Leaving Something Behind: Reading Socially Through Book Traces

E.L. documents her journey through the margins of one library’s books—thinking about reading as a social process, about building community, and about what we can learn from the scribbles left behind.

 By E.L.

Alderman library stacks at the University of Virginia

Follow Book Traces on Twitter @booktracesuva, on Tumblr, and on the official website.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in libraries lately. As a grad student and inveterate skimmer of books, this is not rare. But for the past six months, I’ve been working as a project intern for Book Traces, where I systematically inspect my university’s circulating book collection for evidence of how past handlers have used, modified, and engaged with their books.

Book Traces, lead by Professor Andrew Stauffer at the University of Virginia, investigates and catalogues reader interventions in 19th and early 20th century books in university circulating collections across the country. These interventions run the gamut from standard gift inscriptions and marginal markings to botanical preservations, personal anecdotes, inserted newspaper clippings, and so much more. More on that below.


In the face of large scale digitization and the shrinking of libraries’ physical collections, Book Traces seeks to document the manifold uses to which physical books have been put by their readers. Projects such as Google Books attempt to make large numbers of public domain works widely accessible by digitizing a single volume, which must then stand as representative for all versions of that text. One of the questions Book Traces asks is what gets left out when all the diverse copies of a work are represented by a digital image of a particular book?


One answer is that we lose all of the strange and diverse signs of readers’ interactions with their physical books. An implicit aim of digitization is to deliver an image of a “clean” text on the assumption that traces of previous users are “extra” marks that muddy otherwise pure texts. It assumes that the information carried by reader interventions is at best less interesting than, and at worst actively antagonistic to the texts they respond to.


When we ask somebody if they’ve read a certain book we almost always mean the textual content rather than any specific instance of a printed text. Book Traces asks what we can “read” about readers themselves by looking for “traces” of use in specific books.


Printed books are composed of two parts that exist in perpetual tension: the text and the object itself. It’s easy, as people interested in literature and language, to equate a book object with the text it carries. But even if the text can be abstracted from its physical instantiation in any given book (or screen), we as readers cannot be equally abstracted from the physical circumstances of our encounter with our books.


Although the experience of reading can feel disembodied —our world shrinks to the page in front of us, our perceptions move inward, our imaginations temporarily displaces our senses — it is, nonetheless, located in the encounter between the reader’s body and her book. Reading happens when we sit, lay, hunch, or recline with books in hand, on lap, or wedged against our cats, in good light or bad, in libraries, busses, or beds. The text itself is encountered in a relay between our eyes or fingers and the page.


And just as we can be altered by our reading, the books we read are changed in our reading of them. Pages are torn or dogeared, margins are filled with our pencils and pens, coffee or ink are spilled, spines are broken, names are scrawled, and bookmarks are forgotten between pages. One of the theses of Book Traces is that the traces of people’s physical encounters with their books can tell us about the social world of its readers.


One of my favorite and most unexpected finds was discovered in the Technology call number range. John Trautwine’s mechanical engineering handbook The Civil Engineer’s Pocket-book contains an inscription from R. B. S. Nicolson, a student studying civil engineering at UVa during the 1878-79 academic year, and was later donated to the University of Virginia library by Nicolson’s brother.


via Book Traces


The book contains blank lined paper at the back for note taking, where Nicolson’s brother wrote a memorial annotation after his brother’s death.


New York City April 13th 1912.

It seems a desecration almost for me to write in this book so exclusively associated with my brother—but I am led to look into it for the first time in many, many years this Saturday night, the anniversary of his birth. He was born that memorable day, fifty one years ago, on which the Civil War between the North and the South began—fifty one years ago!! How life is slipping by!

This book is a relic of my brothers first ambitions—viz, to be a civil engineer—and of his course at the University of Virginia to this end. Instead of continuing to this goal, he went into our father’s business in Savannah in 1880, coming however to an early end. He was drowned at Tybee Island Ga. July 10th 1881.

John Nicolson


Here an engineering textbook becomes a family memorial precisely because of its object-ness, gaining meaning for John Nicolson because it was once owned, held, and used by his brother. I have found at least four different editions of The Civil Engineer’s Pocket-book on Hathi Trust, all of them “clean” copies without obvious reader interventions. And while digital accessibility is extremely valuable, what gets missed when we take one digitized version as representative of all copies of a work is the way people’s interactions with them as objects impinges on their function as texts.



Opening so many books over the past six months has taught me that we can glean a lot of information about readers and their books without reading them. A brief flip through a book’s pages can often tell us how they were handled —given as gifts, used as scratch-paper for list making and mathematical calculation, or appropriated for children’s doodles — and by whom. I’ve learned that books have never been simply bearers of text, but are encountered as physical objects that become different objects in the course of being consumed.


And just as books carry information beyond and exterior to their text, libraries have also traditionally been responsible for preserving and curating not only pure text, but also the material bearers of it. This side of the library endeavor has become progressively less secure in recent years with many libraries opting to either replace physical materials with digital ones or only procure new materials in digital form to begin with for reasons of price and access.


This has the potential to radically alter not only what libraries look like and how they are experienced, but also their function as repositories of knowledge and spaces of ongoing intellectual inquiry. When books are no longer physical objects, what happens to the physical spaces of the library? When all versions of a work are represented by a single virtual volume, what happens to all the extraneous and eccentric copies in library collections? Where do these books go? Do they get destroyed, stored, given away? What do we value about the book as an object and the physical space of the library? What do we gain and lose by altering our interactions with both so radically?


These all sound like loaded rhetorical questions with an obvious and reactionary answer in favor of physical collections, but they are actually vital problems regarding intellectual heritage and research method that libraries and other stakeholders will have to address in coming years.



Let me tell you, though, about what I’ve learned from book marginalia. I have always resisted the kind of romantic attachment to books that is usually expressed in image macros. I practice a ruthless annual culling of my own bookshelves in an everlasting attempt to keep my household relatively mobile. I don’t get much of pleasure from collecting stacks of books, and a sizable portion of my adult reading has happened on Kindle.


Yet some of the most enduring intellectual conversations I’ve had have been carried on at least in part through interactions with physical books. One of the things Book Traces has taught me is that even as our encounters with books are deeply personal and individuating — the romantic image of the solitary reader is standard fare — it also always occurs within a social landscape.


An example: Over the course of a few semesters, three of my friends and myself had need of the same library book, and by the end of its tour through our hands, it had collected layers of markings that look to me a lot like the sedimentation of intellectual community.




When I look at this volume, I think about how intellectual community arises not only through a mutual engagement with the same text, but even within the pages of the same physical book. I think about how this volume has become a record of friendship, making its way from hand to hand, marked by each hand on its route. I think about how surprised and delighted I was when I discovered my friend E’s marks in the margins of a book I just happened to pull from a library shelf even as E herself was at that moment hundreds of miles away. I think about how every succeeding layer of intervention is a response not only to the text of the book, but also to the marks that came before.


And all of this touches me. This is where my bibliographic romanticism lies. It is in the ways that readers are assembled as a community in ways that cannot be anticipated in advance.


Book Traces has a lot of important things to tell us about reading practices, library policy, and the usefulness of physical books, but what this project has brought home to me is the social condition of reading. It reminds me that an encounter with a text is simultaneously an encounter with a world in which other readers exits. The value of thinking in terms of reader intervention is not simply that it physically marks an instance of a reader’s encounter with a text, but it also offers the possibility of connection between readers through time.


Sometimes this is touching, as in Nicolson’s copy of The Civil Engineer’s Pocket-book, and other times it is openly hostile. Catch this reader rail against “dips*** lit majors” writing in the margins of this book.


Via Book Traces



I’ll leave you with a holiday salutation from 1906.


Via Book Traces














Author: Acro Collective

A collective space for feminist writing, pop culture love, and unabashed geekdom.

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