Were you one of those students who, despite your teachers’ warnings, continued to write in your books? If so, you have a lot of company—some of it illustrious (no pun intended). And now, there are a number of efforts going on around the world to capture these scribbled snippets of wisdom.

The notion of “marginalia,” or making handwritten notes and drawings in the margins of book pages, dates back as far as the Middle Ages. Presumably, monks made random drawings and notes to relieve the tedium of the manuscripts they were copying. Once mechanical printing started, marginalia really took off as scholars of the day held debates with the books they were reading—not so different from comment sections on websites.

To the despair of librarians everywhere, marginalia has marched on. “Such readers feel that they aren’t really giving a book their full attention unless they’re hovering over it with a pencil, poised to underline or annotate at the slightest provocation,” writes Mark O’Connell in the New Yorker, going on to quote George Steiner’s description of an intellectual as “a human being who has a pencil in his or her hand when reading a book.” Writers such as Jack Kerouac, Vladimir Nabokov, Samuel Beckett, Graham Greene, and Mark Twain were all noted for their habit of scribbling in books written by others.

These notes can still be useful to us today, say researchers. “This diverse evidence of annotation provides a considerable range of unique and largely untapped research materials, which reveal that readers—much as users of the internet today—adapted quickly to the technology of print: interacting intimately, dynamically, socially, and even virtually with texts,” writes Johns Hopkins University.

In fact, Johns Hopkins goes on to call marginalia “among the largest, least accessible, and most underutilized of original manuscript sources from the early modern period, due to the fact that they are almost entirely uncatalogued, or undercatalogued, by major research collections throughout the world.”

That’s what marginalia digitization projects hope to change. Here are some examples:

  • The Archaeology of Reading in Early Modern Europe, a joint venture of Johns Hopkins, Princeton and University College London, will transcribe and catalog marginal notes in 16th- and 17th-century books held in various libraries. The project will begin with a number of heavily annotated books and expand from there, eventually producing a large, fully searchable dataset available on a publicly accessible website.
  • Annotated Books Online enables people to add transcriptions and translations and upload annotated books of their own, access to which is then provided free of charge to researchers. Thus far, it contains about 60 volumes, including Martin Luther’s copy of the New Testament.
  • The Darwin Manuscripts Project, one of the various digitization and transcription efforts of Charles Darwin’s work recently announced that it was halfway to its goal of 30,000 digitized documents, all of which will be freely accessible online. Currently, 12,000 documents are available. “Transcriptions are essential, as Darwin’s handwriting is often difficult to read, and having his marginalia, notes, and letters be legible can more readily support new research,” writes Allison Meier in Hyperallergenic. These include scribblings in books he studied, abstracts, book drafts, articles and their revisions, journals he read, and his notebooks on transmutation. “There are even some charming oddities like drawings by Darwin’s children on the back of leaves of The Origin of Species,” she writes.
  • Digitizing Walt Whitman’s Annotations and Marginalia is a project that has been going on at the University of Texas at Austin since 2007. “Using Walt Whitman’s manuscript marginalia—his annotations and other scribblings on other writers’ printed works—we have built prototype tools for marking up such documents as well as for displaying interactive search results for such documents using images and text,” notes the project’s website.
  • Hidden in Plain View: Making Visible the Robbins Library’s Marginalia Collection is a project that began this summer to digitize the marginalia at Harvard University’s Robbins Library. “Interest in readers’ marginalia ranges across disciplinary bounds,” writes Eric Johnson-DeBaufre of Robbins Library of Philosophy. “Making visible our collection of marginalia thus stands to benefit philosophers as well as historians, literary scholars, and others.”

As people progress to reading books electronically, does this mean the death of marginalia? Just the opposite, actually. Some marginalia aficionados see it as a new revolution, equivalent to that of Gutenberg. “Imagine reading, say, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and touching a virtual button so that—ping!—Ernest Hemingway’s marginalia instantly appears, or Ralph Ellison’s, or Mary McCarthy’s. Or imagine you’re reading a particularly thorny passage of Paradise Lost and suddenly—zwang!—up pops marginalia from a few centuries of poets (Blake, Coleridge, Keats, Emerson, Eliot, Pound), with their actual handwriting superimposed on the text in front of you,” writes self-confessed marginaliaist Sam Anderson in the New York Times. “This, it seems to me, would be something like a readerly utopia.”

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