Book Traces Awarded a $110,000 Planning Grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded $110,000 to the University of Virginia in support of strategic planning for the Book Traces project. The grant will support a one-year effort to scale the project to regional and national levels. Led by Andrew Stauffer (associate professor of English) and co-principal investigator Kristin Jensen (project manager in the UVA Library), the Book Traces project aims to discover historically-significant, uniquely marked and modified books in the circulating collections of academic libraries. Since 2014, Stauffer, Jensen, and a number of collaborators have been discovering and cataloguing books published before 1923, annotated or marked by their former owners, and currently shelved in open stack library collections. The goal is to preserve unique volumes and illuminate former cultures of reading and book use, and to change the conversation about shared print by demonstrating the scholarly value of well-worn copies.

Marginalia in a volume from the shelves of UVA's Alderman Library

Marginalia in a volume from the shelves of UVA’s Alderman Library
(Sanjay Suchak/UVA Communications)

The Mellon grant will support the expansion of the Book Traces project to a larger consortium of libraries and involve more librarians and faculty in its development. Activities during the grant period will include the testing of various methods to find and make visible the unique artifacts hidden among library collections, including tracing donations of books through university records; collaborating with partner libraries and consortia to sample their collections; and exploring the possibility of training computers to recognize the presence of marginalia on scanned page images.

Many North American academic library collections were built through donations of personal and family libraries, and many of these books contain some sort of marginalia. This is the genesis of the Book Traces project. A majority of these books were printed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the era in which books became an affordable luxury and millions of ordinary people started making books part of their daily lives. People read books at home and took them along on journeys. Soldiers read aloud to each other while on campaign, marking their books with regimental identification; heartbroken women wrote notes in the margins about their lost loved ones; and schoolchildren doodled and traced their hands on the blank endpapers of books. Many of these books later ended up in the collections of academic libraries where they still sit today, largely unrecognized for the traces of history hidden in their pages.

The Book Traces Strategies Planning Grant builds on previous Book Traces work. In 2014, Stauffer launched, a crowdsourced website for collecting examples of uniquely marked books. “Book Traces @ UVA” was a two-year project (2015-2017) headed by Stauffer and Kara McClurken, the Director of Preservation Services at the University of Virginia Library. With funding from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), Stauffer and McClurken oversaw a large-scale survey of pre-1923 books in the University of Virginia’s circulating collections. Currently, Stauffer and Jensen are collaborating with Caroline Janney, the Nau Professor in History of American Civil War and Director of the John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History, on a project titled “Civil War Era Readers and their Books in Virginia Libraries,” with funding from a University of Virginia 3 Cavaliers seed grant. All of these efforts have benefited from the contributions of numerous University of Virginia student workers and volunteers.

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