How to write in books that aren’t yours

Checking books out for the library is a good strategy for reducing book clutter in your home. However, if you check a book out from the library, you can’t write in it.

I am someone who has “writes in books” as a character trait. Phrases that speak to me, clues in mystery novels, and things I want to remember get scribbled in the margins of most every book I read. In college, my text books resembled works of art with highlighting, drawings, and notes. I can’t just idly track my eyes across a page, I want to interact with the text.

When I check books out from the library or borrow a book from a friend, I use post-it notes or scrap paper to keep track of my ideas so that I don’t deface a book I shouldn’t. My world of writing in books was completely turned upside down earlier this month, however, when I discovered Sheer Colors Post-it notes:

If you’re like me and enjoy taking permanent pens and highlighters to books, the 3M Sheer Colors Post-it notes can make non-permanent ownership of books a lot more enjoyable.

53 Comments for “How to write in books that aren’t yours”

  1. posted by beckie on

    Love it! I also like to crawl inside books I read…If it’s a library book, I write extremely lightly in pencil, then carefully erase when I’m done. This is way cooler!

  2. posted by Krisha on

    oh, this is awesome!

  3. posted by Jeff on

    The only downside is that you lose the original material, the page of the book, when you peel off your notes. I’d combine this tip with Qipit. Send Qipit a color picture of your notes while they’re still in the book.

  4. posted by Barb on

    But what do you do with the post-it note when you return the book? Does it become clutter? Post-it notes aren’t sustainable and I’d be surprised if the non-sticky portion of these notes is recyclable. I personally use a pencil or colored pencil to make notes and if it’s a loaner I’ll photocopy the section(s) and file them. If I haven’t opened the file for a month, it’s contents get recycled.

  5. posted by theclevermom on

    I’m a big fan of marginalia. People have done studies about it. I don’t like to see a lot of highlighter, though I’ll do taht to my own books, it just disrupts the flow of reading for newcomers to the text. I usually write in pencil and draw lines around the appropriate text.

    Books, IMO, are like living things. The marginalia that accumulates enhances books.

  6. posted by Springpeeper on

    1) Not only are Post-it notes not recyclable, the glue used to produce them is considered dangerous goods for shipping purposes!

    2) Note to self: NEVER lend you guys any of my books! 😉

  7. posted by debra d on

    Thank you for this great tip! I have been lamenting the fact that I am unable to tame my book habit with a library card precisely because of my proclivities for annotating, highlighting and the like. I think this may be just the solution.

    I have tried various sticky notes in the past, even some made especially for annotating books, but they were all opaque. Thus, whether lined or plain, small enough to be psuedo marginalia I’d page-sized, they never really allowed me to interact with the text. Sheer stickies will solve that! And, great news for my savings account.

  8. posted by Gayle on


    I’m the only person who thinks writing in books is sacrilege?

  9. posted by adora on

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! ?

  10. posted by JW on

    Gayle: No.

    I’m an academic, so I do highlight my own research books, but I also use Book Darts (, which I love, as they are reusable and come in a very small uncluttery tin. I see no reason to write in any other kind of book.

    Chacun a son gout…

  11. posted by Chamberlyn on

    I’m also in academia so I inhale books related to my subject matter (which seems to expand daily). Books are my main clutter because I refuse to get rid of the books that I know I will reference in the future (and I do reference the ones I keep all the time, so I’m not just fooling myself), though just as my subject matter keeps expanding, so do my “reference” books. However, thanks to the posts on Unclutterer, I have gotten rid of most of my non-“reference” books.

    I hate highlighter with a passion, but I love underlining (in pencil) and making notes. I will only do this in my own books though (or if absolutely necessary in a borrowed book, I’ll erase afterwards). I usually use post-it flags when researching using library books. While these have the same environmental problems as post-its, they are smaller and I use less of them since I’m just using them to mark pages while I take notes on another sheet of paper.

    I agree with theclevermom about marginalia. As someone who also studies ancient Greek and Roman manuscripts, the marginalia is half the fun!

  12. posted by Mer on

    @ Gayle: I’m with you. I had a difficult time writing in my college textbooks, even though that was the norm.

    I won’t write in books or fold down the corners of pages to mark my place – I HATE that. I also try not to be too rough on the spines, but I’m not the type that will scream at someone for breaking or creasing the spine.

    I think this came from when I was little and my mom took me to the library all the time. I was taught NEVER to write in books or harm them in any way so that I wouldn’t rack up fines or lose my privileges.

  13. posted by Brooke on

    “Post-it® Notes can be recycled by any mill that accepts mixed-paper recycling.”

  14. posted by martha in mobile on

    @ Gayle: I cannot write in books, I just can’t. It seems disrespectful. But reading the comments I have a better understanding of why people do it.

  15. posted by mango on

    What is “marginalia”? Does “Marginalia” has a web site? -thanks

  16. posted by Dan on

    Please do not use post-its in library books, as they are harmful to the paper:

  17. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Dan — It was a librarian who called these post-it notes to my attention. She said that they do far less damage to a book than writing in pencil and erasing. Additionally, another librarian friend of mine said that simply reading a book damages it a little and that libraries want their books to be read. They budget and expect to replace books. So, unless a book is in a rare or special collection, I think it’s reasonable to use post-it notes.

    @mango — Marginalia just means notes that people write in the margins of a page.

  18. posted by Tiffany on

    I think that when we’re little, our mothers teach us that we must never write in our books, or tear them. They’re really just trying to keep us from scribbling on them in crayon, but this idea of books as sacred and inviolate sticks with us throughout life. Until college, when we’re reading books we often don’t care about and end up selling anyway.

    As for me, I tend not to write in fiction, or in a “nice,” book (whatever that means) but I mark up reference texts with reckless abandon.

  19. posted by Andre Kibbe on

    It’s great to know that this Post-It product exists, but I’m with JW on bookdarts. As small tin arrows that clip on the margin, they simply point to the desired section for later reference, and leave the page uncluttered.

    The debate about writing in books has been going on for decade. Mortimer Adler generated a lot of notoriety in How to Read a Book for strongly advocating marking up books. Personally, I’d rather take notes on a separate sheet, which forces me to extract the key concepts from the target passage. Bookdarts make it easy to mark the passage for later notetaking, so that the flow of my initial reading isn’t broken.

  20. posted by allen on

    Erin: Is there much bleed-through? Would i have to worry about how hard I’d be pressing the sharpie/highlighter?

    I’m hoping to go back to school soon, so this would be a great idea for when i need to check out those books! Thanks! (i can’t belive that it would be considered more damaging to use a post-it rather then pencil/erase!)

  21. posted by Looby on

    Gayle- you are not alone, I have two librarians in my family and folding pages, writing in books, and even cracking the spine is verboten.
    On the other hand for those with note taking tendencies I think this is a great idea, my friend lent me a book recently and I am having a really hard time reading it simply because of all the notes she has made. If all my library books came in the same state I’d have to start buying all my books again.

  22. posted by infmom on

    I would almost never write in a book. Even one of my own books. It defaces the pages. There’s one small exception, and that’s when the publisher’s proofreaders have all been out back sniffing rope and some really stupid mistake shows up in the finished product. Then, if it is my own book, I will take a superfine black pen and correct the errant word or words.

    If I’m studying and want to come back to important passages, I put a regular Post-It tape flag on the page next to the text I want to review. Those can be removed from the book and re-stuck to each other a few times before they give up the ghost.

  23. posted by Jeanne B. on

    Oh, this is a great idea for college students. They can get money back for their used textbooks and the better the condition, the better the payback. I wish I’d had these then. Yes, I DO write in the TEXT books—but not in “read-only” books (like novels). Even the self-help books are left clean. If there’s an exercise to be done, I whip out my journal. But what a great idea for college students.

    Hey—what a great graduation gift! A HUGE supply of these Post-Its, a package of highlighters, some Book Darts, and info about Qipit.

  24. posted by JMG3Y on

    Another alternative to highlighting text (I plead guilty to using it extensively in my own books; I sometimes buy a book after reading a library copy just so that I can highlight it) would be capturing the specific text in digital form with a pen scanner associated with OCR. Flat bed scanners capture all of the text, which isn’t what I want. Unfortunately, the reviews of this technology suggest that it isn’t quite up to such a task yet. Such capture would enable the creation of personal “book notes” capturing the essence of the book. When I’ve written these for the occasional technical book, I fold it and keep it with the book on the shelf. But having the highlighting in a dense form would be great and much faster than typing it.

  25. posted by Shannon on

    I like to write in my books and see what I found relevant when I re-read them down the road. It’s fun to see what passages speak to me at different points in my life. It’s also fun to borrow books from friends that they have written in. It’s like having a conversation about the book while I read it.

    As a law student, writing in my case books is ESSENTIAL. I could never find what I need later if I don’t mark it all up the first time.

    I have a friend who won’t even open her books all the way when she reads them so that even her paperbacks don’t have any creases in the spine. I stopped borrowing books from her after I “ruined” the first one by putting a crease in the binding. Whoops! I think that books want to be folded, written in, and loved! Defaced? Nah, it adds to their character!

  26. posted by Dream Mom DBA on

    Great tip. I’ll have to try it.

    I love highlighting and making notes in a book however if I check out library books, I simply take notes and write the book title and author on them and keep them in an “Inspiration” file in the reference drawer of my file cabinet. I love to turn the corners of a page as well however I refrain from doing it on the library books. I think writing in a book and enjoying it are the sincerest forms of flattery. What better way to know that a book was enjoyed than to see one that was well used.

    To reduce book clutter, I check out nearly everything from the library and if I read a book and really love it, I buy it. I keep a list of books attached to my Basic Weekly Plan so I have it with me at all times.

  27. posted by Clare on

    When I check books out of my university library, I usually put a few blank post-its inside the back flyleaf. This allows me to take notes as I go, including page references and personal reactions, without defacing the text or getting the ink-stripping adhesive from the post-its all over the pages.

    I work in said library, and we try to remove the post-its from books when we get them back, and we are under instructions to yell at patrons returning books marked up with post-its, if we catch them. The adhesive really does take the ink off the paper over time. Plus, lots of students are simpleminded idiots, and I don’t want to see marginalia like “[YELLOW HIGHLIGHTER] Metaphor!” in the margin of “Heart of Darkness”. You know?

  28. posted by Michele on

    Great idea…love it…only when you are writing in your books are you truly interacting with it, a college prof of mine once said. Question: What do you do to neatly organize these post its once finished w/book?

  29. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Michele — For me, if it’s a book for fun, I’ll just slap them on a piece of paper and then scan them into Evernote. If it’s a book for study, I’ll more conscientiously attach them to paper and include page numbers and any important summaries. After doing this, I’ll scan them into Evernote.

  30. posted by alle on

    When I was doing an extensive project, I got in the habit of paperclipping a loose-leaf page (from one of those 4×7 sized planner/binders) to the inside back cover of library books. I put the title, author and date at the top and then write notes, questions to research further, and also make up a little index of the book as I read it. Then I file the page of notes in the planner.

    This worked well for reference on the project, but after a while became a journal of the books I’ve read and my impressions of them at the time, and it’s not as cumbersome as a shelf full of books.

  31. posted by Dave on

    Where can these be purchased? I can’t find them anywhere on the internet.

  32. posted by ama on

    I am a book conservator at a major university library and although they are so tempting and convenient, I (and any other conservator or preservation administrator) would strongly recommend against using post-its in any library materials, whether the user judges them to be rare or not. Just because a book circulates does not mean it does not have value – it may be the library’s only copy or be out of print, etc. The adhesive on post-its does leave a residue that can degrade the paper over time or cause pages to become stuck together, and print can be lifted off when post-its are removed. Adhesive removal is also a very time-consuming and sometimes hazardous process, diverting preservation staff time and effort from other projects. We encourage patrons to use slips of scrap paper to mark their place in a book or to make notes. If a book is stable enough to be photocopied, then the copies may be marked up instead. And it is very very true that library materials are there to be used – nothing delights me more than knowing that the books I repair are going out into the world to be used for years to come – and that the simple act of opening a book and turning the pages marks the beginning of its deterioration. However, library users must take reasonable steps to ensure that they return materials in good condition for others’ use.

  33. posted by vBharat » How to write in books that aren’t yours on

    From vBharat » How to write in books that aren’t yours…

    Checking books out for the library is a good strategy for reducing book clutter in your home. However, if you check a book out from the library, you can’t write in it….

  34. posted by Allie Orange on

    Steve Leveen of (“Tools for Serious Readers”) has written a book I’ve been wanting to read on getting more from the books we read. On the description of “The Little Guide to Your Well-read Life” he talks about “Marginalia”, divides us into “Preservationists” and “Footprint Leavers” and gives a list of reader’s symbols: (|Level=2|pageid=3911|Link=Txt)
    I think like a “Footprint Leaver” but act like a “Preservationist”. I take notes in Levenger’s Circa notebooks, which let you easily add and delete from a notebook so I can move pages from my current “everything” notebook, where I pretty much write down things as I think about them, to a notebook on just a specific topic.
    No, I don’t work for Levenger, but I should. I could use an employee discount!

  35. posted by Mary on

    Any good scrapbooker will tell you that one may purchase vellum without the said sticky bar at the top. It has the same “see through” quality and it’s even acid free archival quality. Googling gave me tons of hits – the first offered 100 sheets for $14.99.

  36. posted by Moosician on

    Buy a book you love… own it… write in it… use it. Read it for years… I love looking at second hand books, and seeing what people a generation ago where thinking about.

    See through Post it Notes? yawn… Why put more crap into landfills? Use your books – and make them live…

  37. posted by BklynEngineer on

    According to 3M this product was discontinued. Any sources that have old supplies?

  38. posted by Erin Doland on

    @BklynEngineer — That’s really weird. It’s listed on the 3M site (the link in the post) and my local Office Depot said that it’s a new product they’re expecting. Really weird. I’ll contact 3M directly.

  39. posted by chad on

    I too am in Academic world and I always have to deal with the stress of loving a resource but not being able to own it. What I have found works well is to just take decent notes with page numbers and I have a running document that I type them into. I use a mac so I can create a pdf out of the print function so all of my reading notes are searchable.

  40. posted by Elizabeth on

    Thanks, Mary. For me, the vellum remark is genius.

  41. posted by Luis Caldas de Oliveira on

    I use small coloured post-its (50×38mm). When I find a key phrase or idea in a book, I write it down on a post-it note together with the page number and I glue it on the page. This helps locating those key concepts later on. After reading the book, I take all the post-its from it and I glue them all side-by-side on a sheet of paper to be digitized in a paper scanner. This way I keep an overview of the book that allows me to locate the most interesting ideas. See the full technique with photos in:

  42. posted by thinkingSage on

    When I started working as a research assistant, I was paid to go through well-scribbled books and copy all of the marked information to a .doc (or txt) file. I found that I could condense a typical serious, non-academic, non-fiction book to a dense synopsis of quotes.

    You see, the authors loved to mark up the books but none of them had the time to go into them a second time and recall the information. In the age of Google searches and databases who can blame them?

    So writing the information is a waste these days. When you read a book, have your laptop open nearby, and just record whatever interests you as you read, tagged by page number. You’ll have what you want to remember available in *useable* format, and you’ll have avoided destroying your text in the process 🙂

  43. posted by Perc on

    I went to the office supply store and looked, but no sheer post its like in your pic. I would LOVE to start using these. The link provided in the post take me to a sheer post its page – but they’re not clear – there’s either the usual colored strips or sheer arrows.

    Please let me know where I can get my hands on some. 😀

  44. posted by carlos on

    I was excited to see this posted, but the tip on velum was a slap-to-the-forehead “Duh!” moment for me that allows the “footprint leaver” and the “preservationists” to live in harmony. I’m going to order some post-it….. I mean, post haste…..

  45. posted by Carissa Thorp on

    In Australia, Beautone make square semi-transparent sticky notes called Clear Notes. I use them mostly to write subjects on manila file folders, so I can re-use them.

  46. posted by Chavi on

    I can’t find these ANYWHERE. I’ve tried Office Max and Staples, to no avail. Where did you get yours?

  47. posted by M on

    I am also looking to buy some of these bad boys. What gives, 3M? Where?

  48. posted by steph on

    i can’t find them too :((

  49. posted by Neeraj on

    Im sorry but the line of comments are a little too long for me to read, and if this question has already been asked i apologise again. Where can i buy these transparent post-it notes?

  50. posted by Jessica on

    Just do what architects do. Buy tracing paper (in the roll) instead of vellum or tablet because it’s inexpensive. Lay the roll with the paper unrolling table side down (so it’s flat against the table) place a straight edge against the roll and tear the width of note you need. I usually get two or three notes per strip with pretty clean edges. I tuck them into the spine edge of the page i’m annotating and they stick there well enough. There’s no adhesive, but that just seems to get in the way later. I also agree book darts are awesome.

  51. posted by Rebekah on

    Now if only they’d come up with a decent solution for highlighting and writing notes in Kindle and other readers, we could save the environment and out minds too!

  52. posted by victoria on

    to all the folks looking for these. 3M discontinued these in 2007, without great amounts of calls they will not return them. but i found similar semitransparent sticky note from a company in china except they have a minimum order of like US $10,000… a bit out of my budget, so if anyone wants to go into business i will send copy of email i received and buy from you..

  53. posted by Once again, write in books that aren’t yours on

    […] in 2008, we wrote a raving review of 3M’s Sheer Colors Post-It Notes. These transparent sticky notes were amazing because they made it simple to write in books that […]

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