The Margins of Marginalia

By Tom Peters |

In the damp, dark, twisting catacombs of this long digital revolution that eventually will lead to the bright future of eReading, marginalia may be the lowly canary.  Marginalia, that wonderfully eccentric habit of writing in the margins of printed books, has become an object of scrutiny and some concern.  Coleridge, Melville, Twain, David Foster Wallace, and a host of others made marginalia into a form of literary expression.  If printed books are being marginalized, what is the future of marginalia?

Of course, we’re talking about writing in the margins of personally owned copies.  Writing in the margins of library books is a no-no.  Ditto for underlining and highlighting.  Very boorish behavior and fodder for fines and polite chastisement. 

Books borrowed from friends constitute a gray area.  Coleridge was such a renowned marginaliac that his friends would actually lend their books to him so that he could scribble in the margins.  Studs Turkel expected the books he loaned to friends to come back with additional marks made by friendly fingers. 

Marginalia is a hot topic.  Earlier this spring, within the span of two weeks, the New York Times published two long articles about the future of marginalia.  That “fortnight mirabilis” may be remembered down the ages as marginalia’s 15 minutes of fame.  (mmm, I wonder if Andy Warhol was into marginalia?)  First, on Feb. 20th the NYT published an article ( by Dirk Johnson that gives voice to the fears of bibliophiles that marginal notes are an endangered missive species. 

Then on March 6th the NYT Magazine published a manic essay ( by Sam Anderson where the future of e-marginalia is bright and promising, although initially Sam worried for several years that the rise of eReading might asphyxiate his passion. After some cogitation, however, he decides, “Digital technology, rather than destroying the tradition of marginalia, could actually help us return it to its gloriously social 18th-century roots.” 

One blogger, Michael Doan, suggested in a February post ( that we need to “create an open method/standard for sharing annotation[s] and passages” so that users of different eReading devices and software can share snippets and marginalia across all these digital divides and crevices.  He also calls for an opt-in, public domain, searchable repository of e-marginalia.  Wowsa!  Doan is an accountant and photographer, not a librarian, but we librarians should take up this cause.    

When it comes to marginalia in the books I personally own, my attitudes and habits toward marginalia provide oblique insights into the inscrutable stages of this boy’s life.  When I first began purchasing books on my own as a teenager, I wrote only in pencil on the title page where I purchased the book, the date, and the price I paid.  I've kept those books over the decades, and those marks on the cave walls of my life have proven useful in wistful ways. 

For example, recently when re-reading Willa Cather's fine short story, Neighbour Rosicky, for an online discussion with Professor Loren Logsden, I noted the penciled date, place, and price (12/12/77, Wigdahl’s, $1.95) of the now-yellowed copy I had purchased over three decades ago.  Wigdahl Bookfinders in Fort Dodge, Iowa, is now long gone, and the date indicates that I probably had recently returned home from the fall semester of my sophomore year at college and was looking for something good to read over the winter holiday break. 

Curiously, that early penciling practice stopped in my early adulthood, and I assumed a pristine, prissy attitude toward the books I bought, both new and used.  This new practice may have coincided with my graduate studies in library science.  For several decades after that, I wrote nothing in my books.  If I took reading notes, I kept them separate from the text.  If I purchased a used book that, upon perusal, revealed some marginalia from the previous owner, I usually was more fascinated than offended.  It was like happening upon someone's notes to one's self.  The only thing better in this line was finding some postcard or sales receipt tucked into the leaves.  Alas, I've never found a pressed flower or a lock of hair.

Then in middle age I returned to writing in the margins of the printed books I owned.  I don’t remember any period of anxious thought on this matter.  It just began again.  It felt good to be back reading with pen in hand.  No more pencils or sitting on my hands.  It was ink or bust for me.   

When I received a Kindle as a gift earlier this year, my habits of marginalia soared to new heights.  It became extremely easy to highlight passages and add notes, which are then situated in the text I'm reading but also pulled together into my Kindle account on Amazon where I can, for instance, share them with students in a course, fellow members of a book discussion group, family, and friends…even, in theory, with enemies.  I’ll rebut and rebuke them with my rapier marginalia.  It's even possible to add a marginal note on a Kindle and then tweet it. 

There are many other annotation systems that add value to the eReading experience.  The Readum app ( does something similar (Google Book to Facebook).  I’ve tried it once, but it’s not quite as elegant and useful as Kindlesque marginalia.  For you Appleseeds, the Openmargin iPad app announced in late April (http://www.the- looks very interesting.  It further blurs the lines between annotating the text and engaging in a group discussion of a text.    

Marginalia seems poised to take flight again in the era of eReading.  We, the members of the Bunned Legions in Sensible Shoes – librarians and teachers – may have been responsible for the nadir of marginalia in the 20th century.  Johnson notes, “Paul F. Gehl, a curator at the Newberry, blamed generations of librarians and teachers for ‘inflicting us with the idea’ that writing in books makes them ‘spoiled or damaged.’”  Let’s right that old wrong and contribute to this bird’s revival in the 21st century.