When Marginalia and Ephemera are Part of the Story

From the archives… 

Kara says: This book came across my workflow the other day with a strange note: “See box cover for explanation.” Intrigued, I turned the box over to read what would cause this book to get special treatment. It turns out that this book is not like most others. There is a story, Ship of Theseus, but that is only the beginning—because this work is really about the interactions of two readers who read the same copy of Ship of Theseus. They leave behind writing in the margins, postcards and photographs, and notes written on napkins!

So my challenge was how to preserve the whole work, called S., in a way that all of the included materials could be circulated. With items deliberately stuffed in between pages—items essential for the story—how did I keep them from getting lost? Some places might have transferred the book to their Special Collections, but a book like this is not meant to be read in a reading room. It is meant to be out in the world. So, after consulting with the subject librarian, I came up with this: I would mark every letter, every photograph, every item stuffed in between the pages with a note explaining where it belonged. I would also include the call number so that if it got separated from the book, it might find its way back.

The compass stuffed into the back got its own envelope because it (too) easily slid out when you picked up the book.

Finally, I kept the original box with its explanation, but I wrapped the entire thing up in a box of our making with a bit of an explanation:

ATTENTION:  This box is MEANT to have letters, postcards, etc., in between the pages. Please leave them where you found them for the next person to experience. If they slip out, their location information can be found written in pencil on the back of the item. Thanks for helping to keep this book intact.

The subject librarian and I know that this is not a foolproof way to ensure that the pieces will be intact, but it’s the best shot we have to keep the item in circulation and experienced as it was meant to be experienced.

What is really fascinating is that the book came through my workflow at a time when the University of Virginia Library is considering how we might preserve and protect marginalia and other ephemera left in books by our 19th century readers. While I denounce borrowers of library books for writing in the margins, we have many examples in our collections of books that belonged to individuals first and then were later donated. The interactions between the text and the reader can tell us much about reading habits in the 19th century. Stay tuned for how our 19th century project turns out.

Will our readers actively engage in the preservation of this new book in order to keep the experience intact for future readers? I sure hope so! I have done everything I can; the rest is up to our users.

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