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Writing in books’ margins can reveal the feelings, reactions of readers.

Scientist and former USC president Thomas Cooper wrote extensively in the margins of his books, even improving the inventions described in them.
Jeanne Britton
Irvin Dept. of Rare Books and Special Collections
Scientist and former USC president Thomas Cooper wrote extensively in the margins of his books, even improving the inventions described in them.

The practice of writing in the margins of books, or marginalia, goes back centuries.

As University of South Carolina rare books and special collections curator Jeanne Britton flips through the pages of a book, she’s not just deciding whether to read it. She’s looking for marginalia. Marginalia is the notes and comments (and occasional drawings) readers sometimes write in the margins of books they’re reading, as a reaction to the text.

Britton said while the study of margin writings among English scholars is fairly recent, marginalia itself is centuries old. “People were writing, in the Middle Ages, notes in the margins of the books they were reading. Included in the term marginalia are small illustrations. Things like the stars and the lines that we often leave in our books today.

“In the Middle Ages, what people left that I find really enchanting, are very detailed, hand-drawn, pointing index fingers, called manicules. It’s like they’re signaling ‘don’t forget this!’ It’s like a Medieval version of a highlighter.”

While usually only a small, but increasing, number of scholars studies marginalia, the practice also has grown among some students, Britton said.

“Students are definitely interested in it - interested in seeing examples of marginalia. Because it’s proof that the text at hand really meant something to another reader. And it also creates this strange emotional experience where, depending on what the content of the marginalia is, you can kinda feel like you’re eavesdropping on someone’s very private conversation or hidden thoughts about something.”

One of Britton’s former students, Savannah Simpson, made an interesting discovery researching books at USC’s Thomas Cooper Library.

“Part of our class is literally just digging through the library searching for books with marginalia in them,” she said. “And I had found one book by Dr. Patterson Wardlaw and then my friend had found a book by Patterson Wardlaw, and then we realized ‘oh, this isn’t just two separate books, this is a whole collection that was actually donated.”

More researched revealed that by coincidence, Simpson was related to Wardlaw, who was the namesake of the building housing the university’s department of education. And the marginalia revealed something of his personality as well.

“It definitely highlighted his passion for students,” said Simposon. “I knew going in he was a teacher. He was part of the early public education system, and creating that. But it showed that not only was he trying to pioneer this big movement, and just create a system that worked for everybody, but he genuinely cared about the students’ development and their education.”

In a book Britton reviewed, she made another major connection - with the namesake of the very library she works in.

“It has extensive marginalia by none other than Thomas Cooper, former president of USC, and someone who was a well-known thinker, scientist, whose written letters, written correspondence doesn’t exist. It was lost in a fire,” she said. “So this marginalia is an important instance of how major historical figures - certainly a major historical figure for South Carolina - thought about one of the fields that he specialized in.

“What made it really interesting,” Britton continued, “was that in the back of this volume, he has drawn his own inventions, that are improvements on what’s included in the book! So that, in addition to his own extensive commentary, makes this a book that is more valuable because it was marked up.”

Britton said famous writers have created marginalia, including poets Robert Burns and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Mary Shelley, the author of “Frankenstein.”

“There is a very important copy of ‘Frankenstein’ where Mary Shelley writes in either changes that she wants to make or changes that have been made,” she curator explained. “The third edition is heavily revised in significant ways. She’s looking at the first version of ‘Frankenstein’ and saying ‘ah, I want to change this, I want to change this.’”

Through marginalia, a reader sometimes can almost talk back to the author, agreeing, disagreeing or commenting. Coleridge himself did so, according to Britton.

“Coleridge definitely thought of marginalia as a way of having a conversation with the author of the book. He wrote about how when he was reading a certain book, he found himself saying, ‘no no! that’s not right!’ But then, ‘oh, I see your point.’ And so he wrote about the imaginary conversation, the dialog that he had with the author in the margins of his copy.”

Both Britton and Simpson said that electronic books may reduce the amount of marginalia produced in the future. Fortunately, however, the rich motherlode yet to be mined from the past can still inform researchers for many years to come.


Tut Underwood is producer of South Carolina Focus, a weekly news feature. A native of Alabama, Tut graduated from Auburn University with a BA in Speech Communication. He worked in radio in his hometown before moving to Columbia where he received a Master of Mass Communications degree from the University of South Carolina, and worked for local radio while pursuing his degree. He also worked in television. He was employed as a public information specialist for USC, and became Director of Public Information and Marketing for the South Carolina State Museum. His hobbies include reading, listening to music in a variety of styles and collecting movies and old time radio programs.