From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

January 31, 2005*: In the margins of cyberspace.

Discovering somebody's scribbled notes inside a book that I've opened always seems to invite me into an adventure. I wouldn't go so far as saying that it's like finding a buried treasure (though I've never done that and wouldn't know), and I'm quite sure that it's not the same as opening somebody's diary and sneaking a glimpse into his or her supposedly private life. Perhaps it's similar to stumbling across hieroglyphics and not having a Rosetta stone to help decipher them. After all, if we don't know who it is that wrote in the book, it can be hard to judge whether we should be impressed with that person's comments, or scoff at them. What's clear is that those notes, sometimes only underlining, other times lengthy treatises on the text, hold (for me at least) a special attraction.

Is it right to write in books? Many people claim that, particularly if it's a library book, there's an element of criminality to the act (though some might see it as an art form). Others, probably raised with such a respect for the printed word that any marginalia can only be viewed as defacing the page, relate to any writing in any book as a crime. I don't have any statistics on this, but there are certainly many people who don't feel this way - if there were we'd find much less writing in margins than we do. Still, while reading marginalia might be considered an adventure, writing it is, for many, a "crime". If, however, we succeed in getting over the feeling of trespassing, we discover that marginalia has a lengthy and even respectable history.

Of course my interest in marginalia goes beyond the printed page. It's when we consider the possibilities of digital marginalia that things go beyond the defacing vs. embellishing argument and become truly interesting. It's very hard, after all, to view digital notes added to, or embedded into, a digital text, as defacing that text. That doesn't mean, however, that we know what to do with the possibilities that present themselves when we attempt to fill up the white space of the web.

And perhaps the first question that has to be asked is whether or not the concept of margins has any meaning at all in cyberspace. After all, nothing is stopping us from linking to a document in a manner that supercedes margins. There's little reason to scribble a comment in a margin if instead I can write an entire document and connect it to the original document in such a way that it's contextually accessible. Be that as it may, my ongoing quest for internet based research tools includes, perhaps even focuses on, a good tool for both creating and retrieving marginalia. After all, I know quite well how to prepare a digital 3X5 card - notes and pages that fit that description are scattered throughout my hard drive. What I really need, however, is to be able to underline the text I find on a web page, add an explanation mark, make a note that this reminds me of something else and (we're talking about hypertext, right?) create a link to a similar thought on a totally different page, in a seemingly unrelated (or at least heretofore not linked) text, and have that information accessible to me.

Marginalia is one particular element in an ongoing process. We jot down notes, whether in the margins of a book or on 3X5 cards, or on slips of paper we keep in our pockets, not necessarily in order to remember and/or reuse what we've saved, but because the process of taking notes is a means of interacting with the information that we encounter. If all I do is incessantly read and click, very little information truly seeps in. In a short period of time reading becomes skimming, and finding more links that invite more and more clicks becomes more important that digesting what I read. When I take notes, even when the chances that I'll be using those notes in the future are close to nil, I'm processing the information I've encountered in my mind. So perhaps the metaphor of digital marginalia is only that, and any other tools that can get the job done, no matter what metaphor upon which they're based, would be fine. On the other hand, perhaps the idea of digital marginalia is difficult to realize in practice because, rather than being a step forward, it's actually a step backward. It may well be that the idea of digital marginalia is so much a logical extension of the idea of the web, that we don't notice that to a large extent the web itself is an extended discourse that takes place in the margins of our thoughts. Each link that someone creates to a particular thought is a comment on that thought - perhaps an embellishment, perhaps a clarification, perhaps a vehement disagreement, perhaps little more than an exclamation of "way cool". If that's the case, we have to learn to encourage ourselves and others to make themselves at home in those margins and comment away.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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