Contemplations: Marginalia, Texts, and Analog Trails

This morning, I was playing around on Google Books while doing some research on the documentary history of the Province of Nova Scotia. Google Books is not my first choice as a resource since it’s such a difficult beast to break in spite of all its great historical content, but I was curious to see what might be digitized on the subject. That’s when I came across these pages in the front of The Documentary History of the State of Maine (1869), Vol. 1:

The Documentary History of the State of Maine (1869), Vol. 1, Scanned by "David" for Google Books
The Documentary History of the State of Maine (1869), Vol. 1, Scanned by "David" for Google Books

It seems that in the act of digitizing the text, David, our digitizer, has scanned his hand right into the book.  David, his ring, and his tiny-finger gloves have become digitized marginalia. Like a student’s note in the margins or a phone number quickly inscribed in the front matter, David’s fingers are now part of the text, forever.¹

Marginalia has always fascinated me. I owe this to a distinguished professor who held court in one of my undergraduate seminars many years ago.  He once explained to us the pleasure he found when discovering his students’ notes in the margins of texts in the university library.  As he was an older professor and had taught at the school for many years, he knew the library’s collection and his students’ use of texts in his field quite well. He enjoyed discovering hand-written notes in his assigned texts or in books that were pertinent to his subject matter since these notes became “analog trails” (my term, and a pun on “digital trails”, of course) that led back to the discussions held in his seminars and to the knowledge developed in them.

I’ve since come to look upon marginalia as tiny clues that show how a text has linked different people and ideas together. I often wonder, in a nostalgic way, how these bonds will change when ebooks become ubiquitous. We can append and share notes in digital texts, of course. But these notes, which were at one time inscribed in the book or on a piece of paper and left to be discovered by another reader, have been transformed by common fonts and encoding that might link and share thoughts but don’t show significance or meaning in quite the same way. In the e-book cloud and on our social websites, readers and the value of notes are flattened, which, I think, affects the importance and allure of this marginalia.²

It goes without saying that the e-book has altered our relationship to the text and to knowledge. No longer do we have a one-to-one relationship with the physical object in front of us. Now we can potentially have a one-to-many relationship with all of the text’s readers. There are clear benefits to be gained from this, i.e., don’t think that I’m a Luddite and want to turn my back on the new communities of readers that are developing thanks to e-book innovations.  But my thoughts today (and what this post is only scratching the surface of) are focused on how the physical manifestation of a text – i.e. the book, affects our relationship with its content. A book’s marginalia often represents one person’s relationship with a particular copy of a text rather than one’s relationship with a community of fellow readers. Reading marginalia is almost like reading a diary since one is reading notes and thoughts left primarily for personal consumption. When we encounter marginalia, we are discovering secrets and clues left behind by other readers – clues that can alter our interpretations of the text, but only in the copy we are holding in our hands.

Marginalia also individualizes or “makes unique” texts that are published in large volumes. Just as violinists treasure their violin’s lineage from one musician to another, many readers treasure the sign’s of a book’s “borrowing history”: the notes on the pages left behind by previous readers, the dog-eared corners, the discolored, yellowed pages which signify its age and in some ways, its value to the collection. All these marks, notes, dents, and scribbles create a “lineage” of readers for the text. They show the would-be reader the value that others have found in the text, and the added value he or she may acquire upon reading it.  These scribbles and folds haunt a physical book; they create a history of reading, marked in time and place by the thoughts of its previous readers.

We are shifting away from a centuries-old period where the content and its container were inseparable – where the content was signified by the container, and where the container gave the reader clues about the content’s worth. Although it hasn’t been difficult for our culture to make the transition to our new digital period where the container’s role has been diminished, I wonder if we should be paying more attention to how our interaction with texts – whether it is writing marginalia or selecting ebooks from a virtual shelf – affects our understanding of knowledge and the development of “collective wisdom.” That’s not to say that things are worse (or better) off today compared to “time before e-books” so much as it is to suggest that when our interaction with knowledge has for so long been focused on reading the written word with a pen and paper close at hand, it may be a useful to exercise to study how our new tools and technologies affect the ways we think and learn.

I’ll leave these theoretical and literary implications alone for another day when I have the courage to transform these meandering thoughts into a well-sourced argument that might provide understanding. And I’ll end by acknowledging the irony found in writing these thoughts in digital form for a larger community of readers.

1.  For the record, David caught his mistake and re-scanned the page.  The next scans in the Google Books scroll of images are clean digital images of these pages.  Also, my research on early Nova Scotian documents continues.

2.  I am not suggesting that no extra meaning or significance can be found in e-book notes or on social reading websites. Social sites actually do an incredible job at adding meaning to a text, but they do this in different ways, e.g., crowd-sourced discussions and reviews.