Marginalia as Scholarly Communication

Although we may think of scholarly communication as the process of disseminating research through formal publication or online distribution, scholars have been communicating with and responding to each other since well before the advent of the Internet or even print journals. One way in which modern scholars can understand earlier processes of communication is through the study of marginalia, or the notes to themselves or others that previous scholars have left in the margins of the texts they read. Works have been published on the marginalia of single writers, such as Voltaire’s Marginalia on the Pages of Rousseau (Havens, 1971), or on marginalia as a topic unto itself. H.J. Jackson has published two books on marginalia: (Note: Both titles are available as e-books to members of the NU community.) Recently, the personal library of Charles Darwin was digitized and made available freely online through the Biodiversity Heritage Library. Darwin himself frequently made notes in the margins of his books, and one special feature of this online collection is the full transcription of all his marginalia. Being able to read the notes that Darwin made to himself as he read gives scholars today insight into how his ideas, well, evolved over time. Marginalia were also a way for Darwin and others to share their ideas informally with their contemporaries through exchanging personal copies of their books. Of course, marginalia aren’t only created by the greatest scientific minds – one of my favorite poets, Billy Collins, wrote a poem on the margin notes left by everyday readers:
Sometimes the notes are ferocious, skirmishes against the author raging along the borders of every page in tiny black script. If I could just get my hands on you, Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O’Brien, they seem to say, I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head. Other comments are more offhand, dismissive – “Nonsense.” “Please!” “HA!!” – that kind of thing. I remember once looking up from my reading, my thumb as a bookmark, trying to imagine what the person must look like who wrote “Don’t be a ninny” alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson. — From “Marginalia” (Billy Collins) (Read the full poem here.)