Adventures in Digital Annotation

My first introduction to annotation was learning how William Shakespeare’s annotations of new words contributed to the English vocabulary and had a huge impact on the standardization of the English language. Whilst several annotations from earlier times were done using pencils, pens, ink, and print media at some point, I find it intriguing that today, annotations can now be made timeless through digitization. Digitizing Mill Marginalia is such an adventure for me, as I have experienced the impact of technology as a gateway across spaces.

Digital annotation is not merely about going through historical books. However, the act of engaging with the historical content is discourse and is also rhetorical. Every (annotated) text in English, French, German, Greek, or Latin and every marking whether a “score”, “bracket”, “circle” or even an “idle mark” is a statement, building on the ongoing conversation. Although I am here now in the 21st century, as I engage with a wide range of Mill’s thoughts, I feel like an active contributor to Mill’s 19th-century discourse.

I am excited to play this role in shaping the discourse of this digital age by making accessible discourse across centuries to contribute to the intellectual and digital landscape of humanities.

Reliance Enwerem, Research Assistant

. . . and New

Mill Marginalia Online could not progress without the careful, creative, and dedicated work of its undergraduate and graduate Research Assistants. Brought on board in August of 2023, Reliance Enwerem has been alacritously processing data from my May 2022 visit to Somerville. About to shift from processing the over 5000 photos to transcribing their pixelated marginalia, Reliance offers a summative visualization and accompanying verbal explanation of the results still to come:

Cleaned using MS Excel, and then analyzed and visualized on PowerBI, these 5303 raw page images from 72 distinct titles (130 individual volumes) come from books written between 1800-1849 (3845 marginalia in pages) and 1750-1799 (530 marginalia in pages). Based on this data, I would say Mill found the works of Erasmus Darwin, Jonathan Swift, and Thomas Bruges Flower particularly significant.

Reliance Enwerem, Research Assistant

Visualizations Old . . .

Recent users of the site will have noticed changes to its functionality and visualizations. The latest update, undertaken with essential assistance from Tuscaloosa’s own local code ninja (thanks Shelbybark!), pushed the site to over 31,000 examples of marginalia and 20,000 associated page, author, and spine images. The sheer amount of data has begun to spawn errors and slowdowns indicative of a platform at the edge of its capacity and so I have, reluctantly, replaced the Author, Library, and Volume views with a pared down View Marginalia interface. You can now download the project metadata, manipulate it however you wish on your own machine, and then search for individual page images that are of interest (for file names, see column O). I have begun the lengthy process of applying for external funding to support the development of Mill Marginalia 3.0, which will, ideally, be able to support the roughly 20,000 examples of marginalia and associated 15,000 photos that have yet to be digitized.

In the meantime, work on the marginalia continues, with my most recent RA, Reliance Enwerem, hard at work on the May 2022 data, as you’ll soon see.

Albert D. Pionke, Project Director

Closing the Circle

May 14-19 saw me back at Somerville to photograph further marginalia in the John Stuart Mill Collection.  I took roughly 6400 pictures of 5500 individual examples of marginalia found on 2500 pages in 91 bound volumes that, collectively, account for 21 new titles, all French.  It was a return to the beginning of the project in some ways, as I advanced to within only two three-volume novels of Alexis de Tocqueville’s De la démocratie en Amérique, which was the very first book I photographed back in July 2015.  Both John Stuart and James Mill’s hands were evident, along with others whose identities may never be known.  Only a handful of books in French and Italian, along with Mill’s collection of German literature, remain.

Albert D. Pionke, Project Director

A March Back to Oxford

Earlier this month, I was pleased to return to Somerville College to gather further data from the John Stuart Mill Collection and to present at the Annual John Stuart Mill Seminar.

Over the course of a week, I took 5480 photographs of just over 2000 individual pages in 224 volumes that, collectively, comprise 59 new titles for a future update of Mill Marginalia Online.  With roughly 80% of the collection now photographed, the end of the project’s data collection phase is gradually coming into focus.  I estimate that three more trips will be sufficient to capture images of all remaining pages with marginalia.

This year’s Annual Seminar featured introductory remarks highlighting the ongoing marginalia census being continued by Jane Macintyre, as well as papers from Dr. Jeremy Fix of Keble College, Somerville Emeritus Fellow Julie Jack, and myself.  Philosophy was the unifying discipline this year, with Mill’s Utilitarian consequentialism contrasted with  Kantian deontology as the basis for identifying moral agents and patients (Fix), his solution to Zeno’s paradox in the System of Logic (1843) reconnected with its Aristotelian roots (Jack), and Mill’s marginal responses to Henry Home, Lord Kames’s Elements of Criticism (1762) revealed for the first time and in the light of Mill’s subsequent publications on their shared subjects of perception, memory, and cognition (Pionke).

The following slide captures Mill’s generally critical reaction to Home’s Elements of Criticism:

Unmentioned by title anywhere in Mill’s published works, Home’s Elements nevertheless prompted Mill’s unpublished attention, which is, of course, precisely the point of digitizing his marginalia.

This effort at digitization gained a new collaborator in late 2022, as my longtime Oxford partner Anne Manuel retired and was succeeded by Sarah Butler as Somerville Librarian.  We met for the first time in person in March, when Sarah organized the Annual Seminar, generously listened to my rhapsodies about the importance of nonverbal marks, and generally created a welcoming and productive atmosphere for a frenzy of photographic work.  Here we are, taking a brief breather amidst Mill’s books:

Just beyond Sarah’s left arm are the works the Jules Michelet, the last author whose books I photographed on this March 2023 trip.

Albert D. Pionke, Project Director