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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 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

The forms of marginalia are as wide-ranging as the users who create them. The following forms are the most common and easily categorized types of marginalia. This is not to say, however, that marginalia is this simple. Indeed, a great fascination with marginalia is its varying form. It is also imperative, although not a large part of the greater argument I'm making, to note that the forms of marginalia depend on their physical medium. That is, changes the paper market change the way readers and writers have written in margins. At different point throughout the history of paper, the medium has been so costly that publication is a great accomplishment and therefore other authors would sometimes write whole stories in the margins of a colleague's book just to be published in some way. The idea of palimpsest also brings up questions about changes in paper because the idea of erasing text and writing over it (i.e. using paper like you would use a blackboard) subverts the goal of marginalia. We realize, then, than marginalia relies on a sense of permanence of the text it is on. The history of paper could lend much to this discussion, but I ultimately want to pursue a more theoretical discussion about society's use and interaction with ideas through marginalia and therefore I am focusing on more general claims about the history of reading.

Common Marginalia

The most popular form of marginalia is the kind that readers do in private - it's that process by which we talk to ourselves through fragmented and improperly formatted sentences scribbled on the pages before us. The best description of this kind of marginalia is the one we provide from experience, for the kind of notes we take are the kind of notes that make up the common marginalia. It is important to note that the act of taking notes has become extremely casual as literacy has spread throughout the world. There was a time when the act of reading a text called for an empathy and concentration that we very rarely bring to texts today.


The best record of common marginalia is in library books, although those who choose to write in library books, who haven't forgotten that they are library books, are aware that that book with circulate to another reader at some point. The most intriguing thing about marginalia in library books is that it is highly discouraged, yet extremely insightful. No one has yet done a thorough analysis of a library's marginalia to understand why readers write in certain books. For example, it is so fascinating that the Occult section of the New York Public Library is disproportionately populated by books that have been written all over. If we assume this is intentional, does this indicate that the public wants to engage in debates about religion? Or is it a taboo topic that is best debated through anonymous scribbles in library books?


Emendation is textual alteration. In terms of marginalia, this is the physical act of correcting a manuscript. The modern reader and writer most likely has little experience with this kind of marginalia, as computer technology has drastically changed the very idea of literary correction. Emendation, in its original sense, is a kind act, but one that is fundamental to a proper academic discourse. Emendation among different people requires different minds to interact with a single text, to agree or disagree, and ultimately to broaden their respective views. Technological changes force us to ask whether true emendation and dialogue exist today (see below, "The Contemplation of Death").


Scholia, Glosses, and Rubrics

Scholia are the ancient forms of marginalia. They are grammatical or explanatory notes on ancient texts, written in the margin, that often explain relevant historical events or other literature the author deems relevant. Scholia have been present on the earliest publications of the Bible, classical literature, and legal code. Scholia are closely related to glosses, which are notes that explain obscure or foreign words and which will make it the glossary of a difficult text. Scholia and glosses are mainly structural forms of marginalia, and could be considered to include rubrics, which is the early name for headings in books that signal structural changes to a reader (Jackson). The important aspect to note here is that scholia, glosses, and rubrics are made by the author, not the reader. It is instructive marginalia that is nonetheless important for a reader's understanding especially of ancient or foreign texts.


Annotation, like marginalia itself, is a broad term and encompasses many different types. It can be used by the author in a structured way like scholia, glosses, and rubrics are used or it can be an outside addition to a text, like the added notes of great thinker to a text. Annotation is often used in instructional texts to explain the thought process of the reader, as in a medical or legal article. The important distinction between annotation and other forms of marginalia is that it is published with intent and rarely includes candid notes in a margin. Famously annotated texts by thinkers that are not the author usually annotate the text with intent, to give a concrete analysis of the given text. It is a staged technique.

Footnotes & Citation

Footnotes and citations have been used historically in the same ways in which we know them today. They are used by the author to give credit to the sources for their inspiration and explain the process of their thinking. This is interesting, however, because the goal of footnotes and citation has a parallel with the purpose of the common form of readers' marginalia. That is, citations are used to demonstrate the way that an author has come to produce the text at hand by listing references ad suggesting new ones. This creative process in writing the text is the end product to what lay readers are doing when they make candid notes in the margins of their own personal books. I'm arguing here that marginalia, in a general sense, is the documentation of the way in which readers interact with texts. But citations given by an author are the organized layouts of how the author was once a reader. There seems to be a cycle - while a reader is absorbing a text, he/she will write notes in the margins to help process the new information. Then, if the reader decides to put these newly created, reactionary comments into writing, he/she will document that process through the use of citation, which other readers will then use to spark their own creative processes.

Mediatic Etymological Approach

I am employing, here, a mediatic etymological approach to studying marginalia as a medium and because it is a unique way of studying dead media, it deserves some comment. Mediatic etymology is the way of examining dead media in relation to their modern-day legacies. That is, isolating a modern medium or technique, and tracing its origins to a form of extinct early form of it. I am fascinated by the intricate process by which a reader takes notes in a text and this project is an attempt to trace the early forms of marginalia. In the end, I've found that the kind of notes we take in margins today are situated in an entirely different literary and educational context than they once were and as a result, we are not writing the same kind of notes we once used to write. I propose that the kind of marginalia we create today represents a serious shift in values from the kind of marginalia that characterizes earlier societies.

Marginalia as an Archaeology of Ideas

The deepest intrigue of marginalia is similar to the deepest questions of writing itself because marginalia is a certain type of writing. It has its own etiquette and form and is therefore worthy of its own classification. But just as literature documents a complex relationship between an author and a reader, an author and his/her ideas, and a reader and the author's ideas, marginalia documents a complex relationship between a writer and his/her own thoughts. The language of marginalia is almost not recognizable. Aside from annotation, we should probably have a hard time understanding notes we took on a text from years ago. And for marginalia to be successful, we shouldn't be able to understand them. Marginalia represents a dialogue within our own minds that is beautifully complicated by fleeting ideas and influences of that specific time. As George Steiner puts it "Marginalia are the immediate indices of the reader's response to the text, of the dialogue between the book and himself." It's useful to mention the intentions of great political thinkers who strove to preserve a free and open flow of information in society because that structure is what has taught us to value free speech and dialogue. Their belief was that an educated society can be created by allowing for a multiplicity of opinions and thoughts. The more society circulates and interacts with these different ideas, then the more it will create new ideas, thoughts, and inventions. Marginalia captures the essence of this value set because it sheds light on the mysterious and private process that a reader engages with the ideas of society. The importance of studying marginalia is in the fact that learning about this process of societal interaction through texts will teach us about how culture and communication has changed over time. Steiner writes, "Marginalia are the hinges of aesthetic doctrine and intellectual history."

The Contemplation of Death

George Steiner's essay "The Uncommon Reader" is perhaps the most thoughtful analysis and contemplation of marginalia and my thinking has been greatly influenced by his brilliant writing. Steiner emphasizes that the true act of marginalia must include a sensitivity. He says that in order to produce the best kind of marginalia, one must earnestly search for the "original and imaginative scruple" that guides the author. He says that good marginalia are empathetic by treating the text with care. A reader should believe and doubt, but never be divorced from a real sense of urgency in the text. As one of his main points, Steiner writes, "The principal truth is this: latent in every act of complete reading is the compulsion to write a book in reply." And if we are to consider marginalia dead media, we must realize how the scribbles and notes of today have shifted away from this fundamental objective.

Steiner also requires, in his sense of complete reading, the motif of cortesia, the ceremonious encounter between reader and book. He says that this is today "so remote as to be unrecapturable." Today informality is the etiquette we have adopted to read a book. Perhaps influenced by the consumer culture or by modern political systems, we are no longer preoccupied with that used to be the most fundamental idea in literature: the fact that writing represents an immortality that is not granted to humans. Instead of pushing ourselves to understand how the most ruthless villain in modern fiction will somehow live on long past the author's death, we are too busy worrying about our own mortality. It could be argued that with the rise of advertising and the therapeutic ethos that instills a sense of guilt about how we are in constant need of improvement has shifted our values. While advertising has created a culture that obsesses over the frivolous surplus of goods that are created in a capitalistic society, it has also shifted our attention away from the care and attention we once brought to the act of reading. And if sociological constructs have changed our values so much to change how we read, then the act of marginalia can no longer be considered a healthy dialogue between reader and text - it is informal and fleeting today.

The idea of auctoritas, the normative, prescriptive status of the written word, is gone. As Steiner argues, modern readers don't respect the authority of a text any longer. He even goes so far as to say that "We distrust auctoritas...precisely because it aspires to immutability."

This is not to say that true marginalia does not exist. It certainly exists in elite academic circles. But the kind of reading that was once a norm is no longer to us. Steiner uses the example of a private library. Publishing industry changes have rendered personal libraries obsolete, but it also means we don't take our texts as seriously. "The modern apartment, notably for the young, simply has no space." He goes on to talk about the implications of the paperback revolution that although liberating in some sense, has created texts that are physically ephemeral and made to wither. "The paperback is both a marvel of packaging and a denial of the largesse of form and spirit expressly states in Chardin's scene."

The ending to this argument has to do with the idea of memory, which is essential to an "answerability" to the text. Now although the recurring argument that the sky is falling when communication revolutions occur, there is serious credibility to the disappearance of memorizing texts. Few of us can locate central passages in the Bible or even in our favorite books. We no longer have an echo chamber of ideas that resonates with each text we read and therefore allows each text to respond to each other. Although Steiner goes on to say that this makes us "readers by half," I think it signals a serious shift in the ways that we think and document ideas. In terms of marginalia, it means that our notes and scribbles are even less imbued with a sense of rich dialogue, which is ultimately what makes marginalia so dead.

The study of marginalia opens the door to so many exciting and fresh ideas. The alleged death of marginalia is so important because it involved so many different aspects of modern society. Above all, though, it hits at the very heart of how society interacts, observes, thinks, and communicates through technology. Although marginalia does not embrace the up-to-date digital technologies, it instead tracks the print culture that is nonetheless being affected by changes in technology. In a sense, examining marginalia is an indirect examination of modern technology in general.


Engelbart Mural by Eileen Clegg, artist and Valerie Landau, writer

What is the future of the book? What is the future of marginalia?

I like to assume that the death of marginalia in its truest sense does not necessarily signify the death of true readership, as Steiner argues. I like to assume that new ways of rigorous reading are already being created, but that we can't and won't fully recognize them until after the current technological revolution has passed.

Blogs: The Modern Marginalia?


Birkets, Sven. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Fawcett Columbine: New York. 1994.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. A Book I Value: Selected Marginalia. Princeton University Press: Princeton. 2003.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth. "The Rise of the Reading Public." Communication in History, eds. David Crowley and Paul Heyer. 2007.

Graff, Harvey J. "Early Modern Literacies." Communication in History, eds. David Crowley and Paul Heyer. 2007.

Jackson, H.J. Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books. Yale University Press: New Haven. 2001.

Mladenov, Ivan. Conceptualizing Metaphors: On Charles Peirce's Marginalia. Routledge: New York. 1996.

Robinson, Andrew. "The Origins of Writing." Communication in History, eds. David Crowley and Paul Heyer. 2007.

Steiner, George. "The Uncommon Reader." No Passion Spent. Georges Borchardt Literary Agency. 1999.

"The Future of the Book." ed. Geoffrey Nunberg. University of California Press: Berkeley. 1996.