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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Research Value of Marginalia

Marginalia are scribbles, notes, underlining, doodles, etc in the margins of books. Today people often write notes on the margins of books, particularly in text books. Not long ago this was a more common practice not just in text books, but for any kind of reading. Marginalia were also used as a social activity between readers; friends would exchange books to read each others' reactions to stories. Readers often consider marginalia a visceral response to texts; John Adams was famous for his copious marginalia in everything that he read. My image of Charles Lang Freer did not fit with the likes of the passionate John Adams or Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who coined the term marginalia. It seemed too frenzied an action for such a thoughtful and meticulous person.

Charles Lang Freer was poor but ambitious and went to work at a young age. He quickly worked his way up in business from a lowly bookkeeper. Freer became a successful businessman and his meticulous nature born from his job as a bookkeeper had much to do with this. His conscientious tendencies stayed with him throughout his later life as an art collector and connoisseur. Freer kept records, receipts, journals, and notes of all his art purchases, travels, and correspondence. He was thorough and a planner, who researched the kinds of art that appealed to him and went on trips around the world to acquire it.

The Buried Cities of Ceylon by S.M. Burrows
It came as a surprise to me that Freer had marginalia not only in books, but also on maps, and the backs of receipts. Upon deeper reflection and observation it is evident that Freer was a very passionate man; much of this is shown through the marginalia in his personal books and travel diaries. His pride and joy was his art collection. Freer was gaining a deeper and wider understanding of what he called “the art aesthetic.” It makes perfect sense that his passion would arise in his marginalia on maps, in journals, on the back of receipts. It is here the man rather than the businessman is seen in all of his thoughtfulness and passion.  

One of the most striking examples of Freer’s marginalia comes in the form of a book he bought for one of his trips to Sri Lanka. The Buried Cities of Ceylon by S.M. Burrows, published in 1905, is filled with Freer’s marginalia as he traveled through the country. The following note is from when he visited the Dalada Maligawa, or Palace of the Tooth in Anuradhapura: “The monument entrance is very beautiful showing elephants, horses, lions, cow (Indian) and geese on the inner circle (Page 54).”

The pages from Buried Cities of Ceylon.

This note exemplifies how Freer became lost in the wonders of the places he visited while still capturing all the details around him while traveling. 

Freer was a complicated man. Scholars still study him, striving to acquire a full picture of the man behind the art collector and businessman. Perhaps it is through the marriage of his dichotomy of meticulousness and passion that scholars gain a full portrait of the man behind the success.  

Marginalia is morphing from being found in physical formats such as books to online forums, tweets, and comments on social media websites. It has sometimes been overlooked when exploring the lives of individuals and perhaps the practice is becoming lost in the fast changing world of today’s technology.  It seems it is worth a second look when combing through archival and library collections.

Late Qing Dynasty map of the Beijing-Fengtian (Shenyang) Railroad from the Charles Lang Freer Papers complete with Freer's marginalia (1910).

Lara Amrod, Archivist
Freer|Sackler Archives

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