The social life of marginalia

Apr 28, 2011

Traveling between home and work on a single day, I count 44 notes I’ve scribbled down. These notes are in part private, in part public, and in all parts messy. They are everyday marginalia — notes in a printed book, saves in Instapaper, lists in Simplenote, likes in Tumblr, shares in Google Reader. They are spontaneous bursts of inspiration, reading data, that I’ve come upon and don’t want to lose track of, noted and collected across media and devices. Scattered marginalia of life, saved.

But marginalia has a more collected history. When John Locke began taking notes in 1652, he did so in such an elaborate way that a publisher named John Bell published a notebook called Bell’s Common-Place Book, Formed generally upon the Principles Recommended and Practised by Mr Locke. This notebook, eight pages of instructions on an indexing method, was for the first time a way of making it easier to navigate an otherwise messy semblance of notes and thoughts.

Keeping “commonplace books” was the act of collecting bits of inspirational quotes and passages from disparate reading sources in one place, so cites Steven Johnson, and he refers to them as “a personalized encyclopedia of quotations.” Popular particularly in seventeenth and eighteenth century England, it was a way for readers of all kinds to track their paths.

Historian Robert Darnton reports on this nearly 250-year-old overlap of reading and writing behaviors:

[Early modern Englishmen] read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities.

Sound familiar?

See also:
"Each rereading of the commonplace book becomes a new kind of revelation." Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson

For all its mustiness, the commonplace book may still be a truer and more efficient collector of marginalia than our digital marks. While marginalia-making may be on the rise in forms unexpected by our Enlightment-era predecessors, its diverse and frenetic recordings still remain vastly disconnected and uncollected. Should we be considering containers for our collections?

Common behaviors

“Marginalia” refers to the notes and scribbles made by readers in the margins of their texts. As the reader’s ongoing dialog with a text, it takes different forms — drawings in illuminated manuscripts, decorations, doodles, and such.

Blackwood Magazine most likely introduced the term in 1819, but Edgar Allan Poe popularized it between 1845-1849 with Marginalia. Since, there have been authors who’ve created their own collections of published marginalia, not the least of whom is Walter Benjamin who struggled after thirteen years of research, leaving behind The Arcades Project, “the theater,” as he called it, “of all my struggles and all my ideas.”

Out of the margins

When a consumer encounters marginalia in a used book, it has the potential to change one’s perception of a book’s value. Cathy Marshall, a Microsoft researcher, found that university students evaluated textbooks before purchasing so that they could bring home the book with the smartest notes. In an effort to discover methods to use annotations in eBooks, Marshall stumbled upon this physical-world behavior, an approach to gaining a wisdom-of-crowds conclusion hiding in the margins.

What can we tell about a text from its notes? About readers from what they’ve left behind? And when these notes are made public — as Kindle developers and book futurists are exploring — what will emerge? How might shared reader data change readers’ annotating behavior?

James Bridle encourages one to explore some of these questions with Open Bookmarks, a project launched in 2010 that explored sharing annotations and reading data across platforms. These shareable bookmarks become a reference for every book a person has read—no matter where that reading took place.

Intention attention

In May 2009, Amazon announced a new feature, readers could not only highlight passages in their books, but review those notes online. In online Kindle accounts, readers can see all highlighted passages and books, but more interesting perhaps, readers can also see the “most highlighted passages of all time” or “heavily highlighted recently.” If Marshall has highlighted a passage from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, she’ll see that same passage was highlighted by 3,146 other Kindle users. With efforts from bookfuturists like Bridle and movements like this from Amazon, the last bastion of the printed era, the reader data, is finally breaking free of its margins.

While Amazon is still not allowing users to share their passages, it does indeed seem the next logical step. Yet what will it mean to us to know 87 other readers have also highlighted? And further, what did they intend when they highlighted?

Robin Sloan, a writer and media inventor, asks reviewers of his forthcoming book Mr. Penumbra’s Twenty Four Hour Book Store to share their “mental state” via marginalia. Developing a visual language for real-time annotations, he welcomes people to go through his text at a reader’s pace, marking their reactions in real time. Somewhere between Sloan and Kindle, there is meaning emerging.

Making meaning

New York Times Magazine contributor, Sam Anderson, pulls back the curtain on intention with his 2010 list of scribbles in the margins. From Bleak House to The Anthology of Rap, Anderson presented scans of his sidelines. Reviewing the list, one begins to see patterns emerge. Categories of reader data, the likes of which Marshall’s studies evaluated, on each page suggest that exposing the notes is not enough. It’s the intention that matters.

Even if we can capture intention and overcome sharing, we might come back to consider what was formerly known as the commonplace book. How might new book designers — of any format — replicate its sense of wholeness and real-time cataloging online? Do we need to?

It’s critical that the new book designer consider how and where these marks might be shared. I’m not suggesting that all annotations be social lest we become self-conscious in our book-relationships. One of the principal pleasures of taking notes is the intimacy with a passage, the outright honesty with which one might scribble, “Gasp!” or “Hogwash,” or “True that,” for later reminding. But there will need to be equal consideration given to what to keep personal as to what to make shareable.

After all, some sentiments are best left between you and your margins.

Article written as part of column for Interactions Magazine ©ACM. This is an abbreviated version of the work and my version of it. It is posted here with permission by ACM. Full version in issue: XVIII.3 - May / June, 2011 » The Social Life of Marginalia. Thanks to Caren Litherland for expert editing.




Work

  • W.W.Norton & Company
  • Eye Magazine
  • Theme Magazine
  • Maryland Institute of College Art

About Liz

Danzico is part designer, part teacher, part editor. As an independent consultant, she traces the roots of her craft back to her parents. According to Liz, "Growing up at least a little information architect gave me an organizational advantage over my friends." More