by Sarah Block, Library Communications
UM Special Collections Librarian Jay Sylvestre believes that every book, as a record of stories from the past, is unique. The old, seemingly forgotten texts he unearthed in a recent search of the Richter Library Stack Tower are markedly one-of-a-kind, adorned with notes, illustrations, and even physical objects belonging to readers past. Now piled on his desk on the 8th floor, the stack of books, some that are long out of print, will soon come to light again. Their unique markings, known as marginalia, are the target of Book Traces, a nationwide crowdsourcing project started at the University of Virginia (UVA) soon touching down in Miami.
The project aims to preserve information about unique copies of library books, providing a website in which libraries and their users nationwide can upload examples of marginalia ranging from penciled notes about the work to hand drawn maps and sketches inspired by the text. One of Sylvestre’s findings from Richter Library, Jack London’s Tales of the Fish Patrol, contains the symmetrical stain of pressed flowers between two pages. “It’s a little bit like a treasure hunt,” he says. “Because you find these traces of the past and suddenly it’s not just a book you’re looking at, but a window into someone else’s life from another time period. It’s fascinating.”
Now hoping to foster public engagement on these unique library books, Sylvestre is organizing UM Libraries’ first annual Book Traces event on September 24, inviting all book enthusiasts in the community to explore and discover unique books in the stacks and share them on the Book Traces website. A number of groups from UM’s College of Arts and Sciences, including English, classics, and musicology classes, are participating in the event, and Sylvestre hopes to attract the participation of individual students, faculty, and community members joining in the hunt as well, as he’s confident that many more exciting discoveries lie ahead.
“There are many books that were donated during the early years of the University with very distinctive marginalia left by their original owners,” he says. Although books from before 1800 have likely been moved into the Special Collections department, where Sylvestre works, there are many distinctive books—with unique marginalia—from the past two centuries that are still in circulation in the library’s general collections and housed in the Stack Tower, he explains.
Marginalia in the form of a photograph captured for the Book Traces website in 2014. The photo was found in a copy of the nineteenth-century journal The Spirit Messenger, housed at Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Book Traces focuses chiefly on books from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that are little used because of their age, and yet not distinctive enough at this point to be housed in special collections. “With many books from this time period being made available in a digital format, people are engaging less with the very interesting copies that exist on library shelves,” Sylvestre says. The Book Traces stated mission is to engage the question of the future of the print record in the wake of wide-scale digitization.
Sylvestre explains the project is also about preserving the history of reading, and readers. He comments, “Books are tools, so the way people used books one hundred years ago gives us insight into the life they led during that historical period. The books have anthropological value.”
The Libraries welcomes readers and book enthusiasts throughout the community to join in the search for unique books at Richter Library by participating in its first annual Book Traces event, which will take place September 24 from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Participants can come at any point throughout the day to explore the stacks floors for marginalia, and will be provided with instruction and assistance by UM Librarians as well as the opportunity to submit their discoveries to the Book Traces database.
The event will also include a presentation by the project’s founder, Andrew Stauffer, director of NINES at UVA, on digitization and the future of nineteenth-century print, at 11:30 a.m. in Richter Library’s 3rd Floor Conference Room. Kara McClurken, director of preservation services at UVA and a principal investigator on the grant that funds Book Traces, will close the event at 4 p.m. in the 3rd Floor Conference Room with a presentation on libraries and print preservation decision-making, discussing the delicate balance of functionality, artifactual evidence, and resource allocation.
Additional information on the Book Traces mission and examples of marginalia can be found on the Book Traces website. More on the UM Libraries Book Traces event will be available in the coming weeks on the Libraries’ homepage. This event is free and open to the public.
RSVP by September 17 to firstname.lastname@example.org or 305-284-4026.
The historic pastime of pressing flowers comes to light in a copy of Gray’s School And Field Book of Botany (1870) at Mount Holyoke College Library containing leaves pressed between its pages. The marginalia was posted to Book Traces in 2014.