On Bookmarking, Dog Ears and Marginalia

June 14, 2010

I’ve been having a lot of conversations with people recently about how they bookmark stuff. It seems to be on a lot of peoples’ minds as more and more of our reading moves onto screens. So I thought I’d share a few things, and ask for some feedback.

the insincerity of words

Firstly, here’s what I do:

  • I dog-ear a lot. I dog-ear every page that has something interesting on it (which is not always obvious when I return to it), and I dog-ear my last position in the book. Top corner. Sometimes I try to make the dog-ear point to the exact place in the text I’m referring to, but this doesn’t really work.
  • I was using bkkeepr for a while, and I’m really pleased to see that lots of people still are (especially this, which I’ve mentioned before). But it’s a bit shonky (sorry) and really needs more love than I can give it right now to make it a lot more efficient.
  • I photograph pages and add them to Flickr. I really like this, actually, but it’s only suitable for some quotes. Most stuff doesn’t make it there, but it’s a surprisingly frictionless process from iPhone to the web.
  • I keep what I now realise is a commonplace book. A constant stream of notebooks—except most of my own notes go straight onto a keyboard these days (and thence to an SVN repository, but that’s a different article), so the books are where everyone else’s notes go: notes on talks, and pages copied out of books. A lot of these. This is how I think.
  • There are quite a lot of post-it notes around my house, too. “Quite” might be understating it.

Commonplace Book

Alex, ingeniously, has two types of dog-ear: one in the top corner for location (stack pointer) and one in the bottom corner for interesting books (bookmarks)—I think that’s right.

Russell currently sends quotes to Flickr and his blog from Instapaper, using the latter’s nifty send-quote-to-Tumblr feature. This is a bit like my Flickr technique, and while I want to look at how people interact with physical books, this quoting behaviour is still important.

Both of these activities enable, as they do for me, blogging all dog-eared pages (hat-tip to Mike), which feels like a new thing. Public commonplace books.

Other people use marginalia much more extensively. Underlining too. Ed Champion recently presented a nice cross-section. If there isn’t a Tumblr dedicated to found marginalia already, there really needs to be.

Someone I know always writes their name in the front of each of their books. I’d like to do this but I haven’t so far and bibliomania would mean I’d have to go back and do all of them and I simply do not have enough arms. My father always tucks newspaper reviews into his books—such reviews being the primary way he comes to books in the first place. Another relative writes their own short reviews on the frontispiece immediately they finish a book (this moment, immediately after turning the last page, is so charged with meaning I’m going to have to go on and on about it another time).

Working on a recent project, we came up with an inevitably incomplete typology of bookmarks, not including the progress mark, which goes something like this:

  • Pointer: a bookmark with no additional content. Underlining. A bare quote.
  • Note: a bookmark with some additional content. Marginalia. Adding something to the text, alongside it.
  • Reference: a bookmark with a link to some other content. Adding something to the text, pointing elsewhere.

This seems simple, but it’s quite key, with regard to inline bookmarking. Then there’s the more general stuff associated with the whole text, or groups of texts. But lets start with this.

What do you do? What are your bookmarking strategies and techniques? What do your books look like when you’re done, and how do you collect this information (if you do)?


  1. Just like Alex D-S: top corner for location, bottom corner for interesting things. This forces me to re-read the page and find out what I thought was interesting, and that’s a good and bad thing. It also stops me underlining too much – I would underline so much at university it became a rhythmic thing, and I’d lose track of what was important in the first place.

    Sadly, getting quotations out of the book and onto the web is just a case of time. I have two books – Markman Ellis’ book on the Coffee House, and Joe Moran’s On Roads – that I have yet to type up. They will be done, though.

    Once books are annotated online: the dog-ears go; they’re only intended temporarily. They leave a mark, but I unfold them once they’re cited.

    Comment by Tom Armitage — June 14, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

  2. I haven’t read a non-fiction book for ages unfortunately, but for a while I was sticking post-its in the front and making page-numbered notes on those as I went: http://www.flickr.com/photos/philgyford/9499585/

    I’d later type those up, so more recently I’ve tried typing notes directly into my iPhone (in Simplenote) while reading. It’s more efficient but turns the whole thing into much more of a chore — one too many devices, and the extra screen feels more disassociated from the book. Writing on the post-its was no quicker, but seemed more part of the flow of reading.

    When I’m reading the LRB or NYRB I turn over a corner to mark a page and make a small tear to indicate roughly where on the page the interesting passage is. Remembering to go back and note these down before I give the paper away is another problem though.

    Comment by Phil Gyford — June 14, 2010 @ 1:25 pm

  3. Very interesting post. Like you, I dog-ear pages that appeal for whatever reason. Mostly they’re small dog-ears, but I apply larger ones to mark a chunk of several pages. Sometimes it’s just a few dog-ears per book, more usually it’s rather a lot, and sometimes it gets completely out of hand! I also write down or type passages. Occasionally I photograph a page, almost always for illustrative purposes for my blog.

    I haven’t written my name in a book since I was a kid, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of doing so again under certain circumstances. For remembering where I am in a book, I use bookmarks — usually ones I’ve made with paper and cardboard. Sometimes I double up with a blank one, so I can more easily make notes when I’m out and about.

    Comment by Stan Carey — June 14, 2010 @ 1:40 pm

  4. I only dog-ear to keep place. Prefer to asterisk pages in the margin and underline specific text. Stella quotes are copied to inside back cover (if blank). When I’ve finished the book I’ll transpose notes to moleskine.

    Also wish I had some of these: http://amassblog.com/?p=678#respond

    Comment by Richard — June 14, 2010 @ 1:55 pm

  5. [...] On Bookmarking, Dog Ears and Marginalia | booktwo.org "I’ve been having a lot of conversations with people recently about how they bookmark stuff. It seems to be on a lot of peoples’ minds as more and more of our reading moves onto screens. So I thought I’d share a few things, and ask for some feedback." James on bookmarking and annotation – something I'm a big fan of. (tags: annotation books dogearing marginalia ) [...]

    Pingback by Infovore » Links for June 13th through June 14th — June 14, 2010 @ 2:03 pm

  6. Another voice in the dog-earing chorus here. Lately I’ve been leaving them folded even after their initial use; it makes returning to the books/pages later quite enjoyable (like Tom, I don’t underline and instead search for the dog-ear trigger anew).

    For Chandlerisms on Twitter I’ve been rereading all the novels while out and about, and I usually use the Notes app on my iPhone to capture the appropriately-sized nuggets when I spot them. Phil’s right though, it really feels like a chore. If there was a more transparent way of doing that (that’s not photography, too similar to how I use dog-earing already) I’d be very happy.

    (Maybe a lightweight take-a-photo-of-text->highlight-passage-with-finger->OCR->send-quote-to-X app? And a unicorn while we’re at it…)

    Comment by Matthew Ogle — June 14, 2010 @ 2:09 pm

  7. I cannot _stand_ dog-earing, it feels like I’m damaging the book. Personally I carry around a tiny post-it pad and stick them in the pages, allowing long-term annotation without altering the book.

    For a list of things that need referencing in the near future, I write down the page number and brief thoughts in my notepad. It’s not persistent, but then it’s not supposed to be.

    Comment by Jonty — June 14, 2010 @ 3:21 pm

  8. Thank you Jonty – I was waiting for the first dog-ear hater ;)

    Thanks all for the responses so far – please do keep them coming…

    Comment by James Bridle — June 14, 2010 @ 3:48 pm

  9. I write page numbers on a blank page at the end of the book, and if necessary (usually for dense, small-type academic writing) make a small dot in the margin to indicate the relevant bit. I’m not a quotation hoarder (or sharer). If I’m not actually using a bit of text directly in something I’m writing, I’m usually content to the let it remain marked in the book.

    The list of page numbers is pretty simple to do digitally, either with a simple text list or one which links directly to the page(/etc.), but the margin dot isn’t something people seem to implement. The closest thing is frequently highlighting, which is usually too specific for my purposes (unless, again, I’m marking off something to quote in what I’m currently writing).

    Comment by perching path — June 14, 2010 @ 4:43 pm

  10. It’d be worth reading Lemony Snicket’s “Series of Unfortunate Events” as Klaus makes extensive use of his commonplace book.

    I sometimes scan pages from mine in (http://www.flickr.com/photos/dumbledad/tags/notes/ ) but I’m in awe of some of my colleagues notebooks, e.g. some scans from Richard’s made it in to Bill’s book: http://www.richardbanks.com/?p=1633 and Richard photographed the stuff from his notebook pocket: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rbanks/3260621439/

    You also might want to take a peek at these: Jackson’s book “Marginalia: Readers writing in books” (http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/book.asp?isbn=9780300097207 ) and any of the HCI studies done to understand paper annotations towards digital designs (like Marshall’s “Annotation: from paper books to the digital library” http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?doid=263690.263806 )

    Comment by dumbledad — June 15, 2010 @ 3:02 pm

  11. [...] computer, such as a PC, Mac, or even iPad!" (tags: retrotechnology typrewriter ipad via:jwz) On Bookmarking, Dog Ears and Marginalia | booktwo.org "Both of these activities enable, as they do for me, blogging all dog-eared pages (hat-tip to [...]

    Pingback by links for 2010-06-15 — June 15, 2010 @ 9:06 pm

  12. Get Evernote.
    It’s great for clipping bits and pieces from the computer or taking photos and keeping them organised.

    It even does text recognition to help with searches.

    Comment by Gregory McKinnell — June 15, 2010 @ 10:36 pm

  13. [...] On Bookmarking, Dog Ears and Marginalia I’ve been having a lot of conversations with people recently about how they bookmark stuff. It seems to be on a lot of peoples’ minds as more and more of our reading moves onto screens. So I thought I’d share a few things, and ask for some feedback. [...]

    Pingback by Morning Links 16 June 2010 | The Digital Reader — June 16, 2010 @ 11:38 am

  14. On Bookmarking, Dog Ears and Marginalia | booktwo.org…

    …onto screens. So I thought I’d share a few things, and ask for some feedback.” James on bookmarking and annotation – something I’m a big fan of. ……

    Trackback by On Bookmarking, Dog Ears and Marginalia | booktwo.org | Intenseblog.com — June 16, 2010 @ 2:55 pm

  15. No dogears for me either, only on my field-bred spaniel, who makes them look good.

    Here’s an essay by a professional historian: basically a card index, or paper notes sliced up and rearranged as needed. See

    I like ‘omnium gatherum’ for the heap of incidental scribbles which piles up in the corners. Wikipedia thinks that “Omnium Gatherum is a five-piece melodic death metal band from Finland”. Melodic death metal ?

    My commonplace book is a text file which is updated with cut/paste or typing in. This breaks down on longer extracts of text though, so not entirely satisfactory. Actual annotation is done via weblog posts though most of these are potential rather than realized.

    I haven’t read Denton Welch in thirty years. I thought his style rather precious then, but that page reminds me to try again. Thank you.

    Comment by Doug K — June 16, 2010 @ 7:58 pm

  16. Name and date usually gets written in to books, and always for books given or received. I enjoy seeing the names and dates in old books – my grandfather’s collection of Robert W. Service poetry, dated 1916 when he was still with the Army in South West Africa. For example.
    I can’t see that a copy of my paperback from the last flight to South Africa will have the same resonance, but you never know.

    Comment by Doug K — June 16, 2010 @ 8:29 pm

  17. Cathy Marshall has done some fascinating research on this– take a look at her article “Annotation: from paper books to the digital library”, in which she observed and interviewed students in a used textbook store. You’d be interested in her mapping of form and function.

    Comment by Patrck — June 17, 2010 @ 3:16 pm

  18. If I may be so bold, I published a paper on common-placing in law books a few years ago in the Arkansas Law Review. I’m currently working on a book called “Reading Lawyers,” which has a chapter on marginalia and bookmarks. One factor to consider is the move from private marginalia and bookmarking to published glosses, when the marginalia takes on textual authority of its own. And one shouldn’t forget the role of printed sigla in books, of which the best example is the pointing finger found in early editions of the King James Bible, which, by the way, do not indicate important passages, but, rather, passages about which the translators had disagreements. Christopher de Hamel [ manuscript expert and Librarian of Corpu Christi College, Cambridge]published a brilliant study of glossed bibles, which goes into some of these issues. There’s also a collection of essays, mainly in French, on the subject, called Auctoritas. I’ll be glad to supply further references and examples, if anybody is interested. From a neuroscience perspective, medieval and early modern lawyers tended to view these devices as “memory extenders.”

    Comment by mike hoeflich — June 18, 2010 @ 10:52 pm

  19. [...] On Bookmarking, Dog Ears and Marginalia [...]

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  20. Dog-earing small corners of interesting content – which I will sometimes come back to to copy down quotes and references into notebook(s).
    Little marking/ writing on actual page, some underlining, but small dots next to important lines can be useful when re-scanning page for refs.
    Post-it note system on pages for re-finding refs in academic work. Those primary coloured marking stickers which don’t spoil paper can be good too.
    I think all these functions could be transferred to one screen-based reader, with possibility to bookmark, underline, highlight, annotate, link elsewhere, link to personal notes – with much efficiency. If such a programme doesn’t already exist?

    Comment by yellowtiptoes — July 10, 2010 @ 9:52 pm

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