by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Writing”

Marginalia

Posted 23 July 2009 in by Catriona

As I mentioned briefly, I’ve been at the annual conference for the Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand for the past couple of days, where I presented a co-written paper called “Ariel and Australian Nineteenth-Century Fiction: A Case of Mistaken Attribution.”

Just in case you’re bubbling over with an uncontrollable desire to know what we were talking about, it was a paper tracing the misattribution of five long serials in the Sydney Mail (an early Australian newspaper) that have become known as the works of Eliza Winstanley, the Australian-trained actress on whom I worked for my Ph.D., when they’re actually the work of another author altogether.

It’s a distinctly old-school kind of academia, attribution studies. And I love it. Though I don’t have the patience for it as a full-time research focus, it taps into that part of my brain that, firstly, likes to think of myself as a collector and, secondly, prefers something concrete and empirical as the basis for my research, rather than theory that is closer to philosophy.

Oddly, though, that’s not entirely what I wanted to talk about. What I was thinking about here was something that showed the split in the conference and in the attendees.

Mind, I don’t think this split was a bad thing. Rather, I think the organisers did a marvellous job of showcasing the two faces of the conference theme: “The Limits of the Book.”

You see, the way it looked to me was this: the conference attendees were either librarians or scholars working in the (admittedly broad) field of literary studies. Of course, the two fields aren’t mutually exclusive and they aren’t impermeable categories (and they met perhaps most explicitly in the character of the scholarly bibliographers)—but they did tend to prompt different but sympathetic approaches to the idea of the limits of the book. Librarians and bibliographers were tending to think in terms of lost and missing books, of variant texts and disputed authorship. The rest of us were thinking of the limits of the book in terms of e-books, blogs, cover art, and blurbs—indeed, paratextual material of all kinds.

An awareness of the way in which paratextual material extends the limits of the book was one of the areas where the two (sympathetic) approaches overlapped most broadly.

But one aspect that intrigued me the most wasn’t really the explicit focus of any of the papers, but came up in more than one discussion session. That was the idea of marginalia.

I’ve never really been a scribbler in books—barring a couple of misguided semesters as an undergraduate, and even then I limited myself to scribbling in my own books.

But marginalia is fascinating on a number of levels. And not least (and I admit, here, that this is not my own insight, but something that arose out of the question sessions for a couple of papers) is this: marginalia is something that slips past the kind of digital scholarship that has made academia so much easier in the past twenty years.

The online MLA International Bibliography, for example, is far easier to navigate than the old physical volumes. OCR issues aside, online journals and newspapers are a far more convenient method of searching than microfilm copies—and have the added advantage of not making me seasick. And online library catalogues make many forms of study—including scholarly bibliography—much easier.

But marginalia slips past online library catalogues. How can it not? Marginalia isn’t always present in the book at the time at which it enters a library’s collection. How can you assess the marginalia of a collection, other than to physically walk up and down the shelves, pulling books down and looking for scribbles and interleaving? And how often would you need to keep doing that, while marginalia continues to be added to the books? How can you assess the extent and scholarly value of marginalia, other than physically reading it?

I’m not denying that digital scholarship aids the preservation of marginalia. Projects such as Early English Books Online preserve the marginalia in the copies of the books that they scan—but they don’t always note the presence of that marginalia in their entries for those books, because they aren’t always interested in what a sixteenth-century collator scribbled in a fourteenth-century text.

(And book-based social-networking projects such as Library Thing are generating their own form of marginalia, which will be of enormous value to future scholars.)

But marginalia is of enormous value now.

One paper I saw in the past couple of days talked about a new twist in the (long, long) history of the understanding of the variant texts of Piers Plowman through marginalia in a forgotten (late) edition.

And consider book historians—particularly those whom Jonathan Rose categorises as “new book historians,” the ones who are not as interested in what people read (through library records and sales figures) as they are in how people read. The personal reading experience of the common reader is notoriously difficult to resurrect after much time has passed, but marginalia tells us how one reader, at least, responded to a text.

I have no idea how marginalia can be more effectively traced and catalogued, though I wish I did.

But I do know that I’m following up two of the books mentioned in question sessions: William H. Sherman’s Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England and H. J. Jackson’s Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books.

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