Digitization may be increasing the accessibility to the history of literature, but there is something lost about the book as a physical object. A new crowdsourcing project is attempting to rally bibliophiles to find the hints of past readers in the notes, letters, objects, and even sewing needles left behind in the pages.
Book Traces, the most recent project of NINES (Nineteenth-century Scholarship Online) at the University of Virginia, came at the instigation of Andrew M. Stauffer, an associate professor of English at the university and the director of NINES. Book Traces focuses on texts published between 1820 and 1923, an era just before copyright which keeps the originals on the shelves, but a little late for most rare book collections. This time period has the most books likely to be deaccessioned, or tossed out or otherwise confined to storage, after digitization.
The project started with Stauffer’s 19th century poetry class, where they delved into the stacks of the University of Virginia’s Alderman Library to see what books actually looked like back then. “We tend to think one copy of a book is as good as another, or a scanned version is as good as the real thing,” Stauffer told Hyperallergic over the phone. He emphasized how each book is an “object of exchange,” as well as a “platform on which readers developed their own identities.”
For example, there’s the copy of The Poetical Works of Mrs. Felicia Hemans (1843), where annotations in pencil along favorite verses, many of which deal with loss, crawl to an end paper with a poem handwritten 16 years after the initial inscription by the owner. It is in memory of a daughter who died at the age of seven, mixing fragments from the book in her own heartbreaking eulogy.
“They didn’t just read books, they marked them, exchanged them with other people, they stored objects in them, they flattened flowers in them,” Stauffer said. “It was about a lot more than just consuming the verbal contents.”
There are just a few examples on the Book Traces site as of now, as it only recently launched. However, what is there, much of it from the University of Virginia, is revealing about long vanished readers. In an 1833 edition of The Complete Works of Sir Walter Scott (v.7) are Antebellum-style paper doll clothes; the engravings missing from an 1839 printing of Francis Grund’s Die Aristokratie in Amerika were filled in with pencil drawings. On the end paper of Letters of Hannah More to Zachary Macaulay (1860) is a sewing needle, a reminder that this book wasn’t always archived in a library, but was an active part of someone’s life. “Each is an individual piece of evidence that was saved by the culture that we’re trying to understand,” Stauffer said.
A Dutch translation of Lord Tennyson’s Enoch Arden (1869), a narrative poem on a man who finds he is unable to return home after a harrowing journey, reveals the personal connections of a former Confederate soldier who became a literature professor. Given to a friend, it is strewn with inscriptions like “do you remember?” next to stanzas, and in an inscription, he recalls Richmond in 1865, just before the destruction of the city in a Confederate retreat:
Rotterdam Aug. 28, ’84
While looking in a booksellers window just now, & smiling at “Dombey En Zoon,” and other English works in Dutch, I got caught in a shower. So I got this book & retreated to a “café,” and got a bottle of Rhine wine, & have taken the two together. I know the English poem almost by heart, & so I can read this Dutch without the dictionary; and it comes back to me, as I read, that we read it together in dear Richmond nineteen years ago. Some of the lines that you read aloud then seem vivid & fresh in my memory – things not to die until I do. And so it seemed to me that it might be a pleasure to you to see clearly – as I do through the mists of another tongue – Enoch Arden from another point of view; and therefore through the golden light of this “flask” of Rhine wine, I give you this book to show you how dear to me our past has been, and how much I think of you.
Stauffer hopes Book Traces will be “a call to action to get groups on the ground” to keep marginalia and memories like this preserved, or at least encourage people to engage more with the literary history in the physical pages themselves. “I really want to find an army of seekers out there,” he said.
You can contribute to Book Traces, and discover books already added, online.