marginaliaA colleague told me a story once. He had been advising the Vatican on work they were doing to scan important documents, some dating back centuries. IBM had been given the work, and they had put equipment and a team on site so that none of the documents had to travel.

Document scanning can be dreary work. Consider things like contracts, business correspondence, financial records. But in publishing and in archives, the work can be interesting. I would love, for example, to be involved in scanning documents related to the transcendentalists. They have to be voluminous, far-ranging, and rich.

Anyway, back to the Vatican. As my colleague tells the story, one of the technicians was having trouble scanning a page so that the marginalia was coming out as clearly as the main text. The technician, an American, called over one of the Vatican archivists.

“Is this important?” the technician asked.

The archivist studied the document for a moment, handed it back to the technician. “Apparently da Vinci thought so.”

The story could well be apocryphal. I don’t even remember who told me the story. It was that long ago and my connection to the colleague was thin. Apocryphal or not, though, it made a point. Sometimes the marginalia is more important than the text itself.

I mentioned my note-taking style in a recent post. Through college and into graduate school, my style was always to take voluminous notes. It helped me structure what I was hearing and it helped me remember. I didn’t even have to go back to the notes, necessarily, because the process worked so well. Over time, I became even better at creating structure as I listened.

When I look at those old notebooks now, as interesting as they might be, I am most drawn to the marginalia. They tell me, in small ways, what was going on in my life. They tell me, even more importantly, what I was thinking about, and sometimes fretting about.

  • At the start of one semester, I made a note about the names of the other people in the class (“Kus, Donna, Patricia, Nikki, Chris E.,” and someone I could only identify as “Boston5.” Maybe he or she worked at the local television station?)
  • In the opposite margin, I wrote down the names of several other BU professors in the program (Mager?, Kelley, Robert Davis). Maybe I was trying to figure out who my dissertation advisors might be?

I wrote many other notes.

  • “Hypertext” in a circle
  • “128 Bay State Road (next to Army Vans)”
  • “Call Susan Morgan” (Susan was a colleague at Xyvision, the new company I had just joined as a Course Developer.)
  • “EM 711” (I wrote this several times, as a reminder that the material covered in the text would be covered in more detail later, in another class.)
  • Apparently one of my classmates wasn’t in class on 10/31/1989: “Chris Out Sick”
  • After the midterm, I wrote the word “Papers” in the top right corner of one page. Again circled. I must have been anxious about getting things done.
  • A week later I used the upper-corner again for another circled note, “Monday Nights 7-10,” then that same evening I made a note about another possible class, “EM 731, CBI, Screen Design, Human Factors, Authoring Language Programming.” That is so 1989.
  • Work was clearly on my mind, though, because that same evening I wrote, again circle, “OVERHEADS FOR CALS.” This was a reference to a work project at my new employer. Apparently I needed to write it in all caps.
  • (A brief aside: I was marveling at the quality of my notes and I remembered what a good lecturer my professor, Wilbur Parrott, was. I then did a search for him and that led me to an 1878 patent, “Improvement in whiffletrees” and another Wilbur Parrott, who was listed as a witness to that patent. I doubt I will end up using it, but there is indeed poetry in everyday things.)

My notebook ends with what may have been the final lecture on 11/28/89, but after a few blank pages I had faithfully recorded an informal bibliography of the five journals I should be following and then a list of books. I then have two more pages of notes at the very end of the notebook. Left loose in the back of the notebook were the slide I mentioned above and its accompanying note, the journal article, four other journal articles, and some handouts. There is also a short paper I wrote. There’s no grade on it, so I must have handed in another copy. I have to admit it’s pretty good.

Why do I mention all this? I am convinced that our own marginalia is good raw material. As mundane as the notes are, I can use some of them for germs of stories or details for other stories (see my recent entry here on this same subject). I like the thought of this student being so focused in the class, and clearly enjoying it, but then work creeping in. It’s not easy being a working student. and more students than ever are working more hours than ever.

I lived that life for a long time. I worked and did freelance work for each of my four undergraduate years. For the six years that I was a graduate student, I worked anywhere from 24-40+ hours per week in a day job and also freelanced. After I was awarded my M.A., I added teaching to that. For five of those years I was also married. I changed course, so to speak, when my wife and I decided to have children,  so I didn’t have the added stress of being a parent. (That’s also a rising percentage of even undergraduates who have children, and the majority of parents who go to college are women.)

There are stories in there. Some of them might even end up being pretty good.

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