Digital Marginalia: Discourse or Gimmick?

The Future Space of Bookselling Conference
Bangor University
3-4 June 2016

Click image for PDF of presentation.

Later published as a journal article: Skains, R. Lyle. 2019. “Discourse or Gimmick? Digital Marginalia in Online Scholarship.” Convergence.


Writing in other people’s texts is a centuries-old habit, from monkish scribblings on scripts to student notes in library books. Marginalia has been studied as discourse, as historical documentation, and as evidence of reader response. Recent studies on digital annotation have labeled it “digital social reading”, as readers can share their annotations, and read others’; some authors are experimenting with this function in creative texts. As many academic texts are now available electronically, from online journals to e-books, it seems a natural step to incorporate the interactive functions of the Web 2.0 — comments, annotations, shares, likes, and even new marginalia tools such as ReadSocial, etc. — into a digital discourse occurring on a source text itself. Yet despite scholars’ natural tendencies toward discourse in both print and verbal forms, the practice has not caught on: junior scholars are reluctant to risk their future prospects by disagreeing with a senior academic on the paper itself; mid-career academics have little time to contribute to activities that are not “REF-able”; and much of the interaction that does occur is dominated by scholars who are pushing their own agenda rather than actually engaging. So how can scholars use digital tools for interaction and marginalia to foster discourse, a key element in any research field? This paper will explore the experiments that have been tried, in both academic and creative contexts, and propose some options for publishers and authors.

Cite as: Skains, R. Lyle. 2016. “Digital Marginalia: Discourse or Gimmick?” In The Future Space of Bookselling Conference. Bangor, Wales, UK.

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