Marginalia. Apostil.  Scribbles. Scrawled notes. Annotations.  Post-its and routing slips.

One of the greatest joys I find in working with archival material is the treasure of marginalia and annotations.  Sometimes, as with annotation, the notes and comments are made with intent.  The writer has a purpose and intends for readers at some future time to utilize these to further understand or explore the writer’s thoughts with regard to the text, map or illustration.  Editorial notes are also written carefully, precisely and with a fixed end in mind.  But other times, these minute treasures are those intimate thoughts that one shares with only their co-worker or partner or fellow committee member or with only one’s self.  The notes scribbled in jest, in irony, with a twist of sarcasm, or in all seriousness due to the gravity of text.  These are the notes we forget about as we pass the document on to coworkers and friends or store them away on shelves and in drawers.  And these are some of the most poignant notations that give a glimpse of insight to the personality behind the paper.

I receive a memo from the “office upstairs” that describes in detail the life-path and life-expectancy of a budget request that is so absurd and subject to hair-pin turns that the office upstairs provides a map and an organization chart!  Perhaps I write a post-it note stating that the “life expectancy of this request is longer than my own because I’ll be dead before it gets through the system” I hand this to my secretary to forward to my co-worker and friend to copy the process chart for her own files.

My coworker reads it, chuckles, writes back that “it’s a good thing the request was not for life insurance or retirement”and returns the original document and note to me. I file the chart and procedures map, post-it notes intact, for future reference.  I forget about it.  Years later, the office forwards the documents to the archives.  And someday, someday, an archivist (like me) or an historian or a research graduate will find that little note and know the truth. This is a truth that the document doesn’t reveal.  Sure, the budget request process tells us all about the organization, the comptroller and her methods, the bureaucracy of it all.  But, the notes, they tell another story.

I have found pearls in all of the collections I have worked with over this last year or so in archives and museums.  The director who scribbled his initials and a ‘smiley face’ depicting his worry, joy, frustration or consternation regarding the text he’s forwarded.  The exec that wrote (probably regrettably) off-the-cuff emotional responses mostly spelled correctly.  This is the 1980’s equivalent to those emails that should be held for 24 hours before hitting ‘send’.   The pilot that wrote notes and ‘to-do’ lists on a napkin for a later that never happened for him.  The doodles and notes to their neighbors of the staff during presentations and meetings. An artist’s self-reflection on divorce in the margins of tax forms.

And, as some of you may know, I carry a little pocket book and keep quotes from conversations with friends and colleagues, overheard in coffee shops, found on bathroom walls and just about anywhere else you might think I’m not listening *wink*.  I’ve now added to my collection some notes from the archives.  Here are just a few paraphrased pearls from my notebook.  The authors, texts and conversation places were not as relevant as the script, so I have not included context except where I felt it was needed, but the rest I leave to your imagination…

“On and on it goes : ( ”

“The glacier moves”


“You asked for it, you got it”

“L – we need to have a high level meeting to stop this nitpicking”

“Murphy’s Law prevails.  Hard to prevent, but I hope to keep it to a minimum.”

“those darn bats!”

“he wants to start monitoring his animals from the air”

“This place moves at the speed of brick”

“I mustache you a question” (bathroom wall with illustration of mustachioed man)

“We are puzzled by the bureaucracy…”

“Power steering fluid, leaking?” (margin of newspaper)

“Please forge my signature →”

“the tenacity of brass over aluminum”

“Sh**! I pushed the wrong one.”

“I can honestly say that I have never slept with anyone in this bar.  Why do you ask?”

“Yah, well, if you grow your own, what’re you gonna do?”

“Slither; dog and demon” (on a napkin)

“Call, write and note”


I won’t carry on à la George Steiner on the importance of engaging our texts, but these small samplings of human momentaria, marginalia, soul-dust if you will, are pearls we hardly have a chance to create anymore.  You will find no marginalia on this blog.  You will find no post-its on the email in your inbox (maybe email is sometimes it’s own form of marginalia).  No penciled in remarks on your e-reader for me to find later as I organize and preserve your collection of e-books.

Sticky-Notes for Kindle and other notes apps engage our minds and writing in a different way.  Electronic methods affect our marginalia in the same way that typing and eventually word processing affected our writing and editing.  We are no longer engaged with the word; we are word processing.  Electronics books are convenient and fun (I have a few).  Typing, laptops and blogging are convenient and allow for greater dissemination of information and thought.  But, writing in the margins is an art not a science.  No technology can emulate the satisfaction of annotation and doodles.  No, sadly, with the advent of e-paper there will be no notes, quotes or pearls.  There will be no smiley-faces and doodles.  No, I’ll just take the plain-ol’ laser printed version, wrap it in metallized plastic and call it a day.

This entry was posted in Today In The Archives. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s