Why we write in books

Aug. 10, 2011 8:30 am

CHAPEL HILL
You check out a library book or borrow a book from a friend. When you crack open the pages, you see underlining, maybe even highlighting.

Words are written in the margins of the book, too.

You’re annoyed, outraged and intrigued.

In past centuries, sellers bleached their books to remove the markings from the pages of their books. In the 19th century, many people considered writing in books taboo.

This is in sharp contrast to how people view book annotations today, said Claudia Funke, the rare book curator for the Wilson Round Library.

Book annotations, or marginalia as it’s called in academia because the notes are often written in the margins, are becoming sought after by book collectors and studied by academics.

“It’s a general feeling in academia that no text is really static,” Funke said. “No text has a meaning that stays the same.

While reading a book might seem like a private experience, writing in books provides future generations with the ability of seeing how a book was perceived like few things can, she said.

But scribbles don’t bring warm feelings to all. The kinds of annotations that readers encounter at Davis Library are usually mundane study notes accompanied by crude highlighting and underlining, said Andrew Hart, the preservation librarian at Davis.

“It’s something that the next reader may not find as profound or interesting and may not appreciate in the way that the person who wrote it did,” Hart said.