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‘Book Traces’ Event Unearths One-of-a-Kind Books in the Stacks

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    By Sarah Block
    Special to UM News

    Students, faculty, and community members found more than 300 one-of-a-kind books featuring marginal notes and additions during UM Libraries’ Book Traces event on September 24.

    Students, faculty, and community members found more than 300 one-of-a-kind books featuring marginal notes and additions during UM Libraries’ Book Traces event on September 24.

    CORAL GABLES, Fla. (October 1, 2015) — Many of the books that were found originally came from the University of Miami’s earliest donors, who helped UM, as a young institution, establish a basic library collection. In the books’ margins these individuals also left behind traces of their lives.

    When students, faculty, and community members searched the Richter Library’s Stack Tower and Weeks Music Library during UM Libraries’ Book Traces event on September 24, they unearthed early community members’ memories and observations, critiques, dedications, scribblings, and adornments that have remained within the texts for more than one hundred years.

    Participants, including several classes from UM’s College of Arts and Sciences as well as groups such as the Classics Club, discovered the reader markings, known as marginalia, in 300 books in UM Libraries’ holdings. Findings were culled mainly from areas on the fourth and fifth floors of Richter’s Stack Tower and ranged from diary-like annotations to insertions of flowers, letters, and official documents.

    “Books have a long history of marginal notes and additions in the form of marginalia,” says Special Collections Librarian Jay Sylvestre, who helped organize the event with the goal of bringing awareness and access to the many unique and historical holdings of UML within its open and circulating collections. “To find one of these one-of-a-kind books is an opportunity to take in this special kind of reading experience shared with readers of the past.”

    Tyler Pedersen, a third-year classics major, had been on the fifth floor of the stacks before, but says he hadn’t spent a lot of time looking for particularly old copies of the works. “It’s really interesting to see how readers have interacted with them,” he said, skimming Paul Delcharme’s Euripides and the Spirit of His Dreams (1906) with heavy highlights in a section related to “the dangers of marrying the wrong woman.”

    Another student found an early-20th-century tram ticket from Birmingham, England. One text that a faculty member had pulled from the stacks had only proofreaders’ marks penciled in by the reader, addressing spelling mistakes and incorrectly alphabetized references in the book’s index.

    UML’s Book Traces event was based on a national initiative started by Andrew Stauffer at the University of Virginia (UVA) that seeks to preserve information about unique copies of library books from the age when the “printed book was king” and used in many aspects of people’s lives. Stauffer, who presented during the day’s events along with co-investigator Kara McClurken, said readers historically would return to and engage with the same texts many years apart, leaving inscriptions along the way that documented milestones and major life events and reflected changes in attitudes and even handwriting. “Past readers have left us with an incredibly rich archive of historical artifacts,” he said.

    The Book Traces website crowdsources marginalia from libraries across the United States, focusing specifically on books printed from the 1800s up to the 1920s. Books within this period, generally not housed within their rare and unique books collections, are accessed less and less in print form as they’re made available online through repositories such as Google Books.

    McClurken, head of Preservation Services at UVA, discussed how marginalia in circulating collections presents a unique challenge for libraries with respect to users’ experience. “There’s this idea between books’ content and context, their artifactual evidence and their functionality, that libraries and preservationists seek to balance,” she said in her presentation.

    The Book Traces initiative helps ensure that the unique information in old library books, such as those found during Thursday’s event, are documented. Sylvestre says that while UML plans to highlight selected findings from the event in a digital exhibit of student generated content, the search for marginalia is far from over. Many decades since the University’s founding days, its once small library now has more than three million volumes, with plenty of areas rife with unidentified marginalia.

    Until the next Book Traces event, visitors are encouraged to submit marginalia they find in library collections to Book Traces and to notify Sylvestre at so they may be featured in the upcoming exhibit.


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