Writing in the margins of books can reveal readers’ feelings and reactions.

When University of South Carolina Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections Jeanne Britton flips through the pages of a book, she’s not just deciding whether to read it. She looks for marginalia. Marginalia are the notes and comments (and occasionally drawings) that readers sometimes write in the margins of books they are reading in response to the text.

Britton said that while the study of marginalia is fairly new among English scholars, marginalia itself is centuries old. “In the Middle Ages, people wrote notes in the margins of the books they read. The term marginalia contains small illustrations. Things like the stars and the lines that we often leave in our books today.

“What people left behind in the Middle Ages, which I find really charming, are very detailed hand-drawn pointing fingers called manicles. It’s like they’re signaling, “Don’t forget that!” It’s like a medieval version of a highlighter.”

While only a small but growing number of scholars typically study marginalia, the practice has increased among some students, too, Britton said.

“Students are definitely interested – interested in seeing examples of marginalia. Because it is proof that the text at hand really meant something to another reader. And it also creates that odd emotional experience where, depending on the content of the side notes, you can feel like you’re overhearing someone’s very private conversation or hidden thoughts about something.”

One of Britton’s former students, Savannah Simpson, made an interesting discovery while researching books at USC’s Thomas Cooper Library.

“Some of our class is literally just digging through the library looking for books with marginalia in them,” she said. “And I had a book by Dr. Patterson Wardlaw and then my friend had found a Patterson Wardlaw book and then we were like, ‘oh, these aren’t just two separate books, this is a whole collection that was actually donated. ”

Further research revealed that Simpson happened to be related to Wardlaw, who gave his name to the building that houses the university’s education department. And the marginalia also revealed something of his personality.

“It definitely underscored his passion for students,” said Simpsonon. “I knew he was a teacher. He was part of the early public education system and created it. But it showed that he was not only trying to drive this great movement and create a system that worked for everyone, but that he really cared about the development and education of the students.”

In a book Britton has reviewed, she made another important connection – with the namesake of the library where she works.

“It contains extensive marginalia from none other than Thomas Cooper, former President of USC, and someone who was a well-known thinker and scientist whose written letters, written correspondence, do not exist. It was lost in a fire,” she said. “So these marginalia are an important example of how major historical figures – certainly a major historical figure for South Carolina – thought about one of the areas in which he specialized.

“What made it really interesting,” Britton continued, “is that at the end of this volume he drew his own inventions, which are improvements over what’s in the book! That, in addition to its own extensive commentary, makes this book a more valuable book for having been awarded.”

Britton said famous writers created marginalia, including poets Robert Burns and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.

“There is a very important edition of Frankenstein in which Mary Shelley either writes changes that she wants to make or changes that have been made,” the curator explained. “The third edition has been significantly revised in essential points. She looks at the first version of ‘Frankenstein’ and says, ‘Ah, I want to change that, I want to change that.'”

Through marginalia, a reader can sometimes almost disagree, agree, disagree, or comment on the author. Coleridge himself did this, according to Britton.

“Coleridge definitely thought of marginalia as a way of engaging with the author of the book. He wrote about how, while reading a certain book, he would say, “No, no! that is not right!’ But then: ‘Oh, I see what you’re getting at.’ And so he wrote about the imaginary conversation, the dialogue he had with the author, in the margin of his copy.”

Both Britton and Simpson said electronic books could reduce the amount of marginalia produced in the future. Fortunately, however, the rich Motherlode has yet to be mined past researchers can provide information for many years to come.


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