Published: Oct. 14, 2019

This transcript of the CU at the Libraries episode “Is It Okay To Write In Books?” has been rewritten for the University of Colorado Boulder Libraries news site. Press play to listen to this episode below or find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your podcasts. 


You know when you’re in a bookstore, and you’re flipping through used copies of a book you’ve wanted to add to your collection for forever, and it’s all marked up? I mean notes, doodles, highlighting… This is marginalia.  

CU Boulder Libraries Conservator Hillary Morgan fixes books for a living. So she works with a lot of marginalia because, in libraries, this is often considered a form of damage, and someone has to get rid of it.  

By day, she’s using a chemical sponge to remove markings in a copy of Beowolf from circulating collections. But after work, Morgan said she can be found reading and marking up her own copy of Beowolf, and loving it.  

Morgan admitted to feeling both torn and intrigued about how she engages with books. She also admitted that it’s a taboo subject in libraries. But she does not believe that she is the only one who marks up their own copies of books. 

So she has called Special Collections Instruction and Outreach Specialist Sean Babbs, Head of Special Collections Deborah Hollis, Digital Imaging Technologist Adrienne Wagner, and Archivist Kalyani Fernando to discuss whether or not it’s okay to write in books in this episode of CU at the Libraries. 


HM: “Let's dive right in. The first thing I'd like to know is how you all feel you treat your collections at home versus at work?”

SB: “Growing up I was a bit obsessive about the condition of my books. I would read them, but I'd open them just very lightly so I wouldn’t crease the spine. I would never write in my books as a kid, that was like heresy. 

“Ironically, I work in Special Collections, where we’re dealing with books that are hundreds of years old. We treat them really well, we use them in cradles when we open them. Now I understand the use of writing in books a bit more by studying the history of books. You can see the value in the marginalia that's been left behind in really old books. I would say that now more than as a kid I do write in my books. Although, again, there are some things I don't really write in and I still find a little bit taboo. For example, Lord Of The Rings I try not to write in because I like to read those over and over again. Also, there's something just special about having a pristine copy of those books.” 

HM: “Adrienne, you work more with digital collections and digitizing items in the Libraries. Do you find that that gives you kind of a unique perspective on writing in print books or do you even use a lot of print books? Do you use more e-books? I'm curious.”

Erasing marginalia from a book with a chemical sponge.AW: “I actually tend on my own time to use a lot of audiobooks these days, which takes out the question of marginalia entirely. But in working with print books at the Libraries, I find that I take much more care with the books that are entrusted to me in my place of work, just because they don't belong to me. They belong to someone else, but for a long time growing up I was not interested in writing in my own books because they were sacred objects to me. But growing up and going through school, and having to work with books as more of a source rather than as a sacred object, you learn to put aside that fear of ruining the text, I think. But I still am not a person who will write in fiction books often, because I find that taking notes and writing and reading the notes later brings me out of the story, if it's a fiction story. I am less inclined to have that fear with nonfiction books. I like to go back and read what I wrote with the nonfiction because that's reflecting on my past thoughts and seeing how I grew in my understanding of the nonfiction text.” 

HM: “Kind of tying into this idea that we've been talking about when it's appropriate to write in books or books that we feel like it's sacrilege to write in versus ones that we feel comfortable with. I'd like to look more at when marginalia adds value to our collections, especially because we work a lot with historical books that do have marginalia. Debbie, would you like to speak to that?”

DH: “Our experience with marginalia is when the previous owner or author has donated their collection, or given their collection or their particular book to Special Collections, and so it comes to us with marginalia. It is both an object and it is evidence, in my mind and other readers’ minds, that the past readers have interacted with the piece and have thoughts to share with themselves.  Initially, they're writing it in the margins and they want to capture a thought that inspires them with a different line of thinking. So marginalia is completely appropriate. 

“We preserve the marginalia and colleagues like yourself help us preserve the cultural artifact. However, personally, I don't write in my books too often. Even if I buy my own personal copy, sometimes I take brightly colored pens and I do want to [write]. So it really depends on the book. I do want to sometimes write and underline and interact with the book. But my line of work is that we do not alter the condition of any of the books that come to our department once they have been written in and then that's it. We preserve those artifacts for other people to analyze, but our rare book collections are a little bit different from archival collections. Kalyani, what is your thought on that?”

KF: “We have several collections in the Archives that also come with book collections. One of them is the Harry W. Mazal Holocaust Collection which entails, I think, over 6,000 books in the Archives. He as a collector made notes on posts and they arrive in that manner and we kept those notes in there because it gives an insight into his thoughts about the piece, his thoughts in terms of how it fits within the collection. From an archival perspective, it is more information that the researcher will have that provides insight into his motivations and into the collection itself. Anytime we encounter marginalia in anything, even in books or documents, it gives an additional perception, or perspective rather, of that subject or the person who donated the collection or the person whose work the researcher is evaluating. Those notes, those doodles give an additional dimension to that person and it can be interpreted in a number of ways. So it's just additional information that can oftentimes be useful for the researcher.”

Books from the Archives.

SB: “This is kind of a personal anecdote, but I'm a historian, so I have a copy of St. Augustine's Meditations and I took all of my notes in it with sticky notes, and it's kind of insane because I let them stick out of the book a little bit so I could see where they all are. I forgot I had done that, so I lent this book to a friend kind of forgetting I had all my sticky notes inside this book. Well, he read it and he actually added his own sticky notes to it, sometimes commenting on what I had written but also just adding his own ideas Then he actually left the sticky notes in the book when he gave it back to me. So it’s this really interesting conversation between people, but you can also imagine sticky notes in some senses as conversations over time. So when Kalyani talks about Mazal making these notes in these books, he's sending us notes basically from another time in history where his experience and his knowledge is different from ours now. So we get this really interesting historical snapshot with marginalia. Be it sticky notes or not, it's just an interesting way to think about what marginalia can add to a book.”

DH: “I just wanted to add that this conversation reminded me of the Folsoms. Franklin and Mary Folsom are CU Boulder alumni. Franklin was the oldest son of Coach Folsom, they were children's story authors, and it's nice to go through their papers in their personal library and see the notes that they wrote on their typed manuscripts or to each other or when their children’s books were published, they would go through the book and continue to edit and make revisions, just like Kalyani and Sean are saying, you can see their thought process as they're reacting to the printed word and it's really wonderful to observe.”

HM: “I really like how marginalia personalizes the object and I thought it was curious, Sean, how you're saying that when you give a book with your own marginalia in it to somebody else, it can feel intrusive, in a way, if you received it back with their own writing in it. I know you're talking about it on Post-it notes but in this case, it was actually a really interesting discussion that you're able to have with it. From a conservator's perspective, we often say we don't want Post-it notes left in our library books because over time the adhesive on them can be acidic. But if you're putting something in there just for the purpose of you want a quick note and then you take it out later, that can be okay in the long run. I'm curious now how we view our own marginalia that we might put on Post-it notes, how we preserve that and does that make it more ephemeral? Or does that make it harder for us to preserve in the long run if the marginalia isn't written on the physical book itself?”

SB: “It’s almost like you need to answer that!” 

KF: “What do you think, Hillary?” 

HM: [Laughs] “Yeah, it's interesting because we want to preserve the marginalia that's written on the Post-it notes but we have to do it in a way where it's not going to necessarily cause damage in the long run to the item that it's preserved with.

DH: “This is a little bit off of marginalia, but you remind me that in Special Collections we sometimes receive books that have little botanical specimens included and bookmarks and little thoughts or shopping lists. In the past we've had similar conversations around, ‘Do we take it out and save it with the piece or do we just make that call and say we don't know how these pieces tie to this book?’ But it is evidence, in my mind, how the reader or readers are interacting with the piece in the content and as an object.”

Famous example of marginalia in Franz Kafka's novella Metamorphosis. SB: “I actually kind of responding to Debbie and Hillary as well. With modern sticky notes, the quality is really low. So we start talking about materials and the quality of the adhesive in the paper is pretty degrading for modern sticky notes. Special Collections has a book that was printed in 1483 and there’s actually an old scrap of a medieval manuscript pasted onto one of the pages. So we joke that it's a medieval sticky note but it kind of is. It doesn't have someone's notes on it but somebody marked that page for some reason and that has lasted for five hundred years whereas my neon-colored sticky note that I stuck in that St. Augustine book that I was talking about earlier, that's not going to last five hundred years. To be fair, the whole book isn't going to last one hundred years because of the quality, which leads us to these really interesting questions of digitization and marginalia.”

AW: “When we do digitization, we try to preserve the marginalia as much as possible. For instance, when we digitized the Alice Mackie Diaries, we found bookmarks within the front covers. There was a little bird feather and we have digital records of all of those things that would be kept with the collection.”

HM: “When we're looking towards the future of marginalia and the role that e-books and digitizing are playing in how we view our texts and how we're storing these items. How do you think this is going to change the shape of marginalia or what we refer to as marginalia?”

AW: “With e-books, most of them have features where you can highlight a section of text and it will take you to a ‘Notes’ page where you can make your notes. It's less personal I feel because you're not able to add in arrows and doodles and things like that which I find helpful. There are also programs these days where you can export your notes so you can use them for reference. But that does divorce them from the text in a way.”

SB: “Thinking as a historian and a librarian, printed books are generally not unique in their original form right. They print thousands or at least hundreds of copies often of these books modern, we're printing up to millions of copies depending on what we're talking about. But one thing that makes books unique is the marginalia. So it's kind of one of these ironies for Special Collections and Circulation. We want these books to be the pristine originals right. But the minute they come to Special Collections, we're really interested in the marginalia because that makes the work unique in some way.

“What's interesting kind of tying back to this digitization and electronic discussion is that as a historian you gain tons from digitization, right? You have access to so many more books that you otherwise wouldn't have but there are things you lose as well. One of the key things you lose when you digitize a book is that you lose the uniqueness of all of that marginalia. So people will digitize their copies. And now all of us are stuck with whatever marginalia is in that copy. Or maybe we'll look for a copy that doesn't have marginalia and use that, but we're forgetting or losing the context of how people are using these texts and some of the uniqueness. So for people who study books or certain texts really closely, they still have to go to individual libraries to see the marginalia in those books to see how people were responding to these books at the time.”

KF: “I think it will have an effect of dissociating the marginalia from the object itself. I oftentimes think of marginalia as contributing to the material culture of an object of a book. And so there is an immediacy that's there when you have writing and text in the margin as a direct reaction to a piece that one is reading. With an e-book, marginalia might be more convenient and might be cleaner but it's definitely a different experience than in carrying marginalia in a physical book.”

SB: “Recently, Debbie and I ran a class in Special Collections that had a lot of incoming freshmen students, and we talked to them a bit about how they access information right. Are they accessing e-books? Are they looking at printed books? Are they not even reading books? And basically everyone there preferred hard copy printed books over e-books and I think that has interesting ramifications for how we continue to interact with these pieces. Again, it sounds like maybe at least those of us here today feel that e-books have maybe less interact-ability. So having that hard copy will allow students to continue to interact with the books and produce marginalia in interesting ways.”

HM: “This was super informative and I'm so grateful to all of you for having this discussion. I know it's far from over and there will probably be people listening that have their own specific views on this, so this is definitely a discussion that will continue into the future. But thank you again for your time!”

The Circulation Department reminds us to treat library items with care. 

If your puppy makes a book a chew toy, you spill coffee or you burn the midnight oil on a book, come talk to us! We understand that stuff happens, and we’re here to help. We’d much rather have our experts repair the book, so no need to use tape or try to repair it yourself.

For more information about Special Collections, Archives and Preservation or Circulation policies, visit