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Book Traces

My first book love was the odd world of medieval manuscript art: an age defined by distinctive books that are inherently unique in form if not content.  These handwritten and handmade books form the core of my knowledge of books and the advent of the age of printing alone is a bit of a stretch of my academic knowledge. So suffice to say that everything I am learning about the 19th century here at the Museum is a brave new world.

The rapid industrialization of the book trade in the 19th century greatly reduced the individuality of the book; no longer the handmade unique form, but a mass produced commodity reproduced for the masses.  However with mass production comes mass circulation and the accessibility of books skyrocketed as prices came down.  Instead of looking for uniqueness as part of the production process we should look within for signs of readership and interaction with books and texts.

A collection of handmade paper doll clothes found in Volume 7 of The Complete Works of Walter Scott.

Now, with the rise of the internet and crowd-sourcing, the uniqueness of 19th century books and readers can begin to come to light.  One exciting project in this area is the University of Virginia project, Book Traces. This project is aimed primarily at identifying unique copies of 19th and early 20th century books on library shelves through the examination of ownership marks: marginalia and inserts. As the project states, these books constitute “a massive, distributed archive of the history of reading, hidden in plain sight” in circulating library collections. Marginalia, inscriptions, photos, original manuscripts, letters, drawings, and many other unique pieces of historical data can be found in individual copies; importantly these elements can only be discovered by physical handling as their uniqueness would not be recorded in library catalogs or finding aids. With the help of a camera equipped phone in every pocket, an effort can finally effectively be made to find and compile these signs of the past from within these books and bring them back to the catalog record for future researchers.

Traced hands on the rear free end-paper of an 1853 copy of the Works of William Shakespeare, with schoolgirl Miriam Trowbridge’s teasing inscription, “Ruthie Whitehead’s ugly hand – Oh! No, I mean beautiful one –.” The girls seem to have been outlining each other’s hands in their textbook while at Madame Chegary’s fashionable boarding school in New York.

Literally the hand of the reader present in her school textbook: a glimpse of readership, and readers, through time.  This a lighthearted moment of fun in the schoolroom, but many other examples of marginalia on the book traces website chronicle a dialogue between the reader and the text itself.

Next to “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” Jane has written: “Then you looked at your watch & said – “Now shall we go & make that visit, for at 5 o’clock I have to go to Washington,” & we meant you & I, & we had a happy walk –”. Then, in a later hand, she has added the following, on the facing page: “Our last walk together in this world. Never to see each other more – Never, oh, never! It was after this I called you — ‘Norseman,’ the name we always used to the end, in our letters. Do you remember? – You added to it ‘your Norseman,’ and ‘your devoted Norseman.’”

See for example this book where the reader has made extensive notes addressed to her lost love.  On two separate occasions she returned to this book of poetry: First, to record her remembrances of walking and reading these poems together with her love. Second, later, when she writes of that walk as the last time she ever saw her love.  This relationship with the text and the intensely personal element of storytelling that is laid over the text through this marginalia is touching and evocative. This marginalia is history of such a clear personal nature that it stands separate, and yet entwined, with the book and text in which it resides.

From the perspective of a 19th century bookbinding collection, I find projects like these incredibly exciting and important for the understanding not just of 19th century readership, but also as a mechanism for studying other marks within books related to the production and life of the binding.

… Bind in 1/2 green morocco, gilt top – other edges rasped … Bind strongly, leaves & plates well secured for Walters Gallery May 9, 1913

This note gives us an insight not just into the style of the binding favored by an important art gallery’s library collection, but also a glimpse of a binder.  The note includes the name, address and date this binder was working. Important elements that may or may not be retained elsewhere in the elusive history of working bookbinders.

All images used in this post are from the Book Traces project (

By Amelia Grounds, Librarian