Central Press/Getty Images

As library collections are frequently made up of a series of smaller collections donated to the institution, they may often acquire titles that the library may otherwise have not chosen to collect—such as some of the more risqué works. Cambridge University Library felt it had a duty to students to protect them from some of the more offensive books in their collection, and for this reason the Arc (short for arcana—meaning secrets or mysteries) classification was created. As with other restricted collections, Cambridge’s Arc provides a fascinating insight into changing moral attitudes. Some of the highlights included what is considered by some historians as the first gay novel, L’Alcibiade fanciullo a scola (Alcibiades the Schoolboy), published in 1652; a 1922 copy of Ulysses by James Joyce (notable because at that time the book was being burned by UK Customs Officers); and a misprinted copy of the Cambridge Bible.

BONUS: "INFERNO" // THE VATICAN LIBRARY

The Sistine Hall, once part of the Vatican Library
Michal Osmenda, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

There has always been a rumor that the Vatican Library holds the largest collection of pornographic material in the world, in a collection supposedly known as the “Inferno,” but in fact this honor goes to the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research in Bloomington, Indiana. It is thought that the Vatican Library’s collection was created from the thousands of erotic works that have been confiscated by the Vatican over the years. However, no evidence for the collection has been found, and the (admittedly incredibly secretive) Vatican librarians deny its very existence.

This article is an expanded version of an entry in Claire Cock-Starkey’s A Library Miscellany, published by Bodleian Library Publishing.

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