Tag Archives: #booktraces


I thoroughly enjoyed myself at the Book Traces event. This was my first time at Columbia University, which has one of the most beautiful campuses I have ever seen. The library assistants guided us to the book racks focusing on American and British Literature pre-1923 where we were supposed to find books which had old annotations, dedications and so  on. Initially, I had no luck. I searched for the oldest books on the shelves but none of them held any significant markings. I was just beginning to lose my enthusiasm when finally after an hour of searching, I encountered a seemingly plain book that contained a heartwarming dedication:


Soon, I encountered another interesting book which contained a rather unusual marking:


This was the highlight of the day. I am unsure whether this illustration is from the 19th century, but apparently I was the only one who discovered a drawing in a book.

The event was quite an enlightening experience for me. These books contain not only stories by the authors but also of the readers themselves. Every marking reveals the thoughts and feelings of the reader and gives us a glimpse into their mind. It felt like I had time traveled to the 19th century. To say I enjoyed the event would be an understatement.

I believe that Book Traces is an essential project that must continue and spread all over the country and even the world because these books need to be protected. They contain so much history and so many memories that it would be cruel to destroy or discard them. I am especially prejudiced to this cause because I am an avid reader who worships books. Nonetheless, these books need to be preserved, studied and admired.

My one suggestion to improve the project would be to expand to other genres of books as well. May be the project could be stretched to include not only American and British literature but also literature from other nations as well. But for this to occur, the cause must be spread internationally.

Cesco’s Book Traces

First off, wow what a campus. According to the Columbia website, Butler currently has over 2 million books just in the stacks, and many more in several auxiliary libraries such as the Business and Dramatic libraries within the same building. The building’s construction was paid for by Standard Oil during the Great Depression, and the architect was the same who designed Yale’s library. Look at how gorgeous it is:

Dr. Stauffer’s hunt for old marginalia really intrigued me, and if I wasn’t completely convinced by the time I got to the Morningside campus, the examples he presented did the job. The class collectively went up to the stacks and began perusing old books (pre-1923) and searching for any annotations that appeared to be made by the original owners. Albeit looking through some 80 books, including very old Peter Pan prints and many decrepit ones in boxes that fell apart when I touched them, I yielded no results. Each time I’d find something written in the margins or underlined, it quickly became apparent that it was much more recent than what Dr. Stauffer was looking for.

Aside from my failure that day, I think the Book Traces project is a very important one. As the world’s population continues to expand and our collective knowledge as well, it is understandable that space begins to become an issue due to newly printed books. While Butler Library truly is huge, unfortunately, it isn’t infinite. For the most part, digitalization is a good solution; almost everyone has portable computers or e-readers, and therefore we can save all of these texts in online hard drives accessible to all. Critics argue that the feeling of holding a book is irreplicable and that e-books aren’t as engaging. Instead of arguing a subjective point such as that one in order to save the books, Dr. Stauffer takes a more ingenious tack and presents the case that the marginalia in these old texts is often just as valuable as the text itself. We can study the annotations and comments by these ghosts of the past in order to further our understanding and insights about the text. These old texts are living and breathing organisms, not just because they were crafted by trees, but because of the stories that reside within them; a prime example being the love story presented to us on the title page of an old book.

While the sadness that comes along with discarding and rendering these books unaccessible is inevitable, I think there are other solutions. In the same way that new technology plays a large part in the downfall of these texts, it can help save them as well. It would be a tedious task, but just as we can have interactive comments in Google word docs, we could collectively input this marginalia (or at least the more important/intriguing portion of it) into the e-versions of the texts. Additionally we could preserve a part of these old collections according to which were used the most. That way, students and alumni could still access history hands-on for a part of their research, and still find everything else online. I wish I’d found something of value in my search, but the experience of digging through the stacks and seeing what my peers around me found was amazing. I’ve always been a bit wary of these dungeon-like rows and rows of books but our interaction with the library changed the way I viewed it. As technology continues to evolve, we will continue to find better and more efficient ways to preserve these texts in their entirety, while still conserving space.

I have always loved the concept of a scavenger hunt so I was pleasantly surprised when I stumbled upon a book by Albert Mordell from the 1800s that contained an inscription by the author. After going through copious amounts of books-nearly 100-I landed on the Mordell book and to my surprise found it hand-inscribed by the author, Mordell, to his editor. I thought this was really interesting because it shows how the author communicated with his staff and how the book was created with the help of many.
In addition to the inscription by the author, I found an inscription by a friend/family member.

One of my favorite things while combing through the books was looking at the notes in the margin because they showed a lot about the reader and his/her thought process while reading. This enables me to get a glimpse of how people in the 1800s reacted to certain ideas/literature. The marginalia possess a rare ability to transport me back in time, right into the thoughts of the readers, and in the case of the inscription by Mordell, right into the thoughts of the author.

As for the event itself, I thoroughly enjoyed the hunt for the “prized” books and thought that it was organized very well. I think that these results/data should be used to show how readers in the 1800s interacted with literature. Then those results could be compared with how we interact with literature today. It would be interesting to extrapolate those results and see if we could pinpoint any events or rise of new technologies that might have affected the way readers interact with literature.
I think that these books are valuable and should be preserved in specific library sections. However, I do not think it is realistic, in this day and age, for people to keep them on the shelves in the place of newer, more relevant books. Therefore, I believe that there should be separate libraries for these books that the public can access readily. This way the older books wouldn’t be forced out into storage or thrown out.

My Experience at the Book Traces event

I really enjoyed the Book Traces outing greatly, especially how the trip coincided with our class’s reading of Fahrenheit 451—a book thats plot is driven by the action of burning books. As opposed to the despondency that is entrenched in the society in Fahrenheit 451, the people who are leading the Book Traces movement were extremely enthusiastic and hopeful that their aspirations would be met with success. While I listened to the professor from the University of Virginia whose name I forget, I got the impression that although a ton of books were getting moved off site from their original libraries, there was still hope for certain books to be saved. Seeing the visible hope on his face for the success of the Book Traces project, I myself felt inspired to really delve into the shelves of Colombia’s studio library and really search for the antique human notation that the Professor had described in his introductory speech.

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When I got to the tenth floor of the library and began to rummage through the shelves of old and tattered books, I thought I would find something of value for sure. Unfortunately, after scouring through over 50 books I came up empty handed. Most people would say that all my time spent had gone to waste, but, on the contrary, I felt extremely accomplished seeing that I had contributed to what I viewed as a very noble and righteous cause. I may have not of found anything, but my peers did, and at the very least I can say I was part of that expedition that brought to light traces of human history that have not seen the light of day for over a hundred years. Just like in Fahrenheit 451, we can learn a lot from reading what others have notated in the past, even though others might say otherwise. That is the main thing I took away from the entire experience. 2014-10-08 14.55.46 2014-10-08 15.22.00 2014-10-08 15.23.25 2014-10-08 15.23.45 2014-10-08 15.34.01

When it comes to the value of these books, I believe that the true value comes from the human attributes they contain within them, which makes them unlike any other old books. With that said, just like we preserve documents that have historical human value connected with them in museums and other galleries, the same should be done with these books. I could see the creation of a Book Traces library or museum that has these books on display for other future generations to view and learn from. By going about it this way the museum or library’s material will be able to offer future generations insight into how people connected with novels and books on a more personal and analytical manner. I see this as being very effective approach to utilizing these materials. All in all, there is much to learn from these books, we just need to formulate the right way to synthesize the knowledge and history they hold.2014-10-08 15.34.58 2014-10-08 14.55.24


Book Traces Reflection

I think that the Book Traces event in itself is an incredible idea. I love everything about old books so getting to handle so many was a really great experience. Something I found particularly fascinating was how different so many books in the same time range could be. One book from the 1890s seemed to be in rather pristine condition, while another was completely falling out of it’s binding. Unfortunately, even after looking through around 60 books, I only found one with inscriptions that could be considered significant.

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On one of the pages in this book someone had written “skip this chapter” (I unfortunately failed to get a picture of this) which I found funny.

I wish that I had found more inscriptions because I believe that we can learn so much from these old texts. I also wish that I was able to better understand my discoveries. I don’t know how this could be done, but if there is any way to figure out more about these people who wrote in this books, that would be fascinating.

The best way to get the most use out of these books as possible would be to create an entire section of the library specifically for all of the findings during the event. This way it would be much easier and more convenient to find them and it would draw more attention to them. Having a section dedicated to these old books could also help preserve them. If people know that an entire section of books is nearly a century old (or older), they will be more likely to handle them with more caution.

Book Traces at Columbia

Book Traces at Columbia University started with a short talk about the purpose of the event and the procedure for searching through the books. After seeing the slideshow of annotated books found at the University of Virginia and those found at Columbia that morning, I was excited to start looking through the stacks myself. The Butler Stacks at Columbia are the closest thing to a Hogwarts library I have ever seen: the aisles are thin and some books are so old that that small pieces of the pages sprinkle out when the book is opened.

The Book Traces coordinators told us at the beginning of the process that more people had found interesting annotations in poetry and fiction, so I sat down in the poetry section and started flipping through books. I searched through about four shelves in the course of an hour, which totaled to almost seventy books. Many of them were of works written in the 19th century, but most of the copies I found were published in the 1950s or 1960s. About a quarter of them were published during our desired period, before 1923. Of those published before 1923 I found five with some sort of annotations in them.

Ford Madox Hueffer’s The Good Soldier featured extensive annotations, mostly pencil notes in the upper corners of the pages and check marks next to parts of the text.  It had a note on the copyright page under the publication date, 1915, that said “Portions published in Blast (ed. Wyndham Lewis), 1914.”

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The other book I found was a collection of poems also by Ford Madox Hueffer. This book had very few annotations, but one of the pages featured a poem with dashes and lines around the words, which I can only assume was the reader mapping out the meter of the poem as they read it. Under the poem an annotation reads “takes my heart away.”


I was surprised to see the inconsistency of the annotations in the books that I found. The poem collection, for example, was only heavily annotated on a couple of pages. Many books had scattered checkmarks throughout the pages but no written notes. The use of pencil to annotate also surprised me, but if quill pens were the primary use of ink in that time then it makes sense that pencil would be easier to use. Most of the written annotations were in cursive as well, which is far less common in writing today, even for annotating a text.

I think the best way to use the books found through Book Traces is to establish a part of the library just for books published and annotated before 1923. I know that as a student, reading and annotating are two essential parts of my education, and I would love to sift through a section of books that were all annotated a hundred or more years ago. Setting aside these gems in libraries would be an efficient way to bring attention to what we can learn from past annotations, from the way people wrote to their reading skills to their vocabulary use. Additionally, separately the original publications from newer copies of the same text is a way to preserve the books themselves. If all of the older publications are in one place, readers will know to be more careful when handling the books. Book Traces could be the start of a movement to find and preserve a history of reading through books.

The Legacy of Literacy

Book Traces was simultaneously one of the nerdiest and most interesting events I have participated in since moving to New York, and that says a lot coming from a kid studying game design.  The goal of Book Traces is to save valuable bits of history from being interred in deep storage or burned in a heap.  These bits of history are scrawled in books, in the margins, on cover pages, or anywhere else there is blank space.  Libraries that have too many books, however are beginning to get rid of many nineteenth century works as there are many copies of them, and most are already available online.  What aren’t available online are all the notes, love letters, and tributes that fill certain editions.  Book Traces is establishing something of an army of “seekers” those of us who will dedicate a few hours to paging through volumes looking for marginalia in order to save some of these snapshots of the past.

Students sprawled in front of Columbia's main library.  Book Traces was held across the lawn at Columbia's Butler library
Students sprawled in front of Columbia’s main library. Book Traces was held across the lawn at Columbia’s Butler library

What I find particularly interesting in the project is how insightful it is into how readers react to certain works.  One perfect example of this in action was that when we arrived in the stacks where we were to search, the librarians instructed us to focus our attention on poetry as most of the finds came from those sections.  This shows, relatively unsurprisingly, that poetry had an especially profound impact on readers during the 1800s as many of such readers were moved enough by the verses to write on the page in their hands.  It then came as no surprise to me that the lone piece of marginalia I was able to discover in the hour I spent searching was in a book of poems by Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford.


Though the book in question was printed in 1921, the date of the writing is debatable, and due to the annotation’s academic nature Andrew Stauffer, the project’s founder suggested that it might be the doing of a past professor at the university. Still, the book is an interesting addition none the less.


Moving forward I feel that scanning these books is the best possible way to save them for the future.  Not only would creating digital copies preserve the content, but the process would, and indeed already has, make them easy to share and teach from, showing just how important it is to preserve these old texts.  Were it up to me I would like for all these books, or at least the more notable ones, to be gathered in one collection, perhaps even into a museum exhibition.


Leaving the event I felt inspired. Inspired not only to pay closer attention to the words others have written, but to engage more with the material I’m reading.  I’ve always been a proponent of the physical book, but I usually hesitate to mark them up.  I now understand how valuable it could be not only to my future self should I return to that work, but to those who may page through it long after I’m gone.  Some of the ways these individuals interacted with their books is remarkable.  Far from just simply underlining key passages, many readers composed their own poems alongside printed ones, other added lines where they saw fit.  Some other past readers kept their novels or poetry collections as a sort of journal, pouring out very intimate aspects of their lives. And while I may not take my interactive reading to such a level, I will certainly reconsider how I read and interact with books.

Book Traces Response

I found the Book Traces event to be a very interesting experience. I shifted through two shelves, approximately 40 books, and only found two that fit the criteria of what we were looking for. The actual experience of handling these very old books was very cool; some books that were not even a century old were already, to my surprise, falling apart. The texture of the pages was drastically different to what I am use to today and it almost made the book that much more precious. I wondered who would actually need any of these books? Some were stories, some biographies, some informational texts, but they were in the corner of this very large library in the dark. I still wonder how anyone would find any of those books relevant? I suppose this is the whole purpose of the book traces project, to seek out the books of value. I found two books, both with different inscriptions on the cover page. Unfortunately I do not have any images of these inscriptions, but both were written in what seemed to be an old-fashioned ink pen. I took these books out of a sea of many others, just because the inscription was there deemed the book more valuable than the others. This experience emphasized the importance and prevalence of historical archiving and data collection. What use is an abundance of information if no one is there to use it? The book traces event pointed out what can be done to remedy these situations as well as gave me an insightful look into past literature.

I would have like to hear what the final findings of this project were, but I could have stayed later to hear this. I thought the event coordinators could have helped participants understand their previous findings and give them a little more insight into what they had specifically found. After I submitted the books I was unsure what was going to become of the conclusion of the project. For future generation readers the books that were saved could be put on an online catalogue where the call number would be provided and the actual book would be available. I realize that is the concept of any library, but if a special section was dedicated to the books specifically drawn from the Book Traces event that could be helpful.


On a side note I thought the Columbia University campus was gorgeous, as evidenced by this photo. #newmedia

Columbia University Campus

Book Traces

I began this assignment in, of course, the wrong section of the library, and eventually made my way to the 18th-19th century English Literature area. At first I found loads of religious texts on the 4th floor, many in different languages (I think I saw Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Arabic), and finally I came about some Christian texts. They were all very large, ungainly, quite decrepit, and didn’t seem to have any annotations within them. I first came across a collection of gargantuans known as The Christian Intelligencer, which seemed to talk all about what good Christians were up to in the early early 1900s, but didn’t find anything of importance written inside.

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Right after, I found a living relic known as the Calendar of Wills. Considering the fact that there was no publishing or printing date in it, and the only dates being “A.D. 1258 – A.D. 1358” (which is clearly the recorded period discussed in the book, not the printing date).

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At this point I realized this probably wasn’t the literature I should of been looking at, and I found out that the 8th floor stored a great deal of old English Literature. In this section I uncovered multiple texts including a collection of works by William Thackeray published from 1910 to the mid 1920s, and a book of poems by William Watson.

Though it took some endurance and extensive searching, it was an interesting experience finding all these ‘ancient’ books in the library. I feel it’s necessary to preserve at least one copy of every book if we are to thoroughly record our human history.

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Book Traces alternate assignment

Today I visited the Bobst library in search of literature that was published before 1923. Ideally, I went in looking for a book during the Romantic age which peaked between 1800 and 1850. Although the scavenger hunt started out slow because I mainly looked through English literature, I began to broaden my search. Finding a book written in the English language that was published before 1923 proved to be a challenge. I then remembered that the Romantic era encompassed a myriad of European countries that underwent the same literary trends. I eventually landed on this one series of books.




This book was one of many in a collection. It was called Revue Des Langues Romances. It was book 1-2 and was located in the Italian Romantic Literature section. My initial approach to finding these old books was to look through all the bindings. Each binding had a library code as well as the year it was published/written. This proved to be an arduous and inefficient approach to my problem. Eventually I decided to use a simpler method: look for the books with the most wear and tear.





As you can see, just from the outside of the book there are clear signs of age and damage. As I opened up the book, I found out that it was published in 1870. Strangely, there was no year for publication printed directly from the book. Instead someone wrote it in. I also found a few indecipherable notes after the cover page. Perhaps they were just further clarifications of the book’s identity. It is unclear exactly what the person wrote down but those were the only real signs of annotation. All the other parts of the book were clean.




The first thing I wanted to find out was what kind of literature I was dealing with. While I cannot read Italian, I can make assumptions based on how the book was organized. The pages with standard paragraph formatting and separation could be indicative of many different forms of writing. However, as I began to explore the pages, I found what appears to be poem-like structures in the text.





With the poems being separated by blocks of text, this leads me to believe that this series is a collection of poems with commentary. It would have been great to see more annotations, but sadly there none within the main body of the book. Perhaps this is done to preserve the book as it is the oldest one I found during my search.