From Private to Public: The Impact of Marginalia on Published Content

Marginalia was initially nothing more than a record of private thoughts and reflections in the margins of manuscripts and books. Jonathan Swift, for example, made notes in the margins of his books from his private library over the course of his life, and his marginalia exemplifies the private way in which text marginalia operated historically. Although Swift’s annotated books have circulated over the years, they did not capture the attention of anyone beyond those individuals who picked up his annotated books off the shelf. The use and role of marginalia, however, has shifted since the emergence of the internet. The role of marginalia has become more of a public display of opinions and commentary. Internet annotation tools like Hypothesis have contributed significantly to the changing role of marginalia. On the internet, thoughts and opinions are recorded and accessed on a larger scale and for different, more active purposes. Hypothesis annotations can even be used by the publishers and authors of online material as a way to fact-check or gather ideas and opinions about their content. Marginalia has become a useful tool for academic and scholarly publishers, as a result of its emergence into the public platform of the internet, because it is a way to actively monitor the accuracy and reception of information that is being conveyed to the public. This paper will argue that there has been a shift in the role of marginalia—from what was initially passive, private reflections, to a now active form of public commentary—and this shift has become useful for scholarly and academic publishers because of the invention of annotation tools like Hypothesis.

Marginalia initially operated as a collection of private notes and commentary in the margins of manuscripts and print books. Print marginalia acted as a passive record of one’s thoughts about certain pieces of text. Jonathan Swift’s marginalia is an example of the historical role of print annotations. Paddy Bullard suggests that “in the case of Swift’s private marginalia, any possibility of directly touching the object of indignation is removed. The inscription can only have the most local of effects, since only Swift, or those [closest] to him, would ever read it.”[1] The strictly local effects Bullard mentions is one of the reasons why pre-internet marginalia can be considered a private, passive activity.[2] Consumers of printed content had no way to connect with the author or publisher of the works they were reading, so the reading experience was one-sided and static. Marginalia, then, was nothing more than a physical record of one’s thoughts and opinions at a single point in time, and there was no way for publishers, writers, or other readers to engage with these recorded ideas on a large scale.

Even though Swift, as Bullard notes, transcribed marginalia that was often meant to combat the words on the page, there was no way for him to impact the text, or widely challenge that which he found to be indignant.[3] Jennifer Richards et al. note that “literary scholars have increasingly turned their attention to printed and manuscript marginalia, printed responses to texts, and printed paratexts to reflect on what they can tell us about the reception of literary, and non-literary, texts in early modern England.”[4] While manuscript and print text marginalia is important to current scholars and historians because it reveals how readers once interpreted the content they read, in the time of the annotator’s life, their thoughts, challenges, and opinions had no impact on the content disseminated in their own society. With the creation of the internet and tools like Hypothesis, however, this private form of commentary shifted into a more public activity. With tools like Hypothesis, online content is constantly evolving as a result of the ability of scholars, students, and the public more generally to contribute to what they read on the internet.

Annotation tools like Hypothesis changed the impact of marginalia on published content that is presented to the public. Lindsay Seatter confirms that, as opposed to print marginalia before the internet, “the development of digital technologies and growth of online community environments has promoted the transformation of annotation practices from static to social.”[5] In this more social practice, then, marginalia has the potential to directly impact the accuracy of the content found online. Not only can layers of annotation containing facts, thoughts, and opinions be added to online texts, but publishers also have the ability to act on this added content by editing and/or redacting previously published work to ensure accuracy. Publishers and authors can also monitor the public’s reception of their content. This is one of the ways that Hypothesis annotations are more active when compared to traditional print marginalia. Robin Davis points out that “[e]very annotation is public and can be upvoted, down-voted, replied to, and shared on social media. Some users are marked as community experts with a green checkmark, similar to Twitter’s ‘verified’ marker,”[6] which shows that annotations are becoming a significant part of content provided online. Not only are these Hypothesis annotations available for anyone to see, provided they have the software, but annotations are even encouraged by some publishers and authors, which works to establish the value of annotations, and Hypothesis specifically, on content published online.

One of the sectors that benefit from annotation tools like Hypothesis is scholarly and academic publishers. Heather Staines notes that “[p]ublishers are exploring annotation to facilitate post-publication discussion layers, add author or expert commentary as supplemental content, and streamline the peer-review process.”[7] Annotation tools like Hypothesis encourage readers to actively engage with the text, and other readers, while simultaneously allowing publishers to verify the information they have published, obtain specific feedback throughout the text, and even engage with their readers like they have never been able to before. This shift is crucial because it has changed the way the publishing industry operates. Instead of a one-way transfer of information, annotation tools like Hypothesis make it possible for publishers and their readers to connect and engage in discourse about the content that is published.

Hypothesis has specifically worked “to develop features that will allow scholars to annotate articles within academic databases (Whaley 2015). This could take the form of the age-old tradition of marginalia, or it could even become a platform for peer review.”[8] These online annotations can therefore be used in various ways to both authenticate the content as well as encourage active scholarly discourse. The Hypothesis website addresses publishers directly, letting them know that the “content can stay on [their] site and can be enhanced by layers of annotation curated by authors, community members and others.”[9] The website goes on to suggest that “[a]uthor’s notes, invited discussions, published reviews, enhanced footnotes and better tools for researchers can give [their] journal the edge that increases submissions and keeps [their] readers at [their] site.”[10] Academic and scholarly publishers would, according to Hypothesis, have an advantage if they actively use the Hypothesis tool for their content.[11] Not only, then, do publishers get the added benefit of additional layers of content through Hypothesis, but they also get to participate in their evolving content in a way that has never been possible before.

The role of marginalia has changed significantly from a private, static record of one’s thoughts and opinions to an active, public display of thoughts and ideas with the invention of the internet. Jonathan Swift’s marginalia is an example of how print marginalia was used and circulated traditionally. The example of Swift’s marginalia shows that regardless of the content or intent, the notes he made were never able to circulate on a large scale or impact the public’s interpretation of the information at all. With the rise of the internet and Hypothesis annotations, the role of marginalia has transitioned to a more public, active engagement with texts, authors, and the publishers that make the content available. Academic and scholarly publishers are most affected by Hypothesis annotations because their content is presented and accessed almost exclusively online. Readers can not only actively engage with the published material, but communication is also established between the publisher, author and other readers of the content in a way that has never been possible before.


[1] Paddy Bullard, “What Swift did in libraries,” in Jonathan Swift and the Eighteenth-Century Book, ed. by Paddy Bullard and James McLaverty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 75,

[2] Bullard, Jonathan Swift, 75.

[3] Bullard, Jonathan Swift, 75.

[4] Jennifer Richards and Fred Schurink, “Introduction: The Textuality and Materiality of Reading in Early Modern England,” Huntington Library Quarterly 73, no. 3 (2010): 348,

[5] Lindsey Seatter, “Towards Open Annotation: Examples and Experiments,” KULA: knowledge creation, dissemination, and preservation studies 3, no. 1 (2019): 9,

[6] Robin Camille Davis, “Annotate the Web: Four Ways to Mark Up Web Content,” Behavioral & Social Sciences Librarian 35, no. 1 (2016): 48,

[7] Heather Ruland Staines, “Digital Open Annotation with Hypothesis: Supplying the Missing Capability of the Web,” Journal of Scholarly Publishing 49, no. 3 (2018): 346,

[8] Davis, “Annotate the Web,” 47.

[9] Hypothesis. “Hypothesis for Publishers.” Accessed October 26, 2019.

[10] Hypothesis. “Hypothesis for Publishers.”

[11] Hypothesis. “Hypothesis for Publishers.”

One Response to From Private to Public: The Impact of Marginalia on Published Content

  1. ryanna says:

    Hi Hailey,

    Thanks for this! Since my essay topic was also about online publishing and interactivity, I really enjoyed getting to read your argument.

    I had honestly never thought of Hypothesis as a public tool. Because I’d only ever used it in the context of this class, I almost considered it to be in the same realm as a Moodle discussion board, but you’re completely right to point out how public it really is. I recently started looking at the annotations on news articles that I’m reading and it’s really interesting to see that people actually are using it outside the classroom.

    I know you didn’t touch on this extensively, but what your essay did make me think of mostly was the academic impact of public marginalia. You’re right to point out that Swift’s notes were largely private during his lifetime; However, they’re completely public now. This is the case with many author canonical authors whose personal copies of books, annotated manuscripts, etc. are housed in special collections and archives where any scholar can access them. And most libraries are working on digitizing that content to make it even more accessible. Because of this, scholars and academics can use the marginalia as completely valid secondary sources in their research and writing. I’m not sure that Hypothesis has this academic credibility yet.

    I wonder, does making the tool so public diminish any of the credibility? My mind instantly goes to Wikipedia, which obviously isn’t the most professional source since anyone can post or edit in there. I do realize that this comparison isn’t exactly the same as marginalia, though since we already know those are a secondary source by default.

    Ultimately, I completely agree with your point that tools like hypothesis have encouraged people to interact with online material, and that this is able to influence public opinion about the material. I just wonder if this is a good or a bad thing, especially in academia where we’re encouraged to come to form our own opinions about a text without being influenced? I’m curious to see what the future holds for this tool.

    Thanks for the interesting read!

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