Project Traces Personal History Written Into Old Books

Personal inscriptions in a book from the University of Nebraska's Don Love Library. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)
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April 4, 2018 - 6:45am

Some of them are dusty and falling apart, but the books in the basement of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Don Love Library still have stories to tell. Hidden among the stacks are personal tales that have been written into the margins of 19th and early 20th century books and have been all but forgotten. Now, a project aimed at preserving those notes and inscriptions is gaining momentum.


Linda Rogge is on her own kind of treasure hunt. She’s a first-year graduate student at UNL and is looking for historical traces in an old book of poetry. She’s sitting between two long library stacks filled with old books, hoping to find something unique.   

In an age that has gone mostly digital, the books here don’t get used much.

“Digital is great for a lot of things, but people don’t put their hands on books anymore,” Rogge said. “But you know, you can learn so much about our history and about people from seeing how they use this and what was important to them and who was using it and there’s just something about putting your hands on books.”

UNL graduate student Linda Rogge. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

Rogge is part of the Book Traces project, started a few years ago by Andrew Stauffer, a University of Virginia associate professor of English. He’s leading the search on this day at UNL for old books with personal inscriptions, insertions and writings, marks of ownership and use.

He’s been doing this for a while and knows what to look for.

“Part of it is the kind of condition. This is sort of the kind of thing. It looks well-loved,” Stauffer said as he grabbed a tattered book.

“It’s sort of falling apart.”  

The project has explored around 15 academic libraries so far and collected 850 digital photographs of unique marginalia, historical traces left in books that are still on open shelves. The books have to have been published before 1926. He’s also created a website, Booktraces.org, where people can upload photos from their own searches. The idea is to see how readers interacted with their books at a time when the printed page meant a lot more than it does now.

“People are using these books as containers for family histories, for their own personal reaction to their lives. They’re almost journals and diaries and things like that,” Stauffer said. “It’s more than just scholarly commentary on a particular text. It’s really the way the book was used as a domestic object, an interpersonal social object and a platform for social media and interaction in the age of print.”  

Book Traces founder Andrew Stauffer. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

Working alongside his students, University of Nebraska-Lincoln associate professor of English and director of the 19th Century Studies program Peter Capuano is on the hunt for traces of personal history.

“These are inevitably snippets, but if we can find enough to maybe see some patterns and we’ve seen a least one book that had a to-do list from then and so someone had obviously had that book while reading poetry and thinking about what they needed to do that day,” Capuano said.

In the stacks, graduate student Kelly Payne, along with UNL professor of English Laura White, think they’ve found something interesting. They flip through pages to see if there’s more than just a name, maybe some personal notes from the book’s original owner.

UNL associate professor of English Peter Capuano in the stacks at Love Library. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News) 

“I think the idea of looking through the materials that are already here and trying to get a better understanding of the readership and what readers left behind in the books that they engaged with is a great project,” Payne said.

For Andrew Stauffer, the project is about documenting and preserving history that’s slowly fading, lost in a digital shift that continues to gain momentum. He says Book Traces is growing too and could be a useful tool for academic libraries.

“If libraries do want to band together and work on this, we really could build maybe even a national database of books that have this kind of information, which would then be useful both as big data, what kind of books were marked when, by whom, but also as a way of finding individual objects,” he said.

Stauffer is confident there’s still life in these stacks.

“Let’s look at the books. Let’s pass them through our hands. Let’s open them all,” he said. “Let’s see what they actually are before we make a decision at a distance whether they’re valuable or not.”

He smiles, turns and heads back to the rows and rows of dusty pages. His search for personal history in old books has just started. 

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