Melville's Marginalia Online is a virtual archive of books owned and borrowed by American author Herman Melville (1819-1891). Select "Policies" for our editorial guidelines, and "Browse Volumes" to view the site's new virtual format.

Newly Published


Purpose and Scope  Editorial Policies  Citation and Institutional Permission Abbreviation and Symbols

Welcome to Melville's Marginalia Online, an electronic catalog of books owned and borrowed by American author Herman Melville, and a digital edition of marked and annotated books that survive from his library. This page explains the project's aims and editorial procedures. To view the site's new virtual format, select "Browse volumes" from the upper-left menu. Return to this page at any time by selecting "Policies."

Purpose and Scope

The author of Moby-Dick, Billy Budd, Sailor and other revered works of American literature was also, as might be expected, a great reader of books. Yet few even among American literary scholars are familiar with the scope and variety of Herman Melville's personal library, and the profound influence of his reading on the growth of his intellect and on the composition of his own fiction and poetry. From youth onward Melville educated himself through rigorous, systematic reading, a habit of life and mind he assumed after the bankruptcy and death of his father required him to withdraw from formal schooling. By the time of his death in 1891, Melville's library numbered some 1,000 volumes before being dispersed among friends, family members, and second-hand book sellers in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Books bearing Melville's autograph and marginalia continue to resurface, bringing periodic gains to our knowledge of his intellectual and aesthetic development. Since Melville marked and annotated his books with uncommon regularity and precision, the expanding record of evidence reveals his direct engagement with many past and contemporaneous works and figures: the King James Bible, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, John Milton, Alexander Pope, Arthur Schopenhauer, William Wordsworth, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Honoré de Balzac, Matthew Arnold, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and a host of others. An ongoing project with cooperation and support from numerous individuals and institutions, Melville's Marginalia Online aims to make this wealth of evidence fully and widely available to readers.

Melville's Marginalia Online succeeds and augments two existing resources. With its "Online Catalog" of books and documents owned and borrowed by Melville, the project follows Merton M. Sealts Jr.'s "Check-List of Books Owned and Borrowed" (1948-50, 1966, and 1988). For over half a century, Sealts's Check-List has served as the authoritative record of title and edition information for books Melville is known to have owned and borrowed over the course of his reading life. It has also documented the growing number and locations of surviving books autographed, marked, and annotated in Melville's hand, with entries devoted to newly emerged books appearing in successive editions of Sealts's Melville's Reading, as well as in supplements published by Sealts and Steven Olsen-Smith in Melville Society Extracts and Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies. Supplying fuller bibliographic entries than was possible in the printed resources, the "Online Catalog" is instantly updateable as new volumes emerge. Its organization and features are described in the "Introduction to the Online Catalog."

Along with maintaining the "Online Catalog," Melville's Marginalia Online digitally reproduces books that survive from Melville's library. In this role it succeeds Wilson Walker Cowen's Melville's Marginalia (1965; rpt. 1987). Housed within the separate collections of numerous research institutions and private individuals, Melville's actual copies remain dispersed, their marginalia out of reach to most scholars. Cowen was first to undertake the task of making Melville's marginalia available to researchers with his 1965 Harvard University dissertation. But he performed his work well before the emergence of many important books such as Melville's marked and annotated copies of Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Thomas Warton's History of English Poetry, and poetical works by John Milton, William Wordsworth, and Edmund Spenser, to name a few. Along with being incomplete, Cowen's edition is difficult to use owing to its own rarity outside of major research institutions. While it aimed to meet a serious need in American literary studies, Cowen's Melville's Marginalia failed to make the scholarly impact warranted by the record of Melville's reading and its significance for our understanding of his thought and writings. The significance is profound, with implications for the study of literary influence, of Melville's aesthetic and philosophical sensibilities and creative processes, and, more broadly, of the relationships of literary production to broader ideological contexts of history, culture, and literacy.

The project's "Online Catalog" supplies links to digital copies of Melville's books, as does its "Browse" menu option, which displays shelf sequences of alphabetically arranged spines linked to their appropriate digital copies. (In instances of badly damaged spines or of rebinding since Melville's ownership, an intact period spine from a different copy is substituted for display in the shelf sequence, but not in the digital version of Melville's copy.) All digital copies are accompanied by bibliographical descriptions and documentary notes, as well as documentation and transcriptions of marginalia. Copies are added as funds become available for imaging services at institutions where Melville's books are preserved, and as volumes held by private individuals become available for photographic capture by the project. Selected digital copies include critical introductions to marginalia, and it is the goal of Melville's Marginalia Online to supply critical introductions for all published copies as contributing scholars continue to take part in the project. If you are a practicing scholar or graduate student in the humanities interested in contributing a critical introduction for a forthcoming volume, contact the general editors Steven Olsen-Smith and Peter Norberg at to discuss the possibility of taking on an assignment.

Editorial Policies

Documentary Display

Page images display in the project's image window in view options of height and width, with an apparatus displayed in the left sidebar. The apparatus consists of a collapsible hierarchy of section divisions, page labels, and documentary descriptions and transcriptions. Selecting a page label identified as marked and/or annotated will display its associated image in the main window and, beneath the highlighted page label in the left sidebar, descriptions of the markings on the page as well as transcriptions of annotations. For example, see Melville's marginalia to Matthew 26.45 in his copy of The New Testament, with the descriptive apparatus open at left to page 52, the image for which is displayed at height in the main window. Positions of marginalia on the page are documented by numeric reference to the textual lines on the page, excluding page headers, blank lines, and non-textual printed lines containing separator bars or ornamental devices. In order as they appear on the page (from the top of the page downward, and from within the text area outward), marginalia are described or transcribed beneath the page label, beginning in the present example with Melville's top margin pencil annotation followed by markings he applied to textual lines 1-6 and 2-3 (the preceding numeral 1 followed by a colon designates the first of the two columns that comprise the layout of this particular book, and would not be designated in the apparatus for a page with an undivided text area).

For a page containing erased marginalia, the apparatus entry includes an "enhanced image" option that, when selected, displays a version of the page that has been layered and filtered through imaging software to bring out the content of the erased material. For example, see Melville's marginalia to Matthew Arnold's "Empedocles on Etna" in his copy of Arnold's New Poems, with the apparatus open at left to page 20 displaying an "enhanced image" option. "Commentary" links address problematic aspects of marginalia in Melville's books and may accompany unerased as well as erased evidence.  Where appropriate, commentary may also identify matters of critical significance such as the influence of a marked passage on Melville's own writing or an unclear allusion in an annotation. Descriptions and commentary are devoted to verified inscriptions, only, and do not typically address other material features such as paper imperfections and stray press ink that could be mistaken for marginalia or, no less frequently, pencil offsets and show-through's of marginalia on adjacent pages. For instance, in the enhanced image displaying erased marginalia on page 117, volume 6, of Melville's set of Shakespeare's Dramatic Works, we can actually discern marginalia on three consecutive pages: the erased checkmark at line 15 on 117, unerased checkmarks from its verso (the following page 118), and still other unerased checkmarks from the recto of the next leaf (page 119). The descriptive apparatus for page 117 refers only to the legitimate checkmark at line 15. The absence of additional documentation indicates for users that the other marks are "ghosts"—not actually present on page 117 but identified respectively in apparatus entries for 118 and 119. This example illustrates the importance of examining the images on this web site in light of accompanying editorial documentation.

Transcriptions of Melville's Hand

Transcriptions displayed in the apparatus present the latest versions of inscriptions and annotations in Melville's hand, with readings aimed at representing Melville's intentions in the act of inscription. The transcriptions do not represent the genetic details of revised content, such as strike-through's or instances of over-writing, although such matters are addressed procedurally in accompanying commentary. Nor do the transcriptions represent Melville's frequent instances of fused, elided, omitted, or transposed letter forms, although outright misspellings are reproduced literatim in instances where they can be plausibly determined. For an informative account of the problems and intricacies of Melville's hand, see the statement of "Textual Policy," by G. Thomas Tanselle, in the Correspondence volume of the Northwestern-Newberry Writings of Herman Melville, ed. Lynn Horth.

Melville habitually inscribed annotations in the top, bottom, and outside margins of the page, often linking annotations in the top and bottom margins to text with corresponding x's or other varieties of markings. In all cases, editorial policy at Melville's Marginalia Online is to observe the line breaks of Melville's inscriptions as well as the exact distributions of Melville's words per written line. Although erased markings are with rare exceptions fully documented, Melville's erased annotations range among the fully deciphered, the partially deciphered, and the undeciphered. As illustrated in the descriptive apparatus for page 60 in Melville's copy of Thomas Beale'sThe Natural History of the Sperm Whale, partially deciphered erased annotations appear with editorial insertions enclosed by square brackets. Where words and letters can be responsibly conjectured on the basis of material evidence, these bracketed conjectural readings appear in non-italicized characters. Single undeciphered words appear bracketed as question marks preceded and followed by dashes. In instances where the number of words in an erased line are not clear, a bracketed editorial estimate is supplied in italic characters.

Attribution of Marginalia

Owing to the dispersal of Melville's library, and indeed to the fugitive character of books generally, questions inevitably emerge regarding conditions under which the notes and markings in Melville's books may be confidently attributed to him, or may instead be assumed to derive from other readers. Owing to Melville's distinct style of handwriting—a style that remained fairly consistent from the 1840s up until his death in 1891—positive identification is typically a straightforward matter of editorial recognition, with problematic cases analyzed against examples of his handwriting in verified period documents. In fact, Melville's handwriting is sufficiently distinctive that these means have been used successfully to identify his marginalia in books that lack his autograph and cannot be associated with him by any available external evidence. But there are numerous cases when inscriptions and annotations in Melville's books cannot reliably be identified as his. When handwriting can be positively associated with some other person in Melville's circle or with a subsequent owner whose identity is known, the individual is identified by name in the left sidebar apparatus entry for the inscription or annotation. When inscriptions or annotations cannot reliably be associated with Melville or any other identifiable person (such as the presenter of a book who inscribed it to Melville or a family member known to have consulted it) or with an unidentified bookseller or librarian (which is sometimes possible based on the content of the inscription), they are labeled in the apparatus as "unattributed." All inscriptions and annotations not labeled as unattributed, and not identified in some way with other specific persons or entities, are judged by the editors of Melville's Marginalia Online to be in the hand of Herman Melville.

The problem of attribution increases substantially with presumed origins of markings in Melville's books. By strict standards of verification, all markings are by necessity attributed rather than confirmed for the simple reason that they lack the strong corroborative character of Melville's recognizable letter forms. But Melville's accustomed array of signal marks is in many instances quite distinct and recognizable, so that in most cases it would seem overly fastidious to question the authenticity of a triple cross-check mark, say, in a copy known by documentary evidence to have been owned by him. Even Melville's individual checkmarks frequently display a characteristically rounded contour that is readily distinguished from sharply angled specimens. Nonetheless, except in cases where marks are explicitly associated with annotations in Melville's hand, in no case can the possibility be excluded that a subsequent reader (whether in or outside of the Melville family) consulted a book owned and marked by Melville and (for whatever reason) proceeded to mark it in a fashion that resembled marginalia it already contained. Moreover, Melville's frequent use of generic, non-distinct markings such as marginal scores and underlines makes attribution an unavoidable problem as it relates to copies that left the Melville family following his death, many of which found their way into used bookstores and circulating libraries, or copies that were already in a used state when Melville acquired them in the first place. As with its treatment of annotations and inscriptions, but in many cases on a basis that is necessarily more provisional than corroborative, the project treats all markings in Melville's books as the product of his hand unless compelling circumstances exist to throw doubt on the association. In instances of compelling doubt about the origin of a mark, it is described as "unattributed" in the apparatus, with evidence behind that classification addressed in accompanying commentary or, more generally, in the documentary note to that digital copy.  In due course, the editors of Melville's Marginalia Online will add a glossary to this page that displays images of Melville's accustomed markings and the terms by which they are identified in the apparatuses to digital copies of his books.

Citation and Institutional Permission

Documentation for written or edited material quoted or cited in articles, books, and other forms of publication should include author and title information plus Melville's Marginalia Online, the project's three main editors, the date of access, the URL, and (if applicable) the page number. The following examples illustrate proper documentation of content on this web site.

Melville, Herman. "Melville's Marginalia in Thomas Beale's The Natural History of the Sperm Whale." Melville's Marginalia Online. Ed. Steven Olsen-Smith, Peter Norberg, and Dennis C. Marnon. 2 April 2012. <>, 60.

A documentary note:
"Documentary Note to Melville's Marginalia in Thomas Beale's The Natural History of the Sperm Whale." Melville's Marginalia Online. Ed. Steven Olsen-Smith, Peter Norberg, and Dennis C. Marnon. 2 April 2012. <>.

A critical introduction:
Yothers, Brian. "Introduction to Melville's Marginalia in The New Testament and The Book of Psalms. Melville's Marginalia Online. Ed. Steven Olsen-Smith, Peter Norberg, and Dennis C. Marnon. 2 April 2012. <>.

"Commentary to Melville's Marginalia in Matthew Arnold's New Poems." Melville's Marginalia Online. Ed. Steven Olsen-Smith, Peter Norberg, and Dennis C. Marnon. 2 April 2012. <>, 28.

The Online Catalog
"Online Catalog of Books and Documents Owned, Borrowed and Consulted by Herman Melville." Ed. Steven Olsen-Smith, Peter Norberg, and Dennis C. Marnon. 1 January 2008. <>.

Permission for displaying photographic images on this web site has been granted by the holding institutions and persons for one-time use only. Users should not download or copy an image without written consent from the institutions or persons named in the record fields of digital copies, or on the "Photo Credits" page of this web site.

Abbreviation and Symbols

Unless otherwise indicated, primary works quoted or cited in documentation and commentary on this web site refer to the Northwestern-Newberry Writings of Herman Melville. 14 volumes to date. Eds. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, G. Thomas Tanselle, and others. Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1968-. Citations include the abbreviation "NN" plus the work: Typee (1968); Omoo (1968); Mardi (1970); Redburn (1969); White-Jacket (1970); Moby-Dick (1988); Pierre (1971); The Piazza-Tales, and Other Prose Pieces (1987); Israel Potter (1982); The Confidence-Man (1984); Clarel (1991); Correspondence (1993); Journals (1989); Published Poems (2009). Hyphenated and multi-worded titles among these works receive the following parenthetical abbreviations:

White-Jacket = NN WJ
Moby-Dick = NN MD
The Piazza-Tales, and Other Prose Pieces = NN PTPP
Israel Potter = NN IP
The Confidence-Man = NN CM
Published Poems = NN PP

For secondary resources cited in commentary for a digital copy on this website, see the resources listed in that copy's critical introduction and/or documentary note.

The following symbols are used in this site's editorial commentary on revision sequences in annotations and other inscriptions:

<letter or words>word = letter or words written over by subsequent inscription

letter or words = letter or words struck out

{letter or word} = letter or words inserted after initial inscription

[letter or words] = editorial remarks in italics

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