Side note

The bibliographical definition of the term side-note is a note (reference or brief summary) in the outer margin of a page, beside the text to which it pertains (Suarez & Woudhuysen 1156). Some bibliographical sources do not define the term side-note separately, instead preferring to refer the reader to the much broader term marginal notes (Glaister 445). These too are defined as notes printed in the side margin of a page opposite the portion of text to which they refer (315). A difficulty arises with Glaister’s definition though when he appears to contradict himself when defining shoulder-notes as marginal notes at the top outer corners of pages (445). The position of shoulder-notes makes it impossible for them to refer to the portion of the text that is opposite to them, and instead a more accurate definition is that they are a brief note printed in the top outer margin of a page and that they typically summarize the page contents (Suarez & Woudhuysen 1156).

Side-notes are set in a distinguishing type but do not have an established rule of conformity unlike foot-notes which should be set in type that is two sizes smaller than that used for the text (Glaister 181). Side-notes that have been inserted by the author consist of gloss which is defined as “marginal explanation of text, ranging from the translation of a foreign or obscure word, or a brief scriptural or bibliographical reference, to extended commentary submerging the text” (Suarez & Woudhuysen 753). The amount of side-notes and gloss in a text were naturally influential on the size of margins used by the printer. Generous margins are suggestive of a text designed for substantial annotation (914). An alternative to marginal side-notes is cut-in side-notes. These are notes to a work which are set in the text, the type being built around them on three sides (Glaister 125).

Image of text with side-notes

Marginal side-notes, due to their nature, fall under the scope of marginalia. Marginalia is defined as “notes, commentary, or other matter written, printed, or inserted in the margins of a book or manuscript” (Suarez & Woudhuysen 915). Samuel Taylor Coleridge (in 1832) was the first English man of letters to use this term and subsequently wrote extensively on the subject, becoming one of the most celebrated writers of marginalia (Cuddon 526). In her book, Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books, H.J. Jackson writes about how friends would deliberately lend Coleridge their books, knowing he would mark them up endlessly. This highlights how marginalia, and in turn side-notes, have a significant influence on the state of the text, and the readers understanding of said text, and for this reason their importance cannot be understated. Thomas McFarland in a paper on Blake’s marginalia states that “marginalia always, whether in greater or less degree, invade their host text…for the marginal notation forces open the text, constitutes itself unavoidably as an intertext” (Barney 166). This quotation shows the polemic nature of side-notes and marginalia. They can ensure that the reader is certain of the intended connotation of a text while simultaneously opening up the text to further interpretation.

Barney, Stephen A. ed. Annotation and Its Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Cuddon, J.A. A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. 3rded. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd. 1991.
Glaister, Geoffrey Ashall. Encyclopaedia of the Book. 2nd ed. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2001.
Jackson, H. J. Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.
Suarez, Michael F., and H. W. Woudhuysen. The Oxford Companion to the Book. Oxford: OUP, 2010.

Contributed by Marc O’Driscoll.

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