Recently, a conference on marginalia - Marginal Notes: Social Reading and the Literal Margins - was held at the State Library of Victoria in conjunction with Monash University and University of Otago’s Centres for the Book. It included a masterclass where participants could bring and discuss examples encountered in their work or study, learn about different kinds of annotation, and consider the underlying meaning and significance of the practice. Attending the conference led me to consider the examples of marginal notes I have seen in the Rare Books Collection at Monash and pick out just a few favourites to share. These items are available for you to view in the Special Collections Reading Room at Sir Louis Matheson Library, Clayton. (Note: The library is currently closed, reopening on 30 January 2017.)
Marginalia is generally produced as part of the reading and studying process (Jackson, 2001) and can also serve a communicative function (Fajkovic & Björneborn, 2014). Annotations to the text can act as an imaginary conversation between the reader and the author, as well as initiating an ongoing conversation between subsequent readers of the marginalia. Once they have been written, “marginalia become physical artefacts, whose function is a constant and inseparable part of both the text and the physical book” (Fajkovic & Björneborn, 2014, p. 914).
In the realm of marginalia, there are many different kinds of markings. From an innocuous pencil underline of a keyword to the vertical line next to a paragraph indicating its importance; from an exclamatory “No!” scrawled by an outraged reader to an earnestly written argument debunking the author’s viewpoint in the margin of the page. Stars, asterisks, curly brackets, scribbles, doodles, sketches, even the elegant outline of a hand with a finger or fingers pointing to specific parts of the text, known as a manicule, are all marks of marginalia.
The first image is an example from one of our manuscripts, probably written in France during the eighteenth century. A professional scribe was employed to transcribe Jean de la Fontaine’s Transformation metallique, trois anciens tractez en rithme francoise (Paris: Guillaume Gillard, 1561) and an extract of Le roman de la rose by Jean de Meung (c.1240). The manuscript’s owner has interacted with the text by underlining important passages, inserting a curly bracket to emphasise another passage, writing extensive notes in the margins, and also excising large passages by crossing them out. The reader has also drawn a manicule in the left-hand margin, a name that comes from the Latin maniculum, meaning "little hand”. Manicules originated in the scribal tradition of the medieval and Renaissance period and functioned as punctuation marks to signal corrections or notes. They were later used as a printer’s typographical symbol to mark notes and also act as a means of signifying noteworthy passages and in advertising displays (Houston, 177).
Studying marginalia can provide a deeper insight into an author and his or her readers as well give a greater appreciation of the wider context in which they wrote. Marginal notes and annotations help make an item unique and offer a glimpse into the lived experience of the book itself. They raise questions of provenance, use, and appreciation. In the digital landscape, we may question whether the process of creating marginalia will continue and what this means for the study of marginalia. We would love to see you in the Special Collections Reading Room deciphering these works or puzzling over other books with accompanying marginalia.
Houston, K. (2013). Shady characters: the secret life of punctuation, symbols, & other typographical marks. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Jackson, Heather J. (2001). Marginalia: readers writing in books. New Haven: Yale University Press.