The reader behind the book - a look at marginalia

The reader behind the book - a look at marginalia

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Library Intern Katie Ruffley has curated this month's display which is on W.E. Gladstone's habit of marginalia, or writing in books. In this blog, Katie discusses some of the difficulties faced when trying to create a display about books – as well as the contentiousness of whether to write, or not to write, in the margins... 

When I was first given the project of curating a display on marginalia my first thought was ‘How am I going to put this together?’. Followed pretty sharply by, ‘Writing in your books - why would you do such a thing?!’ 

However, as my research went on, ideas sprung to mind and I slowly started to appreciate the practice. How could I not? Between 6,000 and 10,000 of Gladstone’s books have marginalia and there are some interesting and amusing annotations to be discovered. A favourite with everyone is seeing the ‘idiot’ comment written under the name of an author in ‘Methodism: A Part of the Great Christian Apostacy – A Review of the Life and Doctrines of John Wesley’ by T.W. Christie. The library also holds copies of Gladstone's school books from which he first learned Latin and Greek - languages he learned mostly through heavily annotating his books. I particularly enjoyed going through his school books and seeing all his notes in Greek, as well as finding out that he was very keen (and pretty good) at drawing (he must have been doodling during his lessons).

One of the difficulties that I came across while putting this display together (other than losing hours in Closed Access looking at all the books) was how to go about effectively displaying the material. I couldn’t put these rare books splayed open in the display case as there was a risk that the binding of the books could be damaged as a result of being left open. Instead I had to think of a way to display multiple examples without risking damaging any of the items.

Eventually I decided on taking photos of Gladstone’s school book annotations and printing them off to be placed on display. This allowed me to include multiple examples from different periods in Gladstone’s life, and more effectively show the development of his marginalia shorthand.

The practice of marginalia has taken on a different form with the emergence of different reading technologies - it is now quite rare as people using e-readers can highlight text electronically without the worry of marking a page. On an e-reader there are settings to look up the definitions of words, and you can even see how many people have highlighted the same sentence as you around the world! Books have always been a way to share knowledge and opinions, with the idea of lending a book sometimes being a semi-public reviewing process. So why would we change this tradition? With the use of an e-reader and the removal of physical limitations, we can see those around the world who have highlighted the very same sentence.

I remember when I started college, the teacher wanted us to write in our copy of The Odyssey. The thought of taking any form of writing implement to the page felt wrong, I couldn’t stomach the thought of ‘defacing’ my book! Though when I went to university I did become grateful to the other students who had made notes in the library books…

This has sparked a hot debate amongst the Library Staff here at Gladstone’s. Librarian Gary, Director of Collections and Research Louisa and fellow Intern Elspeth make copious notes in all of their books, however they are on different sides of the pencil vs pen debate. Meanwhile our Marketing Manager Amy, Operations Manager Jane, Receptionist Caroline and Warden’s PA Liz all share my horror at the idea of defacing a page. 


What is your view of writing in your books? Do you use pencil or pen? Is it one word or a full thought process? Let us know your thoughts on marginalia by Tweeting us @gladlib!