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Marginalia is the act of writing in margins.

We underline (particularly if we are students or harried book-reviewers). Sometimes we scribble a note in the margin. But how few of us write marginalia in Erasmus's or Coleridge's sense, how few of us annotate with copious rigor. - George Steiner, The Uncommon Reader

Le Souffleur by Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, 1734

A Definition

The act of writing in margins is perhaps as old as the act of writing itself, but it has evolved in fascinating ways since the dawn of its inception. Still, a definition of marginalia for this project inheres a purpose. I wish to examine one of the the most fundamental media of human communication - the way that we interact with our own ideas through texts by writing on them. Ultimately, I wish to argue that true marginalia is dead. Since an argument of such a grand scale must include, admittedly, sweeping characterizations of the changes in societies over time, I am employing a broad definition of marginalia. I hope to use this project as a vehicle for understanding theoretical changes in the way that society archives its own thoughts through technology. And so this dossier is more of a structure for a debate than it is a specific rendering of a certain medium. With that said, I define marginalia as the act of writing in texts. Delineated below, this includes the most candid scribble as well as structured annotation and bibliographies. I invite and encourage expansion of this definition.

The Early Literate Elite

The very dawn of literacy was not, in fact, conducive to act of writing in margins. The very first instances of any kind of writing are generally agreed to have been for purposes of accounting (Robinson). The development of writing across the globe was a complex process, something that scholars heatedly debate today. Whichever mode of development you subscribe to (writing spread from a focal point to the rest of the globe or writing developed independently in different places), it is safe to say that much of the very early writings were used in society for much more concrete purposes than marginalia concerns itself with. That is, there is little need to discuss or debate accepted day-to-day practices that were often documented in early writings and as such, there was little need for marginalia. Also, the production of these scripts would not have even allowed for marginalia, as so many of them were made of stone or delicate animal skins and later, delicate papers. As societies expanded their use of documentation, the aspect of life that allowed literacy to flourish was religion. Religious dissent, such as Martin Luther's ninety-five theses in 1518, necessarily spread literacy throughout the world (Graff). Perhaps because that Bible itself was, for a long time, not printed in the vernacular, religious philosophy was expressed in writing, which opened the door to more expressive forms of writing.

The history of early literacy is richly complicated with the politics of libraries and means of production, for example in Ancient Rome. The evolution of scribal culture itself has its own important ancestry. But generally what was seen was that as literacy spread throughout Europe, circles of the literate elite developed their own "bookish culture" (Eisenstein). In each of these circles, individuals would become intimately familiar with a foundational set of readings, later to become a canon of literature. Although oftentimes the tensions between oral and print culture were difficult to resolve, these mean would also write their own scripts. Since the circles were so small, each person would be reading everyone's work and there was a very visible process of influence and reactionary thought. This is perhaps the early forms of many of the concepts Walter Benjamin outlines in his essay "Author as Producer" and the comparisons between the early and modern forms of authorship/production give credibility to inherent tensions when an author is a producer.

In most cases, although we can't know for sure, fellow literate elites would read and literally emend the works of their peers. The first marginalia emerged as ways of altering texts. This evolved from peer-to-peer communication into student-teacher interaction in large part because of the spread of education and schools (Jackson). Early students' notes became commonplace in much the same way that they are today - as a way for a student to physically engage with a text. There is some evidence of teachers instructing their students on how to correctly study by note-taking, most notable Erasmus's frequent addresses to his students. Research about learning styles in more recent years might lend answers to questions about how this slow adaptation of student marginalia has affected cognition, but because there is little existing evidence to work with from two thousand years ago, this domain has been largely untouched.

As marginalia became more widely used and spread out from the elite literate circles, the structure and precedence of early margin-users like Erasmus, Gabriel Harvey, John Dee, and John Evelyn, shaped the way the public would begin to write in texts. The scholarly etiquette of marginalia was defined by a vast majority of great thinkers and a significant amount of modern scholarship is dedicated to understanding and interpreting the marginalia of great thinkers. It was Erasmus and later, Samuel Taylor Coleridge who played the most significant roles in shaping scholarly marginalia simply because they stressed its important and left a great deal of their marginalia behind.

Forms of Marginalia



Reader's Signs


Footnotes & Citation


Paper Production

Benjamin? Palimpsest Scarcity techniques

Mediatic Etymological Approach

What Is It About Books?

Marginalia as an Archaeology of Ideas

documenting ideas through changing technologies

The Contemplation of Death