XVIII.3 May + June 2011
Page: 12
Digital Citation

BETWEEN THE LINES The social life of marginalia

Liz Danzico

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On a single day, I count 44 notes I've scribbled down while traveling between home and work. These notes are part private, part public, and all parts messy. These are everyday marginalia—notes in a printed book, saves in Instapaper, lists in Simplenote, snaps in Instagram, likes in Tumblr, shares in Google Reader—notes on a day in the life. These are spontaneous bursts of inspiration, stumbled upon, that I didn't want to lose track of, noted and collected across media and devices. Scattered marginalia of everyday life, saved.

But everyday marginalia has a more collected history. Sam Anderson, New York Times Magazine contributor, notes roughly 300 years ago marginalia was sort of a slow-motion Twitter or Facebook. Marking up the margins was fashionable, if not, socially expected [1]. Even earlier, in the mid-17th century, John Locke's marginalia were so elaborate that a man named John Bell published a notebook called Bell's Common-Place Book, Formed Generally upon the Principles Recommended and Practised by Mr Locke, which outlined instructions for how to navigate the messy way he and others were assembling their notes and thoughts.

"Commonplace" books, or "commonplacing," as this and these collections were called, was the act of collecting bits of inspirational quotes and passages from disparate reading sources in one place. The result is what Steven Johnson refers to as "a personalized encyclopedia of quotations." Popular in 17th- and 18th-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 [1]:

[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?

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

back to top  Common Behaviors

"Marginalia" refers to the notes and scribbles made by readers in the margins of their texts. The reader's ongoing dialog with a text can take different forms—drawings in illuminated manuscripts, decorations, doodles, and occasional flights of fancy.

Blackwood Magazine most likely introduced the term in 1819, but Edgar Allan Poe popularized it some 25 years later with some of his published material: Marginalia. Since then, authors have had varying degrees of success creating their own collections of published marginalia. Among them is Walter Benjamin, who struggled after 13 years of research, leaving behind The Arcades Project: "the theater," he called it, "of all my struggles and all my ideas" [2].

back to top  Outside the Margins

But it's not just authors who have seen value in marginalia. When a consumer encounters marginalia in a used book, it has the potential to change their perception of a book's worth. Microsoft researcher Cathy Marshall found students evaluated textbooks based on how "smart" the side margin notes seemed before purchasing. In an effort to discover methods for using annotations in eBooks, Marshall stumbled upon this physical-world behavior, an approach to gaining a wisdom-of-crowds conclusion tucked away in the margins [3].

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?

In May 2009, Amazon announced a new feature: Readers could not only highlight passages in their books but also review those notes online. In online Kindle accounts, readers could see all highlighted passages and books, but perhaps more interesting, readers could also see the "most highlighted passages of all time" or "heavily highlighted recently." If one of Cathy Marshall's students had highlighted a passage from Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, for instance, she had see that 3,146 other Kindle users had highlighted the same passage.

While Amazon is still not allowing users to share their passages as of the writing of this article, it does seem the next logical step. Yet what will it mean to know that an arbitrary "87 other readers" have also highlighted? The real question is: What did they intend when they did so?

James Bridle, one of the people thinking about social notes of late, might suggest some answers with Open Bookmarks (, a project he launched in 2010 that supports sharing annotations and reading data across platforms. These sharable bookmarks become a reference for every book a person has read—no matter where that reading took place.

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.

With efforts from book futurists like Bridle and announcements like this from Amazon, arguably, one of the last bastions of the printed era to be digitized—reader data—is now breaking free of its margins. Somewhere between Sloan and Kindle, there is meaning emerging.

back to top  Making Meaning

Sam Anderson pulls back the curtain to reveal patterns with his 2010 list of scribbles in the margins. From Bleak House to The Anthology of Rap, Anderson presented scans of his sidelines [4]. Reviewing the list, one begins to see patterns emerge. Categories of notes on each page, the likes of which Marshall's studies perused, are delightfully rich. Yet they also suggest that exposing the notes are not enough. It's intention that matters.

Even if we can capture patterns and overcome sharing, we might come back to consider the commonplace book. How might designers replicate its sense of wholeness and real-time cataloging online? Do we need to?

I'm not suggesting that all annotations need to be social. But it is critical for designers to consider how and where these marks might be shared. Might we become overly self-conscious in our new relationships with books? One of the principal pleasures of taking notes, after all, is the intimacy with a passage, the outright honesty with which one might scribble, "Hogwash," or "Gasp!" for later reminding. Designers will need to give equal consideration to what can be public as they will to what should remain private. Some sentiments, after all, are best left between you and your margins.

back to top  References

1. Anderson, S. What I really want is someone rolling around in the text. New York Times, 4 March 2011;

2. Johnson, S. The glass box and the commonplace book;

3. Benjamin, W. The Arcades Project. Belknap Press, New York, 2002.

4. Marshall, C.C. Collection-level analysis tools for books online. Proc. of the 2008 ACM Workshop on Research Advances in Large Digital Book Repositories. (Napa Valley, CA, Oct. 26–30) ACM, New York, 2008.

5. Anderson, S. A year in marginalia: Sam Anderson;

back to top  Author

Liz Danzico is equal parts designer, educator, and editor. She is chair and cofounder of the MFA in Interaction Design Program at the School of Visual Arts in NY, lectures widely, and writes at

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©2011 ACM  1072-5220/11/0500  $10.00

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