Reading the writing between the lines
Examining the evolution of a publication’s individual identity is the focus of a new exhibit at the Bruce Peel Special Collections Library called Marginated: Seventeenth-Century Printed Books and the Traces of Their Readers, which runs until May 14.
John Considine, who curates the exhibit along with fellow Department of English and Film studies professor Sylvia Brown, says the display follows the life of a collection of 17th-century books by showcasing the tracings, dedications, edits, thoughts and aimless doodlings penned by each book’s readers.
“What is interesting about these [markings] is how they the record the social lives of the book—the ways in which people interacted with them, the times when people wrote in a book, when they started reading it or even finished reading it,” said Considine. “It gives us a glimpse at the people who valued a book enough to write their names in it, who used it for writing extra material—copying a poem for instance—what the reader got out of it and what they thought of it.
“Every book has had a different career, you could say.”
Marginated is the sequel to a Considine’s 1998 special collections exhibit called Adversaria, which explored the personality of books from the 16th century.
“By the 17th century, books had become much more common, which means they had become cheaper,” said Considine. “The most striking difference between books of the 16th and 17th century is that when you look at 17th-century books, you can often see quite ordinary people interacting with quite modest books.”
Considine, who is a dictionary historian, became interested in these marginalia while working in the university library in Oxford prior to coming to U of A in 1996.
“I realized when reading different copies of the same book that they had different characteristics,” he said. “I got into a habit of trying to look at all the different copies of every book, trying to see what story I could put together for all of them.”
Considine says the evolution of a book can go beyond the broken spines, folded corners and notes in the margin to include a complete facelift.
“One small group of books at the University of Alberta library that were bound for the same owner were all rebound in reused parchment from manuscripts of church music,” said Considine. “The Latin words and the musical notes are still clearly visible on the bindings. These church music manuscripts had clearly become obsolete, but their 17th-century owner must have said to himself, ‘I’ll have some of those on my books.’”
While making a social science out of this oddity in the world of books has brought with it as many questions about past readers of books as it has produced answers, Considine says an overarching theme has emerged.
“The moral is that every book which comes down from the 17th century has come to us through different hands and by different paths,” he says. “Every book does tell a different story, and every book, in the truest sense of the word, is unique.”