H.J. Jackson wrote an entire book on the subject of marginalia, or readers’ scribbles on the margins of books. The most famous example of a reader leaving his mark on a page of a book — and consequently on an entire field of studies — is that of Fermat and his little last theorem for which he noted that he’s come up with “truly marvelous” proof, but one too large to contain in the margin of his book and so regrettably omitted. (The proof for the theorem was not discovered until 400 years later, and it took over 100 typed pages.)

The marginalia in a library copy of Paul Goldstein’s book I now have checked out is unfortunately not so marvelous. It is present on every page, each exhaustively marked — underlined, circled, checked, bracketed, and complete with marvelously banal summaries. To be fair, the add-on commentary is not without its entertainment value. Our diligent vandal — I’m certain that there is a single culprit here since the handwriting and pencil sharpness are uniform throughout — has left every user coming after herself the following

  • a record of her reading schedule

Library book as record for reading speed?

  • a doodle to let us her that she’s not all work & no play

Library book as sketch book?

  • and even an entry of her weekly schedule. For instance, we see here that there’s a blood donation on Friday, 11:45 on Welch Rd.

Library book as appointment calendar?

Now yours truly, despite working in the preservation department, is no library prude. I believe that books are most valuable when they are used. To be read — to be pored over, pondered, digested, understood, rejected, absorbed, imbibed — is the ultimate aim of every book, and the wet dream of every librarian who purchases books for her library collection. To this end of having a book used, I’m willing to countenance — and even welcome — many abuses on the physical object. Books splayed opened with their spines up, books tagged with post-its leaving sticky residue, even books pockmarked with marginalia (sparely please!) are preferable to books that never see a single use.

I draw the line when a patron’s use materially hinders future uses by other patrons. Just as I value the use one patron was able to get from the book, I value the experiences of other patrons — experiences that are diminished by one reader’s leaving extensive marks throughout the communal property that is the library book. Goldstein’s words — the book message — are both literally and otherwise obscured by the marginalia. Engaging with the text, reading, understanding, and expanding upon it (in one’s own head and paper!) have become notably more difficult due to the distracting doodles. In cases where harm is inflicted upon users whose claim to use is as legitimate as any coming before them and no proportional benefit is reaped — surely the blood donation information could’ve been noted on something other than a library book — the full prude in me comes out: just don’t do it!

PS. In case you come across a library book that is substantively (as opposed to comestically) damaged, please do bring it to the attention of a library staff. Even if the library does not choose to repair the book — either due to budget constraints or disagreement with you about a need for repair — at least the choice will have been made deliberately and not as an oversight. I thank you.

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