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When was the last time you browsed the physical stacks in a library? For many of us humanists, it’s an act of serendipitous discovery, intellectual pleasure, and significant nostalgia. For traditional-aged undergraduates, however, it’s more likely to be a foreign activity associated with a past era. Reaching for a volume from a high shelf may be known more through scenes in Harry Potter or Game of Thrones than personal experience. ASU’s Book Traces seeks to serve both crowds, coupled with a time-sensitive, scholarly purpose.
ASU Book Traces, a partnership between the Department of English and ASU Libraries, has taken its charge from Book Traces, a project out of the University of Virginia. What its founder, Professor Andrew Stauffer, saw was that as academic libraries were morphing into information centers, virtual repositories, and maker-spaces, print books on regular library shelves were being decentered. In some cases, these volumes were even endangered, with libraries entering into large-scale print de-accession programs. Some used the rationale that digital copies on Google or archive.org made “duplicate” physical copies unnecessary.
Book Traces held that, on the contrary, individual copies of print books might hold unique information. These volumes regularly contained valuable markers of our history and culture—and not just in the case of those titles that had already made their way to Special Collections. Book Traces set out to record and discover evidence of ownership, readership, and engagement in pre-1924 (out-of-copyright) books on regular library shelves. In part, its work arose as an argument against the pulping or de-accessioning of seemingly less-valuable titles.
At ASU, there was, fortunately, no talk of dumping significant numbers of print books. But as our Hayden Library undergoes its major renovation, one crucial change is that the majority of the print book collection will be housed in a high-density storage facility on ASU’s Poly campus. In the future, books will be easily deliverable, but individual copies will not be easily browsed. There’s much to be gained in that move to storage, but there are also things that will potentially be lost. That’s where ASU’s Book Traces comes in. The project seeks to record the unique information in our campus copies of out-of-copyright books, in order to make sure that present and future scholars do not lose access to the unique information they hold.
ASU Book Traces has been active on our campus since 2016 and has already involved dozens of faculty, staff, and student leaders and volunteers. Its ongoing work has turned up some stunning findings. These are being documented in a spreadsheet, with selected images uploaded and shared in ASU’s Digital Repository. The work is by no means complete. There are 14,000 out-of-copyright books in the PR and PS sections, now temporarily rehoused in Noble Library while Hayden is renovated. Although volunteers have combed through several thousand volumes, there is much more work to be done.
To hold history in one's hands and add a new chapter to that history is exactly why I am working on Book Traces.
What has kept us going is the surprising number of books found to contain inscriptions, marginalia, and even tipped-in (glued in) documents and letters. Books with marginalia (notes in the margin) offer precious and hard-to-find information about how readers interacted with and responded to books. (For more information about why is be valuable, see the Reading Experience Database, which seeks crowd-sourced contributions of this sort of information.) Victorian books were sometimes used as prizes for students. They have long details about when and why the book’s recipient was recognized for excellence. Many volumes were gift books. What astonished us was the number of author-association copies in British and American literature that had somehow made their way to ASU-Tempe’s regular shelves.
An author-association copy is a copy of a book that can be tied, in some way, to its author. For example, authors regularly signed copies of their books, providing gift inscriptions. These inscriptions tell us about a relationship between two people. It’s of potential importance to future historians and biographers. The inscription itself may offer previously unknown details about the writing, publishing, or circulation of the book. People used their books as scrapbooks and not just for four-leaf clovers or errant receipts. The most exciting thing the team has found thus far is an original, unpublished, long tipped-in letter by Derwent Coleridge, son of the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It was collected in a Victorian-era book by Sara Coleridge.
Our work continues, and we need your help. ASU’s Book Traces is currently led by PhD student Scott Caddy. Caddy took over the reins of Book Traces from me and is moving it in new directions. The work has become part of his academic program, under the auspices of an ENG 784 internship. For him, it’s a labor of love, as well as a gift to future scholars.
“The Book Traces project has simply merged two personal joys of mine together: a love of books and of discovery,” Caddy says. “Finding marginalia or author dedications is exhilarating! So is thumbing through hundreds of texts looking for such items. The Book Traces project puts me in a place where I always feel at home."
Something equally exciting has been witnessing the incredible enthusiasm of ASU’s undergraduates for this work. Some come to Book Traces events for the extra credit offered by their instructors, having never before been in a large library’s stacks and without a working knowledge of how Library of Congress call numbers work.
Caddy says, “When undergraduates from 101 and 102 stop by to help, I am blown away by their excitement and eagerness to find stuff! Their energy is contagious and always results in staying in the stacks far longer than anticipated. And, some of them have found some of the more exciting items lately.”
Caddy sums up his motivations: “I wanted to work on this project so that future students and faculty could not only find more things but to continue sharing the joy of book history. It is awe-inspiring to know that a book has not only been in its author's hands but in so many other readers’ as well. To hold history in one's hands and add a new chapter to that history is exactly why I am working on Book Traces through the English department."
ASU’s Book Traces is continuing its work throughout 2019. Those interested in being added to its mailing list should write to Scott Caddy. Future opportunities to lend a hand and deepen your involvement will also be announced through the department’s weekly updates.
Image 1: Found in ASU Book Traces: the title page of an author-signed copy of Collected Verses by Violet Fane (1880), gift copy inscribed to Lady Harrington. Fane was the pseudonym of Lady Mary Montgomerie Currie, a British society woman. Photo courtesy Devoney Looser.
Image 2: Three ASU Book Traces crew members in July 2018. L to R: Devoney Looser, Scott Caddy, and Kent Linthicum. Photo courtesy Devoney Looser.