Marginalia — writing notes in the margins of books — is not an exact fit for digital books. But the concept has been getting bantered about in a metaphorical sense to denote any kind of user annotation in digital texts. In my June article on Cathy Marshall’s studies of user annotations is this quote from Mitch Ratcliffe: “Creating marginalia is an art made for the era of ‘crowdsourcing’.” Ratcliffe’s article is a long technical commentary that sounds very “metadata-ish,” although he doesn’t actually use the meta-word. So it wasn’t surprising to find that he has made the connection between user annotation/marginalia and metadata, in a July article [boldface in all quotes added]:
Readers will be the creators of the most important metadata describing books. Period. There is no second-guessing that conclusion, which has been proved again and again in every hypertext environment in human history. Defining the problem of book metadata without treating the reader as the fulcrum of the process is missing the point.
Poking around a bit more to find connections between “metadata” and the “metaphorical marginalia” of user annotations, I found interesting commentary in 2005 around David Weinberger’s article Crunching the metadata (Excerpt from Weinberger, boldface added):
We’re going to need massive collections of metadata about each book. Some of this metadata will come from the publishers. But much of it will come from users who write reviews, add comments and annotations to the digital text, and draw connections.
As the digital revolution continues, and as we generate more and more ways of organizing and linking books–integrating information from publishers, libraries and, most radically, other readers–all this metadata will not only let us find books, it will provide the context within which we read them. … The real challenge to traditional publishing today comes not from the digitizing of books, then, but from the very nature of the Web itself. Using metadata to assemble ideas and content from multiple sources, online readers become not passive recipients of bound ideas but active librarians, reviewers, anthologists, editors, commentators, even (re)publishers.
Weinberger doesn’t use the word “marginalia.” But the word IS used in Ben Vershbow’s articles commenting on Weinberger. In Vershbow’s first article (tagged with “marginalia”) he says:
The book in the network is a barnacled spirit, carrying with it the sum of its various accretions. Each book is also its own library by virtue not only of what it links to itself, but of what its readers are linking to, of what its readers are reading.
And in another article by Vershbow that continues on the same theme, Daniel Anderson, in a comment, is reminded of Billy Collins’ poem, “Marginalia,” which, he says, “points to the conversations that take place as readers jot their reactions in the margins of books.” Excerpt from the poem, as quoted by Anderson:
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. …
Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer . . .
A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil-
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
“Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”
The Talmud page with marginalia at left is from Vershbow’s article Web marginalia.
Eric Rumsey is on Twitter @ericrumsey