Key Project Analysis:

Laurie Epps

I originally thought this site would be about rare finds in used books, including unique and aged examples of our literary past.  However, Book Traces is something quite different.  Centrally led by Andrew Stauffer and sponsored by NINES and University of Virginia, this project if fascinatingly appealing to various scholarly disciplines and individuals.  Its primary readership though is focused on, of course, avid readers, students, book historians and literature scholars. The archives listed date back to April 2014, so it hasn’t been around too long, but I believe is gaining followers. Book Traces aims to understand the patterns of readers (owners or renters) from 19th and 20th century books through analyzing and documenting, through pictures and other sources, personal inscriptions, inserts, marginalia and dedications—anything that might suggest the life of the book or the owner.

Surprisingly, this web project is very active in their overall message that the physicality of books are in danger of becoming digitized. This idea is huge and largely relevant in our scholarly discussions today.  The Book Traces team holds event throughout the year to educate others about this very problem and how it can be resolved somewhat, so we don’t lose pertinent information tied to the heritage of these printed pages.  Historians especially interested in preserving the life of readers in this time frame would find this site especially helpful.  One recent trip was to the University of Miami Richter Library to spend a “day of searching in the stacks.”

One example that I found particularly interesting is a Civil Engineering book given to the University of Virginia lab from the brother of one of its former students, a Mr. Robert Beauregard S. Nicholson, born in White Bluff, Georgia, near Savannah. This submission to Book Traces was accepted based on the inscription of dedication of the book by his brother because of his then deceased brother’s original dream of becoming a Civil Engineer, attending the school in 1877-1879.  The Book Traces research team recovered information about Mr. Nicholson that was quite disheartening.  The college student of UVA, Mr. Beauregard, had to resign from school to help work in his father’s plumbing business back home in Savannah.  Tragically, he drowned off Tybee Island a year later.  The researchers located a news press in reference to his death through the Macon Telegraph and Messenger.  Mr. Beauregard is buried at the infamous Bonadventure Cemetary in Savannah.  (See attached web address for this example)

Upon finding this and once residing in Savannah myself, I was hooked into finding out more.  The website does have a search option, but in looking for other connections to Savannah or South Carolina, was disappointed.  I’m supposing because the age of the project is still relatively young, they still are in constant search of examples just as this one to draw readership in.

The web site itself is decorated like a literary site that would appeal to book lovers everywhere.  It has a column of archives of submissions divided by months dating back to 2014 and tabs for information about the project, a means of contact, and a press tab. They have been in various news outlets several times in hopes of conjuring up new advocates.  In addition, there is also a FAQ tab, which is especially helpful.  It is easy to navigate and appealing to the viewer—the archives list the book of interest, the particular marginalia or inscription that makes it relevant and pictures—lots of them.

The project has much possibility for incorporating new archives.  It invited those who have any documentation from a library book (particularly a scholarly library) to submit pictures of it and the specifics, especially the library it came from and the call number on the binding, to them in hopes of being accepted.  There are various examples on the website, some are even marks from botanical once included between pages.  The site also welcomes comments by viewers who might have knowledge about the books in the archive. However, one weakness would be spreading knowledge of the site and its overall aspirations of saving these aged treasures.  And submissions are only to come from libraries and not after 1923.  Anything that uses a ball-point pen is not significant to their corpus of book inscriptions.  Any trace of individual mark or readership is one that has a story attached to it.  This is what is important and where the stories behind these books might lead us.

As I said before, they do have events when they can to educate students and scholars—those who would be most concerned with saving literary books as these.  Book Traces does have a Facebook page for interested people, but it would be helpful to notify many university libraries of their existence and quite possibly, locate volunteers for more submissions.  It is a promising cause and one that is very relevant in our digital age.  If we can have online libraries and online corpuses, texts at large and easily accessible, we can very well gather information that is historically relevant to our literary history.  There is an urgency to saving things that won’t forever be around that scholars of all disciplines can appreciate.  This is Book Traces strongest and most relevant aim—to save what we have left from library that can bridge readers to the past before evidence of such readers is extinguished.

I think Book Traces or projects similar to it would be especially interesting to students of history, DH or literature—this helps document a history that quite possible might be in the footsteps of extinction.  In examining Book Traces, I was curious if there were projects that addressed old letters in general that you could use similarly to research for famous people, regional examples of letter-writing or even person heritage.  I might look into that for my final project after exploring a bit more.  If any of you have further information that might be helpful, I welcome it.