So this is an interesting thing I've come across. I recently purchased a modern book for my research and whoever had the book before me had some pretty great things written in the margins.

As a medievalist, citing marginalia is par the course, but this strikes me as a bit different for two reasons:

  1. Normally, we cite the library where the book came in our works cited so that others can reference it. In this case, it's in my personal library.
  2. I don't know who actually wrote the marginalia, but the likelihood that they could be actively publishing now makes me less inclined to want to "steal" (scare quotes because obviously I'm intending to cite it) their ideas before they get a chance to, something that's definitely not the case with books written several hundred years ago.

What approach should I use to using the marginalia both in terms of integrating its ideas into my work (as if it were another paper, though obviously not peer-reviewed) and in terms of citing it (I'm using MLA 7, but may need to switch to MLA 8 depending on when I finish this particular work)?

  • 10
    What a delightful conundrum! Commented Nov 9, 2016 at 2:20
  • 8
    I am a bit surprised about questions like this (and there are many). Is MLA really so restricting as to make such things a serious problem? In mathematics, where reference formatting is mostly up to the authors and the editors, I would have no trouble referencing it in a way that would convey the information to human readers appropriately (e.g., "[Anon98+] Anonymous, Marginalia on the pages of J.-L. Loday's "Cyclic Homology", 2nd edition, Springer 1998"). Machine parseability is trickier, but not much of an issue (machines wouldn't find such references very useful anyway). Commented Nov 9, 2016 at 8:31
  • 3
    Can you not try to find out who owned the book before you to see if they know who wrote the margin notes? (I'm also a bit perplexed why you think someone doing active research on this book would've sold it.)
    – Kimball
    Commented Nov 9, 2016 at 12:45
  • 2
    Not really a comment but this sounds pretty romantic/cool! This question has inspired to write more margin notes in my book and hopefully someday someone will want to cite them! Commented Nov 9, 2016 at 16:07
  • 1
    @darijgrinberg how to cite is really the secondary question (if that's all it was, I'd just use the format for an incunable and cite "Article Author Personal Library" and wait for the journal to complain if they didn't like it), the primary one is how to go about using it (or not) given that I have it. Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 0:59

2 Answers 2


As far as I can see, you have 3 options: not using the material, using it without citing it and using it with citation. As you have no idea whether anyone is ever going to publish the ideas in those margins, not publishing seems overly cautious. Especially since you want to use the ideas there but seem to have no other source to credit.
Using without citing it seems like a very bad idea. Even disregarding the risk of the original author of those margins coming forward, passing someone else's ideas as your own is unethical.
That leaves citing the margins as is. You could explain the unusual circumstances in the publication you intent to use it in. If you have a personal webpage, you could publish photo's of the margins and also refer to those. Also you could simply offer anyone interested in those margins to contact you.


The APA, MLA, and Chicago formats suggest that you cite the title of a work when the author is unknown. That doesn't work here for obvious reasons, so I think you'll have to do something creative such as making a note in the citation itself. In-line citations will also be tricky to do unambiguously, but I think I'd go with something like (Marginalia, 2017) or (Anonymous, 2017) in addition to explaining the unusual circumstances in the text as dimpol suggests.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .