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The Book as a Reader's Experience: Marginalia

follyFrom bookplates and inscriptions to author autographs, the study of marks made on books after publication is fascinating.

Marginalia are the markings found in the margins of pages in a book. They may include text, drawings, diagrams, and even doodles made by a reader.

The image on the left shows Hans Holbein's drawing of Folly in a first edition copy of Folly (1515) owned by the author of the book, Erasmus. Notice both the writing and the illustration as well as the lines and drawings in the text. Hans Holbein also created a famous portrait of Erasmus. They were likely friends.

What people put in the front and on the margins of books provides a lot of information about users. From bookplates to marginalia, think about how you use and treat books.

Since the introduction of the printed book, owners and readers have left their mark. For instance Valerius Maximus by Peter Schoffer was printed by Mainz in 1461.

valExamine the image on the right (click the image to see a larger view). You can see a rubricated initial letter U, ownership stamps, and marginalia.

In Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England, William H. Sherman (2008) notes that pre-modern readers often left their mark in books. He found that more than one in five books at the Huntington Library's early printed books collection contained marginalia. Sherman states that

"Marking was a matter, then as now, of attending to words, listening to their stories, thinking about their arguments, and heeding their lessons. But Renaissance readers also marked texts in the more physical and social senses captured in the phrase 'making one's mark' - making books their own by making marks in and around them and by using them for getting on in the world (as well as preparing for the world to come)."

Handwritten notes by Christopher Columbus can be found on the Latin edition of Marco Polo's Le Livre Des Merveilles.


Taking notes in books was a common practice in the Renaissance. According to Sherman (2008) students were even taught in school to write in their books. In the 16th century, teachers saw annotation as essential in learning.

Marking books reflects the active nature of reading during the 15th through the 17th centuries. Sherman (2008, 9) notes that the availability of printed copies didn't slow down marginalia.

"The most striking indication that printing did not automatically, or immediately render readers passive is the survival of what might be described as radically customized copies - copies, that is, where the text is not just annotated but physically altered, sometimes even cut up and combined with other texts. There is evidence of reading so active and appropriative that it challenges the integrity of the entire printed book."

Sherman notes that readers often inserted additional pages and rearranged sections. In some cases the book became a scrapbook of so many different materials it was difficult to identify the original work.

flowerIn Marks in Books, Illustrated and Explained, Roger Stoddard (2005) created a catalogue focusing on the "mysterious traces left in books by printers, binders, booksellers, librarians, and collectors." He states that

"when we handle books sensitively, observing them closely so as to learn as much as we can from them, we discover a thousand little mysteries."

Stoddard (2005) notes that as anthropologists and archaeologists, book historians must reconstruct how books were used noting that

"traces of wear can tell us how artifacts were used by human beings. Books no less than tools, apparel, and habitats can show signs of wear, but their markings can be far more eloquent of manufacturing processes, specific of provenance, telling of human relations, and suggestive of human thought."

From highlights and annotations to missing covers and folded page corners, the marks readers left in books tell scholars a lot about how books were used. Since the first books were printed, readers have made annotations and additions. They've pressed flowers in field guides and rebound cherished books in leather.

Types of Marginalia

From underlining passages of interest to crossing out objectionable words, users have marked books since the beginning of printing. Commentary, questions, additions, elaborations, and comparisons are just a few examples.

twainIdentification. Throughout history, people have written their name in books for identification or ownership.

Personal notes. Personal reflections, queries, and thoughts are often found in books.

The image on the left shows Mark Twain's thoughts about the quality of the translation of Plutarch's Lives.

Student notes. Whether taking notes when reading independently or highlighting elements during a professor's lecture, many books contain student writing.

Professional notes. Actors writing notes in their script, physicians noting patient reactions to treatments, and religious leaders highlighting passages for use in sermons These are a few examples of how professional use books in their work.

Multiple users. In some cases, a book may be owned by multiple individuals. Contrasting markings provide insights into how the same text can be interpreted in different ways (Sherman, 2008). In the same way, it's interesting to compare the notes written in different copies of the same book examining the radically different ways a book can be viewed.

Autographs. An autograph is the original hand-written signature of an author on a copy of his or her own work.

Marginalia isn't restricted to a particular type of reader. In Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books, Jackson (2001, 19) notes that

"The marginalia of children are instructive, and a case can be made for their revealing fundamental readers' attitudes in a particularly raw state. Before they can read, children may scribble - pretending to write - or draw pictures in books that come their way, but as soon as they can read and write, they write their names, often over and over again in the one book."

The book Description De L'Egypte is an excellent example of a book that contains a number of different types of marginalia. The book includes a letter dated January 27, 1930 and March 7, 1930 detailing sale information about the book. Marginalia can be found on the title page indicating the purchase price of the book and date.

Sometimes the notes in the margins of a book are as noteworthy as the book itself. For instance, handwritten notes by Christopher Columbus can be found on a Latin edition of Marco Polo's Le Livre Des Merveilles.

Columbus notes

In addition to text and visuals created directly on the text, there may also be other additions or deletions made to the text.

Erasure is the removal of words or images printed in a book using a gum eraser, "white out", bleach or some other chemical. In some cases, erasures are made in an attempt to censor offensive words. However when erasures are found on a title page, they may be intended to remove words such as the particular edition number. For instance, a seller might try to make a book look like a first rather than a fifth edition.

Extraneous materials are sometimes found in books. From post-it notes and bookmarks to news clipping and paperclips, these are items that have been added by users rather than the publisher of the book. For instance, sales slips and order forms are commonly found in books. While they don't leave permanent marks on the book, they can be very valuable as part of establishing provenance.

Materials that have been left intentionally are called enclosures. These items may or may not leave permanent marks. For instance, pressed leaves or scraps of cloth are sometimes left in books for sentimental reasons or as part of a reader's activities such as a nature walk.

A wide range of interesting marginalia, bookplates, as well as other interesting items related to book history can be found at Bibliography at Flickr.


Let's explore a couple real-world examples.

Songs of the Sage Example

Marginalia can contain fascinating pieces of information that form an entire story when paired with other research tools.

The book Songs of the Sage was found in the personal collection of Doris Eldredge by her daughter, a friend of mine. The book was written by Carmen William “Curley” Fletcher in 1931. The book contained cowboy poetry written by the author. During the 1930s, he turned his poems into songs that were used in Hollywood films such as Shadow Ranch (1930), Strawberry Roan (1933), and The Roaring West (1935).

title page

The inscription on the title page says “To Doris Eldredge, from Daddy and with sincere best wishes of Curley W. Fletcher, Hollywood, Cal, 10/3/33”.

songstitle page

According to the 1930 census (see below), Doris Eldredge was the daughter of Frederick R. Eldredge (daddy). She would have been 11 years old in 1933. Fred Eldredge is listed as a film studio cameraman. His World War I registration documents dated May 21, 1917 indicate that he was a motion picture photographer for the Cinema War News Syndicate. He’s listed at IMDB as an uncredited aerial photographer for the 1930 Howard Hughes film Hell’s Angels.


It’s likely that Fred Eldredge and Curley Fletcher knew each other as colleagues in the early film industry in Hollywood.

A particularly interesting piece of marginalia in this book is found on the poem titled “Yavapai Pete”. Notes on the page show camera shots that might be used in film production. Notations such as C.U. (close-up), L.S. (long-shot), dolly, diss (dissolve) and insert are used. Directions like “shot of storm” and “diss to horned toad” provide additional insights into the writer’s thoughts about possible shots. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence of who wrote these notes and whether these ideas were ever put to use.

Click the images below to see a larger version of the page.


In this case, tools like and IMDB were useful in providing the background information needed to piece together the history of the marginalia. Unfortunately, where the historical evidence ends, questions still linger.

Tom Sawyer Example

Let's take a personal example. Tom Sawyer is one of a collections of books I received while growing up. Even the spine of the book tells a story.

The spine of the book contains the sticky outline of tape indicating where I "processed" the book and attached a spine label. The label is long gone, but the outline remains (shown below left). (Yes, I processed all my books and I also made card pockets and checked them out to family members.)


Inside the cover, a book plate has been affixed. The labels came as part of the book series. You can see that my name was carefully typed on the label (shown above right).

Throughout the book, marginalia can be found from various readings. One of my favorite examples is found below. Apparently, the romance of Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher was overwhelming for me a child (shown below).



try itTry It!
Explore a couple blog entries with interesting examples of marginalia and inscriptions.
Women Marking the Text
A Report from the Bunker
Margents and all
Shakespeare's personal library
An Atler'd Case
Annotating and Collaborating
Marginalized Heralds

To see many more examples, go to the Early Modern Annotated Books collection. You can explore many examples of annotated books.
Look at some of your own books. What will book historians say about them in the future?



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