Oxford marginalia makes national news

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A Facebook group allowing Oxford students to share photos of outrageous, fascinating and witty margin notes in library books was picked up by national newspapers this week. ‘Oxford University Marginalia’ currently has 5,556 members who post photographs of interesting margin notes.

The group was noticed by The Telegraph last Thursday. The paper wrote: “Completing a degree at Oxford University is notoriously challenging, and requires an amount of reading that would drive most people mad. It’s no surprise, then, to find out some tired students take their academic frustrations out in the only way possible (in a library, at least): by abusing the books themselves.” In the works are notes to whomever might pick up the book next. One read “Christ, I’ve left the oven on”. There is a lot of wit, but the humour is not always high-brow. Sometimes words and titles are altered: the “r” and the final “i” in Virginia Woolf were scribbled out on the title page of a biography.

April Pierce, who founded the group in 2012, told the BBC, marginalia is “probably not the most enlightened form of literature but it’s entertaining and people enjoy it … [it is] guttural or visceral reactions to a reading experience”. The fact that so many people read the same books means that many have been defaced, some quite heavily, normally by students underlining key points or drawing arrows. But occasionally they share some observations on the works, or frustration at the text. “A lot of the marginalia is frustrated scholars in a library who want someone to hear their outbursts… it’s almost as if they are talking to an invisible audience through their reading material”, Pierce said.

Amongst gems are warnings to other scholars tempted by a footnote: “this man and his books are awful. Do not read them”, marginates one anonymous reader in block capitals. Others express frustration at excessive underlining: “whoever did this needs their writing and underlining implements confiscated” insists an annoyed student, directing an arrow to a paragraph of thickly- underlined prose. There is clearly an unwritten marginalic etiquette to which one unfortunate borrower did not adhere—“how much do pens cost?” scrawled one pencil-wielder beneath a penned annotation. And some have simply to given up (“I would love to meet the idiot who named this stupid book…”), while one let thoughts of food distract them from their late-night essay crises, circling “flapjack” in Shakespeare’s Pericles and drawing a little love heart beneath the word.

The Bodleian Library have stressed that they do not tolerate marginean mischief. Specifically, a spokesperson said that they “do not condone the defacing of library material”. “All students of the University of Oxford who would like access to the Bodleian Libraries sign a declaration which is an agreement ‘not to remove from the library, or to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document, or other object belonging to it’.”

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