Conserving the Collection: An Introduction

Alongside the digitisation of the marginalia, the collection is also being conserved so as to preserve the physical objects for posterity. A knock on effect of digitisation projects is the increased interest in the objects themselves, and there are a number of treatment approaches that can strengthen the often fragile volumes. In conservation, we are not trying to make the object look ‘new’, but rather to use techniques that preserve as much of the original material as possible while still restoring a functionality to the volume. Often the books will look very much the same on the outside, but they won’t fall apart when you open them.

Poor handling of books in a library can cause a number of problems. Often spine pieces become detached when the book is continually pulled from the head edge, or when the covering material breaks and degrades. Missing spines can mean the loss of important information and makes the rest of the cover more vulnerable. Conservation can repair lost spine pieces and reattach fragments using toned materials, for example in this cloth bound volume:

Emerson, R. W., Essays (1841)


Spine of R. W. Emerson's Essays (1841) before undergoing conservation treatment


Spine of R W Emerson, Essays (1841) After undergoing conversation treatment

The structure of a book is a brilliant and enduring technique for collating and protecting the otherwise fragile pages of a text. Many of the ways in which books get damaged  have to do with the mechanics of use, for example, broken joints where the book is constantly opened and splits in the spine where the book has been forced at a particular point. For example, this item has both boards detached and a split down the spine:

Mandeville, B., The Fable of the Bees. Part II (1725)

Before treatment, with detached boards:

Mandeville, B., The Fable of The Bees with detached boards prior to conservation

During treatment:

Mandeville, B., The Fable of the Bees (1725) During treatment, transverse textile spine linings are adhered and linen braids to consolidate the sewing supports.

After treatment, with the original spine back in place and the boards reattached:

Mandeville, B., The Fable of the Bees (1725) After treatment, with the original spine back in place and the boards reattached.

In this example I adhered kozo-fibre paper and textile spine linings underneath the original spine. These held together the split in the textblock, and formed part of the board attachment on the book.

The conservation treatments are carried out at the Oxford Conservation Consortium, where our busy team work for the library and archive collections of 17 Oxford colleges. We are also the custodians of the Chantry Library, a collection of conservation literature open to the public. You can read more about the Chantry here.

Nikki Tomkins, Conservator, Oxford Conservation Consortium

Launching Mill Marginalia Online!

Welcome, all, to Mill Marginalia Online!  Our earlier in-process site will soon disappear, replaced by this new, functional iteration of our work (  Thanks to the indefatigable Tyler Grace and Nadia DelMedico, as well as to the eagle eyes of our advisory board members (with Anna Gibson and Phyllis Weliver deserving special acknowledgement), our private beta site has been tuned, expanded, and beautified into the public web presence you can now see and browse.  Although we foresee future refinements to the search function, marginalia categories, and methods of attribution, and we of course anticipate the addition of further data, we are proud to present the first 10,000 examples of marginalia from the John Stuart Mill Library.  Those who would like a bit of guidance in using the site are advised to consult the brief “How to Use This Site,” located in the About section.  Or you can just click your way in to a virtual visit, and get to know the Mills in a whole new way.

Albert D. Pionke, Project Director and Emma Annette Wilson, Co-Principal Investigator

Thankful for Beta Testing

With tryptophan receding, I am moved to give thanks to the technical staff at the University of Alabama Digital Humanities Center and to the members of the advisory board. As I write, a mostly functional version of the project database and user interface is being tested, and prospective static content for the final site peer-reviewed, all with an eye towards a public debut in spring 2018.

Although our original plans had called for an exclusively noSQL database, experience and the rapidly growing corpus of marginal marks and annotations have required us to modify our approach. The beta site employs a hybrid of a SQL and noSQL database, one that capitalizes upon the former’s speed in filtering and querying and the latter’s flexibility and ease of updating. Thus, a simple differentiation between verbal and nonverbal forms of marginalia is married to a Json field containing a readily expandable set of categories and subcategories that both allows for more precise identification of the myriad types of marginalia found in the Mill Library, and accommodates the discovery of new forms of marginalia as the data is collected. This hybrid approach should permit such additions without requiring updating the pre-existing dataset or large-scale data migrations.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, though, we would do well to recall what Mill himself advised, in his Introduction to the System of Logic (1843): “Until we know the particulars themselves, we cannot fix upon the most correct and compact mode of circumscribing them by a general description” (CW 7.3). Which is to say, time and beta testing will provide the evidence to test this refined technical approach. Enough now to appreciate those (including the indefatigable Tyler Grace) who have gotten us this far.

Albert D. Pionke, Project Director

Farming James Mill’s Marginalia in the Fields of David Ricardo

Tucked into the top row of the C shelves of the Mill Library is an unassuming collection of tracts—written in response to the Corn Bill (ultimately passed in 1815) and the early nineteenth-century agricultural depression that led to the Luddite disturbances— and bound together under the title Corn and Labour.  Those with the fortitude to forage past An Enquiry into the Causes of the High Price of Corn and Labour; Wages Must Rise; Thoughts on the Causes of the Present Difficulties and Internal Distresses of the Country, and its sequel, Hints, Addressed to the Serious Consideration of the Tradesman, the Agriculturalist, and the Stockholder; and Thoughts on the Causes and Consequences of the Present Depressed State of Agricultural Produce; will find a rich harvest of marks, annotations, and editorial corrections from James Mill sown throughout the margins of his friend, David Ricardo’s, Essay on the Influence of the Low Price of Corn on the Profits of Stock.

Obviously reading with an eye towards future republication, Mill has meticulously numbered each paragraph, not as they were originally written, but as he would like to see them recombined and broken.  Note, for instance, his imperative to wrap a sentence-length paragraph into the existing paragraph 42 below:

Sentence long paragraph written by Mill on David Ricardo's  Essay on the Influence of the Low Price of Corn on the Profits of Stock

Note also the annotation, which concludes by yoking “profits of stock” to “the cost of producing food.”  Food for the thought of capitalists in a period of agricultural protectionism.

Many of the annotations grow to considerably greater size than this, however, with those found on pp. 4 and 12 hinting at just how much grist there was for the elder Mill among the fertile fields of free trade promoted by Ricardo:

Mill's marginalia gets larger in scope

Mill would not, of course, have made many friends among the followers of General Ludd with his closing observation that prices of corn, and hence profits of stock, may only be raised “nominally” without lowering “the wages of labour.”

Whatever the hypothetical reception of his marginalia among agricultural laborers, it seems clear that Mill was most concerned to produce an effect upon Ricardo, whose argumentative plowshares he wanted to help sharpen into swords.  His helpfully critical editorial persona is perhaps easiest to see on p. 44:

Mill writes critical editorial marginalia on this page.

Here, Mill asks Ricardo to clarify his rejection of Thomas Malthus’s approval of Adam Smith’s statement about the relative value of improvements made in agriculture and manufacturing, writing simply “How can they be compared?”  On this same page he also suggests a new paragraph break at “Productive” and a subsequent paragraph wrap through “employed on the land?”; with these specific editorial changes proffered in order to emphasize the disagreement with Malthus in the first place, and to better define the terms of that break in the second.

Neither Ricardo’s subsequent pamphlet, Proposals for an Economical and Secure Currency, nor the remaining two tracts in the volume, receives much attention from Mill, who has apparently cast his immediate stock of editorial seed upon corn prices and stock profits.  The results achieved by Ricardo only two years later in Principles of Political Economy and Taxation suggest that Mill’s editorial labor was not performed entirely in vain, even if, up until now, it has remained hidden in the margins of this earlier and more occasional text.


– Albert Pionke

Crane Flies and Paper Dolls

I’m coming to the end of my second, three-month stint here in the Mill Library, and am now almost two-thirds of the way through the collection. My spreadsheet has more than doubled in size since my last blog post – it’s gone from around 12,000 entries to over 26,000 – as I’ve moved through philosophy, politics and economics to classics, religion and now literature. The sheer number of marks and the variety of books that they appear in continue to be surprising; we didn’t know what to expect in the classics section of the collection, for example, but there was extensive annotation in edited works of Aristotle, Plato, Ovid and Sallust, among others. These findings reinforced the impression of John Stuart Mill as a reader that we were starting to formulate from his annotations of earlier volumes. An edition of the works of Sallust from 1665, for example, is peppered with handwritten, pencilled definitions of Latin terms.

In his own autobiographical writings, Mill stated that he had read ‘all Sallust’ by the age of twelve. These markings may well have been for his own benefit, but they could also indicate the role that he played as teacher and tutor to his younger sisters. In 1819, he wrote in a letter to Samuel Bentham that his sister Wilhelmina had read some Sallust, and that another of his sisters, Clara could too, ‘after going through the grammar.’

We see not only Mill the tutor, but my favourite –sassy Mill, the editor and critic. He was a pernickety reader of Greek and Latin texts, frequently crossing through the printed text and offering his own interpretations and definitions of terms nearby in the margins. Inaccuracies, outlandish arguments and unsubstantiated claims transformed Mill the editor into Mill the critic. He could be extremely acerbic in his commentary on the works of others, even if – in the case of contemporaries like Thomas Carlyle or George Grote  –he enjoyed a personal relationship with them. We see Mill witheringly challenging the assertions made by Thomas Arnold and George Grote in their histories of the Roman Empire and Greece, respectively.

Yet, as Albert has pointed out in a previous post, there was often a stark difference between Mill’s private and public comments. For example, incredulous question marks and exclamation points noted in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s England and the English don’t tally with Mill’s description of the work as ‘the truest [book] ever written on the social condition of England’, and the author as ‘a writer of acknowledged merit’, in an open letter in the Monthly Repository (1834). These comments not only reveal Mill the critic, but Mill the friend and colleague. They suggest that there was a clear distinction in his mind between what could be expressed in the privacy of his library, and in the more public setting of a printed review.

This is a project with incredible scope for engaging scholars of earlier periods and other interests. What can a crane fly, mummified in the pages of one volume, tell us of the early modern paper-making process? What does a reader’s crude pen sketch of a figure tell us of early modern understanding of anatomy?

I’ve written here before about other traces of reading – interleaved notes, folded and uncut pages –but there is evidence to suggest that these volumes also served other functions for their readers. The most exciting – and mysterious – of my recent extra-textual finds are these three figures, tucked between the pages of Arnoldus Vinnius’ Institutionum Imperialium, a vast, heavy, seventeenth-century tome.

The first I found were these two, who seem to be bending over backwards (someone suggested they were proof of the existence of nineteenth-century yoga!). One of them looks like it was cut out of a printed volume, and the other is a hand-drawn pencil copy. Both are coloured with watercolour. A few pages later I found the female figure, also printed and neatly painted in watercolour. They give few clues about their origin, creator, or purpose; presumably they were placed in here to keep them flat, and then forgotten about. The style and printing form would suggest early nineteenth century, and the hand on the back also looks as if it dates from around this time. Could it be John Stuart Mill’s? Are these figures evidence of a relationship between Mill and Harriet Taylor’s daughter Helen in her early childhood? Helen was born after he and Harriet Taylor met, but as far as I am aware we know little of their early relationship.

At this stage, that is as far as I can go; a speculative leap that invites further research. The sheer number of volumes in the collection and marks found mean that I can’t really linger too long on any one volume, however intriguing or mysterious the findings might be. But this is really the point of the project, or at least my role in it: to find the marginalia, in order to eventually facilitate others to come up with the answers!

– Hazel Tubman, Research Assistant, Somerville College, Oxford