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Centuries-Old ‘Marginalia in Rare Books’ on Display at UT Library

A student of Milton has diligently indexed this 1678 printing of Paradise Lost, with lists of themes and corresponding page numbers neatly but tightly crammed onto the endpapers.

As long as there have been books, readers have been writing in the margins.

An exhibit of rare books at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s John C. Hodges Library contains examples of marginalia from over the centuries. The display bears witness to the reader’s abiding urge to respond to the author’s words or otherwise personalize a text.

Marginalia in some of the centuries-old books reflect habits familiar to modern-day readers. The rare books include examples of note taking, marks of ownership and presentation inscriptions. Also present are examples of family genealogy and rudimentary doodles.

Marginalia also reveal outmoded practices that once were commonplace. Before book publishers began adding indexes, book owners sometimes compiled their own index to the work. A 1678 printing of Paradise Lost in the library’s display includes the reader’s own index to Milton’s poem, neatly printed on the book’s endpapers.

The owner of this 1581 Geneva Bible tipped in extra pages on which to record a commentary on the story of Noah.

It was once common for book owners to bind or tip in extra pages to accommodate annotations. A 1581 Geneva Bible on display at the library includes extra blank pages on which the owner recorded text interpreting the adjacent story of Noah’s drunkenness. The text may have been copied from a popular sermon or lecture.

Transcribing quotations from favorite texts was a common practice in early modern Europe. Even note taking in Bibles was routine. The tradition is evident in a 1577 copy of the Bishops’ Bible containing annotations taken from several sources.

Note taking in Bibles was once common, as shown in this 1577 copy of the Bishops’ Bible.

Many items in the library’s display are early English Bibles that predate the King James Version. They are part of the library’s Shaheen Antiquarian Bible Collection of early printed Bibles from the collection of the late Naseeb Shaheen, an authority on biblical allusions in Shakespeare’s plays.

The “Marginalia in Rare Books” exhibit derives from a study undertaken by two UT librarians, Kris Bronstad and Chris Caldwell, to identify every instance of reader-added notes within the more than 300 Bibles in the Shaheen Antiquarian Bible Collection. For more information about the project’s methodology and discoveries, visit

“Marginalia in Rare Books” is open to the public 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday through December 11 in the Special Collections Reading Room, 121 John C. Hodges Library.

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