On Marginalia and Annotation
On Marginalia and Annotation

On Marginalia and Annotation

Annotation as a kind of reader commentary has been around for centuries and has been applied to ancient and religious as well as literary texts.  The particular kind of annotation we’re using this term is closest to marginalia: the way that readers “mark up” texts in the process of reading them.  The golden age of marginalia might have been the nineteenth century, and writers themselves the most diligent of annotators.  The classic text in praise of marginalia is Edgar Allan Poe’s 1844 essay, “Marginalia.”  Marginalia are different from notetaking said Poe (“the making of mere memoranda”) on the one hand,  and the witty repost (“desultory comments of literary chit-chat”) on the other.  Marginalia are “deliberately pencilled, because the mind of the reader wishes to unburthen (sic) itself of a thought;–however flippant—however silly—however trivial—still a thought indeed.”

For Poe, the intended reader of marginalia was limited to its author: “we talk only to ourselves; we therefore talk freshly—boldly—originally—with abandonnement. . .” (more about annotation as internal monologue to come).  For others, the writing and reading of marginalia were part of a social process of exchange: friends and lovers wrote marginalia for each other; “marginalized” texts were shared and seen as adding intellectual value to the underlying text.

Until recently, marginalia depended upon a scarce analog antecedent text that was possessed by a single person who had obtained (by purchase) the right to do whatever they liked to it.  Marginalia was passed down from reader to reader via the owner’s relinquishment of possession through sale or donation—an unwelcome violation of the original and, thus, devaluation of the object.  This persists in the valuation of used books (including textbooks), with the highest value placed on books that have not been marked up.

Marginalia have been the bane of librarians and those of us who have worked in libraries.  Public libraries democratized the use of books and hence reduced the status of marginalia to civic vandalism.  My summer job upon graduation from (Davidson) college was check-out at the library.  In between (infrequent) patrons I had to erase marginalia from an insurmountable stack of books.  The smell of rubber eraser has stayed with me sense (so to speak).  Libraries also anonymized marginalia: marginalionists seldom claim their work in library books.

The advent of electronic publishing and reading platforms in the 2000s coincided/prompted what Mark O’Connell called in 2012 a “marginal obsession with marginalia”:  “There has recently been a slight but noticeable escalation of interest in marginalia, partly because of the way in which the Internet has cultivated readers’ enthusiasm for discussion of their own reading practices and peculiarities, and partly because of a preëmptive nostalgia for the book as a tangible (and scrawlable) object at a time of increasing e-reader ubiquity.”  In 2010 Sam Anderson highjacked an annual “year in reading” feature in the website The Millions to produce “A Year in Marginalia” chronicling and illustrating a year’s worth of his marginal noodling and doodling.

Some commentators lamented the rise of ebooks and ereading as the death-knell of analog publishing and, with it, the demise of marginalia: if there is no material object, there is no “place” for the reader’s notes to become a part of it.  Attempts by Kindle and other ebook platforms to support highlighting (not the same as annotation!) and margin comments were largely derided by “professional” writers and readers as a hopelessly clunky and experientially diminished substitute for a #2 pencil.

However, some looked beyond the beta-version of digital marginalia to imagine a brave new world of social reading—one that ironically looked back 150+ years to Poe’s annotation technology.  Anderson “imagined a stack of transparent, margin-size plastic strips containing all of my notes from [David Foster Wallace’s] “Infinite Jest.” These, I thought, could be passed out to my friends, who would paste them into their own copies of the book and then, in turn, give me their marginalia strips, which I would paste into my copy, and we’d all have a big virtual orgy of never-ending literary communion.  It was a hopelessly clunky idea: a vision right out of a Library Science seminar circa 1949. It occurred to me later, however, that this embarrassingly analog fantasy should actually be possible, fairly simply, right now, with digital technology — that this sort of hypercharged marginalia might be one area where the e-book can actually improve on the tree-book.”

O’Connell’s response to this People’s Democratic Republic of Marginalia also reaches back to Poe and his valuing of the practice as personal rather than social.  For O’Connell, marginalia memorializes the inherently private relationship between a particular (readerly) subject and a particular (authorial) object: “A book someone has written in is an oddly intimate object; like an item of clothing once worn by a person now passed away, it retains something of its former owner’s presence.”

Is there a difference between marginalia and annotation?  Again, Poe suggests the basis for a distinction.  “All this [marginalia] may be whim; it may be not only a very hackneyed, but a very idle practice;–yet I persist in it still; and it affords me pleasure; which is profit, in despite of Mr. [Jeremy] Bentham with Mr. [John Stuart] Mill on his back.”   In other words, it was sufficient to Poe for marginalia to be “merely” pleasurable rather than productive; further, that there was personal value in “spending” one’s idleness in such an activity.  Bentham, who died in 1832, and Mill, who in 1844 was an influential and prolific writer well-known on both sides of the pond, were famously proponents of social purposiveness: utilitarianism (sometimes reduced to the maxim: the greatest good for the greatest number of people).

Were they alive today and consulting to the tech sector, Bentham and Mill would be on Anderson’s hypercharged marginalia team and might well have Hypothes.is as one of their clients: annotation has become a social and organizational tool and a business. Poe would have a podcast.

I am a generational latecomer to annotational tools, some of which are features of platforms I regularly use but have not bothered to explore.  For all I know, Hypothes.is is the Myspace of annotation.  However, teaching and learning in a pandemic drive one toward the demonstrably viable and the immediately applicable, not the promising and the cutting edge.  Thanks to Leah for suggesting it.  I would rather have an annotation plug-in for university-supported WordPress websites, but there isn’t one and, understandably, new plug-ins are not being considered.

I’m still figuring out how to use Hypothes.is and adjusting to its quirks and limitations, but I am taken by its approach: annotation as meta-textual layer.  As a browser-based tool, Hypothes.is hovers above digital texts waiting to be activated by the reader.  Logging-in instantiates it as a marginal space in relation to a particular text where annotations can be added.  The sociality of those annotations can be scaled from the private to the invited group and up to the (for me rather scary) level of the “public.” Thus, the reader can have both personal/private annotations and social annotations.

What tethers these layers to the text is a semantic unit—a word or phrase.  This obviously privileges linguistic texts over image, graphic, and media texts and makes some forms of digital texts easier to deal with than others.  We’re working on it.

It is at this in-between level/layer of sociality—the closed, small group—that we will be using Hypothes.is to produce collaborative, iterative social readings of key texts: sample case studies, scholarly articles and book chapters, and primary sources.  Annotation could also be a dimension of your final project.

Here are a few thoughts on annotation as social reading to accompany your engagement with the Eli Hill case study and to keep in mind as we apply it to other texts.   Please feel free to annotate this reflection on annotation as you go.

Here are some tips for “students” from Hypthoses.is: https://web.hypothes.is/annotation-tips-for-students/ .  If you find them helpful, that’s great, but we are clearly not the target audience.  –The best tip, I think, from this student guide is “if there was one rule of annotation, it would be this one: Your annotations should add something to what is already in the text you are annotating.”

Annotation is a process as well as the product of that process.  It might be helpful to combine the process of writing personal/private annotations with that of writing social annotations.  You can do this in Hypothes.is by creating a new private group of one, although I confess I still like to print out texts and annotate the old-fashioned way.

Either way, it is good to start by reading through the text again and taking notes as you go.  A question that arises in at the beginning of the text might well be addressed later on.

For the Eli Hill and other cases, you’ll benefit from going over the readings that have been flagged as particularly relevant.  This need not be a “close” reading of these articles and book chapters, but enough for you to grasp the key arguments and see the relevance.  The readings might well address questions that have arisen in your re-reading of the text.

Some thoughts about writing annotations for historical texts. . . .

Be intellectually humble.  Don’t assume anything.  Some historians would call this avoiding the problem of “presentism”: the projection onto the past of our categories, explanations, meanings, and values.  Better to ask what something might have meant or how it was relevant than to assume it was the same as it is now.  Do, however, look for possible continuities and disruptions between the time period we’re focused on and our own.

Regard the case study as the first not the last word.  In reading any scholarly work: be skeptical of its assumptions and generalizations.  Suggest alternative interpretations.

Ask lots of questions, especially those that are generative of lines of exploration and discovery.  Given the paucity of evidence we have about so much of this history, why questions (“why did they do this?”) are a lot more difficult to answer than how questions (“How did they do this?”) and what questions (“What did they do?”)

Be on the lookout for ways that things are/might be connected to other things.  The more we are articulating them, the more likely it is that we will find more.

Add to our common resources.  If you know of an article or book chapter that you think we should know about, by all means add it to your annotation.  But better still, add it to our reading list in the Google drive (everyone should be able to add to it)