UA Professor Finds John Stuart Mill in the Margins

Albert Pionke
Dr. Albert Pionke

More than a century after John Stuart Mill’s personal library was donated to an Oxford college, a University of Alabama English professor and a team of international collaborators are allowing a broader audience access to the history literally hand-written by Mill into the margins of his books.

Mill, arguably the preeminent English-speaking philosopher of the 1800s, annotated extensively as he read, and, along with his father, utilitarian philosopher James Mill, may have inscribed as many as 50,000 examples of verbal and nonverbal marginalia in his personal collection, later donated by a relative to Somerville College, Oxford, in 1905.

Designated a special collection in 1969, the Mill Library has recently become the focus of increased scholarly attention. Dr. Albert Pionke, a UA professor of English and specialist in Victorian-era literature and culture, is digitizing Mill’s marks and annotations, creating an online web application and associated database, Mill Marginalia Online.

“Having access to Mill’s unvarnished reactions to his reading is as close as we will ever get to witnessing one of history’s foremost minds in the process of thinking,” Pionke said. “Being able to watch this groundbreaking philosopher, political theorist and critic at work has simply never been possible before, and should serve as a virtual gold mine for scholars of John Stuart Mill.”

At its launch in April, Mill Marginalia Online contained close to 10,000 marks from about 200 books. Pionke estimates as many as five times as many nonverbal marks and verbal annotations will eventually emerge from the entire 1,700-book collection.

Pionke’s partnership with Somerville College, which includes librarian and archivist Dr. Anne Manuel, represents the most wide-ranging examination yet of the Mill marginalia. The search has uncovered dozens of different kinds of marginalia including question marks, chevrons, arrows, seven types of scores – and even a single musical note.

By making the marginalia in Somerville’s John Stuart Mill Collection accessible and searchable anywhere in the world, Pionke hopes to use Mill’s own words and myriad nonverbal marks to return him to virtual life.

UA funded Pionke’s work and hosts Mill Marginalia Online itself. Somerville, through private donors and external bodies like the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation and Britain’s National Manuscripts Conservation Trust, is identifying and cataloging the extent of marginalia in the collection along with conserving the physical books.

“We have no idea what the research questions of the future might be,” Pionke said. “All that we do know is that future scholars will want all of the information we can give them.”

Learn more about Dr. Pionke’s research and Mill Marginalia Online by reading the full article on the UA news site.