Text / Paratext: The Historical Logic of Document Formats

        Most academic writing students concentrate most of their effort on creating a coherent text.  That's good news!  Only rarely do students get overly distracted by playing around with "paratext," like bizarre fonts and font sizes, distracting effects like non-functional changes in text colors, or distracting graphic images that make reading the text, itself, difficult.  They put numbers on pages, most of the time, and remember to put their names and courses and titles and dates on the pages, most of the time, though they often have no idea why they ought to do so.

        In past eras, however, all of these graphic dimensions of the paratext have played important roles in helping readers, as in the case of Medieval parchment manuscript books.  Illumination, literally, the bringing of light to the page, meant adding pictures to texts to help explain or comment upon the text, or to entertain readers with marginal images that played subversive games with the more serious (usually religious) text in the main columns.  "Chapters" in longer documents were signified by multi-line capital letters, which often were inked in red or blue or even gold ink to highlight the shift in topics.

        Even early printed books made use of manuscript-like fonts, colors, and images.  Why?  Early printers were selling books to readers who were used to the appearance of manuscript books made by scribes.  They wanted their product to compete effectively with the hand-made artifacts, so they hired wood-block carvers and engravers to create scenes to illustrate their texts.  They even hired scribes to color printed illustrations to help explain the text, and to illuminate printed capital letters with dashes of color to aid readers eyes in picking out important changes in the text's content.   At first, following manuscript practices, early printers did not put page numbers on books, but they began "foliating" them, printing the leaf ("folio") number on the right side pageOn the back, there was nothing, because the text was numbered by folio, and the right ("recto") of the page would be called "folio 1r" and the back ("verso") of the page would be called "folio 1v."

        Modern printed books, at least those printed since the early 1500s, all tend to have the same paratextual apparatus: a title page, a table of contents, a preface or introduction, chapter or section divisions--often with sub-titles, continuous page numbers on each page, and an index at the end to help readers find parts of the book that spoke of specific persons, places, things, ideas, or issues.  Students trained to read on the Internet often do not encounter printed books' paratextual apparatus, and sometimes do not grasp their full importance as aids to reading and research.  Compare the human-created index of any scholarly book with the sad results of a "Control+F" search a student might make for individual words or phrases in an online text.

        Newspapers and popular magazines and scholarly journals have paratextual conventions which differ from those of books.  Newspapers are a hybrid genre between the handbill or "broadside," a single sheet announcing a coming event, and a fully produced book.  Because newspapers and magazines have value for readers because of their timeliness, their reference to the immediate future or past, they constantly remind readers of the publication date at the head and/or foot of each page, but they also have a "title page" like books, because they aspire to the status of book-like authority.  Authors' names are attached to single articles, not the whole paper.  Although The New York Times or The Washington Post publishes the articles, the newspaper is never treated as the "authors" of the articles by scholars.  On the "masthead" of the newspaper or magazine, usually printed on the back of the first page, you will find the editors and publishers who decide which stories get published, and some of these people may anonymously write for the paper (e.g., "editorials," which usually are unsigned, by tradition).  Scholars recognize this distinction by citing anonymous articles only by their titles, never citing the paper's title, first.  The newspaper's title is a "periodical" publication title, given to a printed or online text which has a beginning but no foreseeable end, appearing "periodically" at stated intervals with new content each time.  If the periodical is, or has been, an old-fashioned print publication to which the library subscribes, you can get the library online catalog to tell you exactly which issues they have in the "periodical stacks" where back issues are stored.