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Book Lovers Record Traces of 19th-Century Readers

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An annotated copy of an 1891 edition of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poems and ballads that belonged to Jane Chapman Slaughter.

A lament for a dead child, written by her mother in pencil on the endpaper of an 1843 copy of The Poetical Works of Mrs. Felicia Hemans. A sewing needle, thread still attached, inserted in the back of an 1860 edition of The Letters of Hannah More to Zachary Macauley. Bittersweet annotations in an 1891 copy of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Ballads and Other Poems (left), in which the book’s owner recalls times spent reading it with her lost beloved: “You read this, July 1st, Sunday, the day you said—‘goodbye,’ sitting in the great armchair in the Infirmary parlor—O friend of mine!”

Those traces of long-gone readers live on, preserved in the books themselves, in the stacks of the University of Virginia’s Alderman Library. The volumes aren’t housed in the library’s special collections but in the regular stacks, where they’re free to circulate—or to be discarded someday. Like countless other 19th-century volumes in libraries across the country, they enjoy no special protection.

That worries Andrew M. Stauffer, an associate professor of English at Virginia. Mr. Stauffer is leading a new crowdsourced project, Book Traces. It’s designed to call greater attention to the existence of such books and to the readers’ histories they contain by asking people to upload examples they come across in library collections. “These books are a great archive of the history of reading, hidden in plain sight on the shelves, and we just haven’t seen it for what it was,” Mr. Stauffer says.

That archive could be lost as libraries look for ways to free up shelf space and make greater use of digital resources. “There’s a sense generally in the library community that the advent of large-scale digital repositories is a chance for some consolidation and resource-saving,” Mr. Stauffer says. Scholars need to “get involved in that process and change the conversation so it’s less about data and money and more about the nuanced textures of the record we’re talking about.”

Book Traces comes out of Nines, the Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship, which is based at Virginia and directed by Mr. Stauffer. It’s not “a rear-guard action,” he says, but an attempt to figure out how print collections and digital resources can best be used “to illuminate the 19th-century record.” As a “digital collective” with deep knowledge about the textual record, Nines is well positioned to promote “engagement with the new global digital library and where print belongs in that,” he says.

The project focuses on “unique copies of 19th- and early 20th-century books on library shelves,” according to its website. “Our focus is on customizations made by original owners in personal copies, primarily in the form of marginalia and inserts.”

Readers who come across such personal touches in books published from 1800 to 1923 are asked to upload photographs and transcriptions to the Book Traces site. (Library books published after 1923 are likely to still be under copyright; those published before 1800 have already found sanctuary in rare-book collections.)

Not every old book contains some fascinating snippet of its owners’ experiences. But not every edition of a particular 19th-century book is identical, either—a point sometimes lost in the accelerating conversation about what to keep and what can be discarded. Book Traces isn’t meant to capture every example but to make a point about the material history at stake. “Even if we only have a few hundred examples, it will be something for people to point to,” Mr. Stauffer says. “It’s not merely curiosity-hunting.”

Only a handful of examples have been uploaded to Book Traces so far, including the examples quoted here, but the bits of personal history already captured on the website are moving. For instance, the 1891 Longfellow once belonged to a woman named Jane Chapman Slaughter. She used it to record her memories of John H. Adamson, the book’s original owner, who apparently never returned from what Slaughter called his “crusade” to Liberia.

Mr. Stauffer uploaded photos of some of Slaughter’s marginalia to Book Traces, along with transcriptions. “For example, in the bottom margin after ‘The Skeleton in Armor,’ Jane has written in a note, ‘Then you looked at your watch & said—“Now shall we go & make that visit, for at 5 o’clock I have to go to Washington,” & we meant you & I, & we had a happy walk—’. Then, in a later hand, she has added the following, on the facing page: ‘Our last walk together in this world. Never to see each other more—Never, oh, never! It was after this I called you—“Norseman,” the name we always used to the end, in our letters. Do you remember?—You added to it “your Norseman,” and “your devoted Norseman.”’”

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