Book Traces Project works to capture the unnoticed voice of readers in books Twitter
By Stephen Wilson
Consider your relationship with books. If that proves difficult in this age of reading on phones and tablets, consider your parents or grandparents’ relationships. Maybe they placed a memorial card from an important funeral in a holy book. Maybe they pressed a flower from a wedding between heavy pages. Maybe you pick up a book they often read, filled with passages underscored that leave you wondering why those words so resonated with them.
These are examples of what Andrew Stauffer calls book traces, the marginalia, inscriptions, photographs, drawings, letters, flowers, and other evidence of a book having been used by previous readers.
The associate professor of English at University of Virginia delivered the 11th annual Paul and June Schlueter Lecture in the Art and History of the Book at the College.
Stauffer discussed the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century books that he and others pull off shelves in college and university libraries and flip through in search of the “voices of readers.” This work is part of his Book Traces crowd-sourced web project, which has over 850
submissions on the site.
His lecture showed a few related to his area of specialization, nineteenth-century poetry.
One image is of a line from a poem—“Oh had we never never met.” In the margins, a simple set of initials with a date. Clearly, the reader remembers the one who got away or broke a heart.
“Books were sites of memory, of encounters with readers who turned their pages into diaries, love letters, and places to preserve moments,” says Stauffer. “The books become palimpsests, layers on layer.”
He shows a book shared between a couple with notes in the margins from early in the relationship and then notes later in the relationship that annotate the early notes.
It was like an example he found from one of 450 books he and volunteers poured through at Skillman Library that afternoon.
BGS signed his initials to a Skillman book on Oct. 15, 1972, with a promise to quit smoking. Below that note is another from Nov. 15, 1972, saying that first promise was a lie but this new promise would have better results.
“These notes are special things that are often skipped over or not seen as special,” he says. “It’s seen as damage, dust, or noise.”
Anne Houston, dean of libraries, noted in her introduction of Stauffer that librarians are apt to tell readers not to write or deface a book. The irony, of course, is how these traces illustrate the relationship between book and reader.
Complicating this project according to Stauffer is the movement to digitize texts that have fallen out of copyright. He shows a digital card catalogue entry for a book. Those searching could click on links either to Google Books, which is a scanned edition from Stanford, or to another online repository, Hathi Trust, with a scanned edition from Harvard. Or the searcher could take a call number and head to the stacks, where a lovely book trace awaits.
“Which is more valuable?” he asks. “As more books are retired, these traces become more vulnerable.”
He sees libraries as a hunting ground where books often are becoming rarer and rarer.
“20 percent have traces. Seven percent have objects in them, like hair, news clippings, letters, and photos,” he says. “These layers of social and domestic objects transform the books into social souvenirs.”
“They remind us of what books were,” he says. “Readers become people of the document and the books preserve the content and the contents. There are epics in these epochs.”