Initiated by Andrew Stauffer, professor of English literature at the University of Virginia, Book Traces1 is a crowd-sourced web project aimed at identifying unique copies of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century books on library shelves, focusing on customizations made by original owners in personal copies, primarily in the form of marginalia, annotation, inscriptions, and insertions.
This interview, conducted in 2014 then in 2019, is part of a series of texts published on this website on the initiative of Jerome Dupeyrat and Laurent Sfar in relation to “The Gray Library2.” Established since 2015, this “Library” is a collection of resources—books, images and objects—at the origin of publications, films, exhibitions and educational projects that explore phenomena related to the transmission and the sharing of knowledge. By focusing on the field of pedagogy and the history of books, “The Gray Library” aims to reveal the aesthetic nature of some transmission processes and their role in the construction of subjectivities—the Book Traces project offering here a significant example.
Alex Balgiu–Jérôme Dupeyrat–Laurent Sfar: The Book Traces project aims at recording the traces left by readers in books (inserts or marginalia in the form of notes, photos, letters, flowers, etc.), particularly in volumes dating back from the 19th and early 20th century. As a common reader, but also as a scholar in English literature from this period, why do you grant importance to the materiality of books and to reading traces?
Andrew Stauffer: Book Traces really has two purposes: first, to capture evidence of the history of reading and book use in the long 19th century; and second, to make the case that physical book collections are worth preserving in our research libraries. Digital texts have opened up new kinds of access to the past, but they often occlude the individual histories and specific interfaces of the books themselves. We live in a world of online textual interaction where people are leaving comments and traces of themselves every time they interact; and so partly I am interested in the prehistory of such marking, when the physical, analog book was the platform upon which social media took place. But I also want to defend these physical books as unique scenes of evidence, to complicate our idea of a “copy” or “duplicate” by showing how various each book can become as it accumulates traces of its use through time.
A.B.–J.D.–L.S.: Before going any further, we were wondering why this collection was focused on 19th- and 20th-century books.
A.S.: The Book Traces collection is focused on books published between 1800 and 1923 because those books are most at risk in the new library information ecosystem, particularly in the United States. Most books printed before 1800 have by now been transferred into rare book rooms and special collections. Most books printed after 1923 remain covered by US Copyright law, and thus have to remain on library shelves for access. But books from the great age of industrial printing—common, numerous, out of copyright, and often fragile due to the poor paper quality—are in danger of deaccessioning. In the wake of the Google Books project and other large-scale digitization efforts, many of these 19th-century volumes are available in full text freely online, which means library patrons do not access the physical books as frequently. Libraries make decisions about which books to keep based on circulation data, and for 19th- and early-20th-century books, this is dropping off. So my goal is to make visible the evidence of individual copies, and make the case that libraries should retain these books, or at least make informed decisions about local variations among supposed copies before discarding anything.
A.B.–J.D.–L.S.: The link you make between the Book Traces project and our contemporary environment, made out of mostly online textual interactions, is both surprising and clear. A trace engraved on a book seems to be the result of an intimate attitude, even if this sign sometimes reaches the public space; and at the same time, online practices that claim to offer a private field are in fact conceived as a form of discourse that is “more than public.” How does your project address these public/private issues?
A.S.: The private/public divide is very interesting in the case of 19th-century books. A great many examples of marginalia I have seen have some kind of audience in mind beyond that of the person who wrote it: marks of ownership, gift inscriptions, even personal annotations and the like all seem to have been written with an eye towards other readers. After all, these marks get made within the precincts of the semi-private, semi-public domestic book, into which numerous people (present and future) might look. These were objects that remained in family homes—on parlor tables, on shelves—and were kept long enough to be passed on and eventually given to libraries. Now they have fallen into our hands, and through them we can see traces of the lives recorded there. Often these are very personal details, such as declarations of love, or notes of longing, or expressions of loss. But again, they seem to have been made within books for a reason: the marginalia-writers wanted to leave records in a place where they would eventually be found. The book remains a social medium, an object of exchange across time and space. Online texts are also interestingly troubled by public/private issues: but all online interaction comes from a similar basic impulse to leave our mark, to make an impression on a social field.
A.B.–J.D.–L.S.: What you mentioned in regard to the industrial age of printing is extremely interesting—this very specific loss of quality (or perhaps a transformation into other forms of quality, for instance typographically) and, consequently, the risk of deliquescence threatening these publications. Could you tell us more about your findings related to these questions of production, both in terms of printing and binding, from the books that you have studied so far? The substantial evolution that occurred during this industrial era, both economically and in terms of distribution, could be another interesting aspect to discuss in relation to the private/public opposition. There is a fascinating relationship at play between this ever-growing, widespread access to the act of reading and its material counterpart, physical fragility.
A.S.: The books in question—those printed primarily between 1820 and 1920—are the products of an increasingly industrial scene of publishing, with technological and social developments driving production. The rise of machine-made paper, for example, allowed for much cheaper books, just as the expansion of education and literacy through the 19th century made for more everyday readers. The introduction of publishers’ cloth and case binding drove costs down and allowed for wider distribution of books among the middle classes. So technology was driving distribution into much wider and deeper channels. At the same time, much of this technological innovation in the interest of economy produced physically fragile volumes: paper that has turned brown and brittle, and bindings that have deteriorated or fallen away. At a systemic level, cheaper books were also more disposable, less likely over time to be treasured heirlooms and more likely to be seen as objects of consumption. The 19th-century book is somewhere amid this transition, with books becoming household objects, poised between collectors’ items and ephemera. By examining the ways readers used their books, via markings and other traces left behind, we can gain a window onto this crucial transition, which also bears upon our current moment of the book—as an object of nostalgia and as an evanescent digital file.
A.B.–J.D.–L.S.: Could you provide an overview of those traces, in terms of materiality or according to the information and stories they transmit?
A.S.: The marks left in these books are naturally quite various. Common are gift inscriptions, owners’ names, and underlined or marked passages. I’ve become very interested in the many dates written into books, testifying to moments of acquisition, or of reading, or of a time when the content of the book seemed applicable to the reader’s own life. We begin to see the layered nature of the book as an historical object via the multiple dates written in them. Most interesting to me are the personal stories that emerge in some of the annotations and inscriptions: a mother’s elegy for her young daughter, a woman’s memory of reading poetry together with her beloved, a soldier’s recollection of reading Tennyson with a comrade during the American Civil War, an anecdote of a story told by the reader’s father about Edgar Allan Poe—all of these evoke lost scenes of reading and the way these books became objects of memorialization, of exchange, of transmission across time and space. We also see things like tracings of hands and drawings of faces in some books, so that it feels like those 19th-century readers are still in the books somehow. And of course there are locks of hair, flowers, photographs, letters, and other items inserted into the books sometimes. In one book, I found small homemade paper doll clothes, in mid-19th-century styles: they strike me as a haunting emblem of the things the Victorians left behind.
A.B.–J.D.–L.S.: The incredible variety you describe, comparable to archeological findings, reminds us of Interlude: The Reader's Traces3 by Mexican artist Mariana Castillo Deball. Ten years ago, she started investigating the metabolism of public libraries in various cities (Berlin, New York, Paris...) through questions of circulation, classification and use. She was captivated by all the scars and transplants left through the act of reading, consulting and manipulating books. Using photography and notes, she documented these discoveries (random pieces of paper, notes of all kinds, metro tickets, etc.), then decided to engage with this ecology of reading through her own production of traces to be lost amongst the vertiginous immensity of the library. She invited artists, designers, writers and theorists to produce pieces (images, texts, objects...) to be inserted in various books in those public libraries. A photograph of a strange reflection in the window of a house by artist Peter Piller, a selection of texts (Stevenson, Lichtenberg, Monterroso, Kafka, Musil) by author Enrique Vila-Matas, a piece of unexposed photographic paper by designer Manuel Raeder... Finally, she recorded her entire project on microfilm and published a book, which were both included in the public collection of these libraries, leaving the reader to initiate their own quest for newly left traces. What do you think of the interest in these very physical and material gestures in our current age of digital disappearance?
A.S.: I was not aware of Mariana Castillo Deball’s project, and I’m very grateful for this information: it looks like a wonderful project, designed and executed in the same spirit as Book Traces (but from an artist’s perspective). I think people are fascinated by the library as a place for exchanges across time, and about the traces such encounters leave behind. Unlike the stock of used bookstores or even personal collections, the books in public and academic libraries remain in their places across generations, while patrons move around them and interact with them. So there is this passion to make contact with other users, other readers, other times. Another project is Kerry Mansfield’s Expired 4, in which she photographs hundreds of books that have been discarded or withdrawn from libraries: these are the battered exiles, bearing their own shabby glamor. There is also Forgotten Bookmarks, in which a bookseller posts pictures of things he finds inside books that he acquires. These are not library books, but the idea of readers’ traces animates this project as well. In terms of digital vestiges, there is The Art of Google Books, which documents found instances of distortion and interruption in the scanning process in Google Books, with an emphasis on moments when the hand of the scanning agent is caught in the shot (testimony to the process of human, haptic interaction in digitization, itself another kind of “reading”). I think your remark about “our current age of digital disappearance” is quite accurate: as we spend more time in front of screens, reading evanescent texts whose interactions are strictly controlled by the technology, and as we are increasingly alienated from the culture of the physical book, those old material volumes take on a romantic aura, as if they were portals into a lost world—which, of course, they are. There have been scores of recent novels that center on hyper-physical documents—moldy, dusty, worm-eaten, scrawled on in faded ink or blood, bearing signs of their history on their faces. I think we have a nostalgic desire for the material text that holds secrets to contact with the past. But it is not mere nostalgia: it is a human reaction to the changing nature of time and memory in relation to the materiality of information.
A.B.–J.D.–L.S.: We looked at the etymology of the word “nostalgia,” which refers to the notion of coming home after a long journey. How could this idea be articulated within the Book Traces project? Could we measure the effect of this trip “back home”?
A.S.: Nostalgia is related to homecoming—more specifically, the ache or even sickness that comes with longing for a lost homeland, a homecoming deferred. When we handle old books, we touch pieces of past that is gone. Maurice Halbwachs fittingly opens his classic study on collective memory with an anecdote of an experience of reading:
When one of the books which were the joy of our childhood, which we have not opened since, falls into our hands, it is not without a certain curiosity, an anticipation of a recurrence of memories and a kind of interior rejuvenation that we begin to read it … But what happens most frequently is that we actually seem to be reading a new book, or at least an altered version. The book seems to lack pages, developments, that were there when we first read it …5
For Hawlbachs, the cause of this bewilderment when reading a favorite book from childhood lies in the way memory is always a socially and temporally embedded phenomenon, a product of repetitions that necessarily evolve with time. When we come back to the books of our youth, we bring to the experience a remembered copy that, upon collation with the original, reveals sad discontinuities. You can’t go home again. So books become touchstones for the past—not only via the marks they bear, but via the many layers of culture and history encoded in their forms and contents. I think Book Traces draws our attention to books as objects or platforms for the historical trace, visible not only in the occasional reader’s mark, but in the entire makeup of the volume in question. The project is meant to raise books to the level of historical witnesses. Politically, this is potentially a powerful move, as books exist to remind us that things have been otherwise, that reading means having choices, asserting one’s own identity, embodied metaphorically perhaps in the marginal mark. The desire to destroy books typically comes from a desire to erase history and with it, the potential for individual and collective memory: that’s the lesson of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
A.B.–J.D.–L.S.: The aim of raising books to the level of historical witnesses is a strong and important approach that simultaneously helps raising each reader's historical and political awareness through an eminently physical focus on the printed object. Moreover, it is an efficient form of resistance against forgetfulness and what author W.G. Sebald calls the “conspiracy of silence.” This could also be drawn closer to what Sebald says about the function of images within his work. During a conversation with Eleanor Wachtel, he declared:
I think [images] have possibly two purposes in the text. The first and obvious notion is that of verification—we all tend to believe in pictures more than we do in letters. Once you bring up a photograph in proof of something, then people generally tend to accept that, well, this must have been so. And certainly even the most implausible pictures in The Emigrants, the more implausible they are. […] The other function that I see is possibly that of arresting time. Fiction is an art form that moves in time, that is inclined towards the end, that works on a negative gradient, and it is very, very difficult in that particular form in the narrative to arrest the passage of time. And as we all know, this is what we like so much about certain forms of visual art—you stand in a museum and you look at one of those wonderful pictures somebody did in the sixteenth or the eighteenth century. You are taken out of time, and that is in a sense a form of redemption, if you can release yourself from the passage of time. And the photographs can also do this—they act like barriers or weirs which stem the flow. I think that is something that is positive, slowing down the speed of reading, as it were.6
Though your approach might be closely related to a documentary process, it feels like the documents that you share also function as powerful storytelling devices. As readers, we change our pace each time we turn a pageand allow ourselves to wander and digress while considering each object's life, origin and context of existence. Do you share this view on the fictional and narrative potential of these fragments of life? Could we read Book Traces as a literary work?
A.S.: The question you ask about the narrative potential of the Book Traces project is fascinating, because it echoes my own thoughts recently. As I work on my own book about these individual volumes, I am struck by their essential relationship to historical narrative, even storytelling. Each trace—inscription, name, date, letter—exists only as a prompt towards speculation: they evoke the past from the interpreter, but the interpreter is interpolated into the scene immediately. Pierre Nora calls this the “thaumaturgical operation” of the historian, “an art of implementation, practiced in the fragile happiness derived from relating to rehabilitated objects and from the involvement of the historian in his or her subject.”7 So: book, text, and reader in a layered field of analysis, an affective biblio-critical scene. I have been tempted to elaborate, to embroider, even to piece together some of these traces into a fiction of some kind. And I have also begun writing about my own relationship to books as a way of seeing more clearly the nature of these historical practices. So yes, I think Book Traces has definite narrative potential: all of my favorite examples open up onto other lives, other losses, other times. And I want to find more stories, more pieces of the past.
A.B.–J.D.–L.S.: You quoted Pierre Nora, a controversial figure in France because of the partial choice of events he has made to constitute his history of France. However, couldn't we say that the Book Traces project is more closely related to genealogy, while mainly constituted by personal history, than to places of memory that refer to collective history? If not, how do you think this project can address and reveal the community?
A.S.: Most inscriptions and marginalia in printed books are first private memoranda: an instance will record a singular reader’s reaction to the text. However, we have found a number of examples that reveal a more social and collective process at work. An example: a poetry book, Geraldine: A Souvenir of the St. Lawrence8, from the circulating collection at the University of Louisville, once owned by Esther Annie Brown (1863-1936) of Cloverport, KY. This is the first edition of Alphonso Alva Hopkins’s long narrative poem of romance, Geraldine, written in anapestic couplets and bearing close similarities to Owen Meredith’s wildly popular verse novel Lucile (1860). Esther wrote on the flyleaf:
Esther A. Brown’s
Handle with care &
The imperative nature of that ownership inscription points to the circulation of the book among a group of readers, at least four of whom (including Esther herself) annotated it heavily in pencil. Beyond these orthographic marks, someone also inserted several honeysuckle blossoms between the pages. Many passages get marked as worthy of special attention with brackets, underlining, and Xs, and, in the margins of eighty of the book’s three-hundred and twenty-one pages, Esther and her friends have written verbal remarks on the poem, frequently in dialogue with one another. Marginalia like this offer a detailed view of readers’ responses to poetry while also revealing the sociability of reading and interpretation occurring on a shared volume’s pages. As another kind of annotated book as a site of collective memory, we have found several books that were carried on the battlefield of the American Civil War, and have been annotated by soldiers—sometimes more than one, indicating which battles they fought in. These books were actually part of the war experience, and seem somehow tied to those battlefields. I also would argue that the libraries themselves are sites of memory, collective archives that we return to, built from collections donated by public and recording within them (via marginalia and inscriptions) a partial history of national reading, especially during the era of general literacy and cheaper print—the 19th and early-20th centuries.
A.B.–J.D.–L.S.: The examples you mentioned raise many questions. Let us focus on Geraldine: A Souvenir of the St. Lawrence. The instruction left in this book by its owner (“handle with care”) does not really invite its potential readers to annotate it. Yet, it became a site of discussion between several friends. Does the meaning of this request imply that the readers of this book were physically distant from each other? Are there any clues of its circulation era? And could we compare this phenomenon of discussion through marginalia with a discussion taking place in a book club? We think about readers abundantly annotating their copies of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, in Dora Garcia's movie about the Joycean Society9. But in this film, the readers are gathered physically, whereas in your example, the book is passed from one reader to the next. A dematerialized club of sorts. We could also think, anachronistically, of the exchanges that are now taking place on social networks, except that they are often available in the public sphere from the outset.
A.S.: It seems that these readers were passing the book among one another, reading alone and writing notes to be read by the next readers. Esther Brown was the book’s owner, and she married to Arthur Younger Ford in 1887, so it seems the marks the volume were made sometime in the 1880s, likely soon after the book was published and acquired by Esther. As one examines the penciled commentaries, each in a recognizably different hand, a community of readers begins to emerge. Next to lines in the poem describing life as a “battle-field wide,” one reader has written, “A true but sad story of life’s struggle” (171). But after an inset lyric about life as the “Valley of Tears,” a different reader has commented, “I do not take such a ‘tearful’ view of life. Its valleys of tears are not quite dark & we do not have to remain in them long” (197). In this copy, the poem frequently becomes the prompt for such meditations as its readers react to passages as standalone texts irrespective of dramatic context. For example, next to the lines, “Woman lost Eden to man; / But he finds it again in her love,” one reader has written, “A happy hit, if true,” and a second has replied (perhaps with irony), “it must be true from the many happy homes” (84). Near a passage regretting that men do not bear “The respect that they ought for all women,” one reader has remarked, “True & it is to man’s shame” (55). What is fascinatingly possible in a book like this is to observe an idea of 19th-century poetry in practice, with reading strategies being worked out collaboratively over time via marginal annotations. The majority of the annotations in this copy focus on the characters of the poem and their behavior in the romance plot—with particular attention to the manipulative Isabel Lee, whom they love to hate. Throughout the volume, less is said about the saintly heroine Geraldine, who one reader calls in her marginal notes only “a noble character” and “a lovely woman” (200; 253). But of Isabel, one writes, “I do not like her” (213), and another writes elsewhere, “I have no patience with Mrs. Lee” (111). Annotating Isabel’s proclamation of love’s power—“Such a love as a man gives one woman in life”—one reader writes, “Beautiful,” but another takes a dimmer view: “The thought is beautiful but it came not from her heart so I think this deceit destroys” (98). Esther’s comment on the same passage puts a fine point on it: “She talks well but I detest her” (98). In fact, on this particular opening of the book, we see at least four different hands commenting on Isabel’s character, one writing, “It is hard to tell whether she is simply acting a part or showing her real heart & its language” and another, “I doubt her sincerity and rather suspect that she is a trained ‘flirt’” (99). If we pay close attention to the handwriting in this book, personalities start to emerge. On a passage describing the “lingering kisses” between the hero Percy Trent and Isabel, one particularly wry reader remarks in the margin, “They are a little fond of that pastime,” and another follows that with, “Who blames them?” (113). Later, that sardonic first reader writes after Isabel’s submissive praise of Trent’s genius as a poet, “enough to make a man forget himself” (211). When Isabel exclaims against the “bitter exactions” of duty, Esther writes in the margin, “Her wrong idea of duty,” and our sardonic reader concurs: “the sentiment of one who would follow no law but passion” (140). Of Isabel’s lament that she is haunted by the ghost of Trent in his absence, this same reader comments, “She is making this ‘ghost’ of hers a cause for frequent appeals. It’s a troublesome ghost” (234). And she responds to Isabel’s epistolary question to Trent, “Am I writing / Unreason?” with the salty retort, “I think so –and forgetting that it would have been nobler to help Trent be true to his duty in forgetting her, than to be making his burden harder to bear by telling of such love” (240). When Trent is moved to longing by Isabel’s declarations of passion, this same reader grants him some indulgence, writing, “weak, but can you blame him severely?” (142). At the end of that section of the poem, she adds the annotation, “Take warning friends, and be sure of your affections before your committal.” But another reader takes a different view, following this remark with the opinion written just beneath it, “Miss Lee spoke only in fun; he was a fool for being so easily duped” (146). As you say, these various annotations evoke a culture of reading and book-use whose features recall our current social media exchanges (e.g., sharing, texting, marking as liking, commenting on comments). And it seems like a book club also, where only a single copy is used, in sequential readings that leave built-up layers of comments and annotations.
A.B.–J.D.–L.S.: It is obvious that all of the reflections of these readers fit together to form a community around this book. Reading the whole text and its paratext 200 years later creates a narrative that hybridizes the thoughts and psychology of readers as fictional characters. We find this dynamic fascinating, and we wonder how this phenomenon could be perpetuated through the centuries, notably through the library as an institution, as well as through research activities like the Book Traces project. Could a library assume its mission of conservation while perpetuating this collection of thoughts?
A.S.: We are working with libraries now to address the important question you raise: how do we preserve these fascinating books and make them visible and accessible to researchers and readers? Right now, the special character of these marked copies is not apparent in library catalogs. One can only find them by accident, or by time-consuming methodical searching. We are hoping to work with many libraries in the coming year, to develop some strategies and protocols for discovering these unique volumes and cataloguing them in a way that would make them visible—which might involve some digitization but will certainly demand a valuing of the original print as well. We need libraries to commit to retain these unique copies, while also contributing information about them to a digital catalog, so that scholars can find them. Librarians often assume that a clean, bright copy is the best one to retain, but we are trying to change that conversation by showing that well-worn, marked copies have a research value all their own.
Géraldine Gourbe, “La pédagogie d’Other Ways par Allan Kaprow et Herbert Khol, au cœur d’un contexte contre-culturel” [Read]; Marie-Dominique Leclerc, “Lire, écrire, compter avec la Bibliothèque bleue” [Read]; Éloïsa Pérez, “Écrire l’espace: sur la spatialisation des savoirs dans la salle de classe et le manuel scolaire” [Read]; Araceli Tinajero, “Cigar Factory Readers in Cuba” [Read]. ↩
Mariana Castillo Deball, Interlude: The Reader’s Traces, Francfort, Revolver Publishing, 2005. ↩
Cf. Matt McCann, “Discarded Books, Recovered Nostalgia,” 17 June 2013, online: http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/17/discarded-books-recovered-nostalgia/ ↩
Maurice Halbwachs, Les Cadres sociaux de la mémoire, Paris, Félix Alcan, 1925, p.83. ↩
Eleanor Wachtel, with W.G. Sebald, “Chasseur de fantômes,” in Lynne Sharon-Schwartz et al. (dir.), L’Archéologue de la mémoire. Conversations avec W.G. Sebald, trad. P. Charbonneau & D. Chartier, Arles, Actes Sud, 2009, p.43-44. ↩
Pierre Nora, “Présentation,” in Pierre Nora (dir.), Les Lieux de mémoire I. La République, Paris, Gallimard, 1984, xxxiii-xlii. ↩
Alphonso Alva Hopkins, Geraldine: A Souvenir of the St. Lawrence, Boston, James R. Osgood, 1881. ↩
Dora Garcia, The Joycean Society, 2013, video, 53' [http://www.vdrome.org/dora-garcia-the-joycean-society] ↩
Published on <o> future <o>, February 22, 2020.
- [CC BY-NC-ND](https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/).