New digital project brings hidden messages in old books to light

New digital project brings hidden messages in old books to light


Prof. Andrew Stauffer holds an 1891 copy of Longfellow’s poems, once owned by Jane C. Slaughter, a U.Va. alumna.

If you’ve ever checked out a library book, particularly an older edition, chances are you’ve seen scribbling in the margin on a page or two. Maybe it’s underlined text or a small dedication written atop a poem. Did you take notice of the marginalia? Or did you continue with your own reading, unaware?

U.Va. associate professor of English Andrew Stauffer (Grad ’92, ’96) is on a national mission to encourage the former, specifically with works from the 19th century. And he doesn’t just want you to notice the additions—through his online project Book Traces, a digital archive created to preserve the unique markings in 19th-century works, Stauffer is enlisting readers nationwide to submit the unique marginalia that they find.

Stauffer created Book Traces last May as a digital home for these unique 19th-century marginalia—notes, pictures, letters, locks of hair and words left between and on book pages. He has two goals in mind for the project: to influence library policy when deciding which print works should remain in collections as libraries move toward digitalization, and to allow for a window into 19th-century reading and book use.

Stauffer stumbled on the idea a few years ago. After giving his 19th-century British poetry class an assignment to search the stacks at Alderman Library for the work of a particular poet, the class noticed unique markings and writings in several of the book copies. Many of the books had come from individual 19th-century owners; one had an elegy written by a mother to her daughter, who’d died at the age of 7. “It really stuck out how these books of poems were used,” Stauffer says. “It was a moving experience just dipping a bucket in the river and finding these interesting specimens.”

He and his class began exploring other Alderman collections to see if this was a particular anomaly or a common phenomenon. They discovered a trend toward the latter. “Book Traces grew out of this, to see if this is true of collections in other libraries in North America,” Stauffer says.


U.Va. Marginalia

Of the many marginalia examples that Stauffer and his students have discovered, several have local ties to the University. In the example below, Gessner Harrison (1807-62) and his son Peachy Rush Harrison left rubbings of coins dated 1781, pencil notes and other markings inside an 1806 copy of Nova Testamentum. Gessner Harrison was the fifth student to enroll at the University of Virginia and later became a U.Va. professor of ancient languages.



He contacted professors at other colleges and universities, including N.C. State,DavidsonColumbia and Northeastern, to see if they’d be interested in enlisting their students to join in the search.

Northeastern University assistant professor of English Ryan Cordell (Grad ’10) first heard about the program through Twitter and the U.Va. English department. “I was drawn to this because people often talk about the digital as opposed to the book and I like the way this project is using the digital to advocate for the book,” Cordell says.

This past summer, Cordell sent a class of students on a scavenger hunt in Northeastern’s library to search the 19th-century stacks for interesting marginalia and markings. They found notes, pressed flowers, ticket stubs—“an incredible amount of things,” Cordell says. In an edition of Frederick Douglass’ My Bondage and My Freedom, one student found clever poems written as responses to the text, which the student then submitted to Book Traces.

“I hope it’ll lead to awareness and libraries thinking more carefully about what they do with books as they try to make room in their stacks,” Cordell says. “More broadly, I think this information could be useful to scholars who want to think and write about what people do with their books.”

As academic and public libraries move toward digital formats, librarians face difficult decisions over which books should be thrown away. Stauffer wants academics, scholars and historians involved in those conversations. He hopes, too, that people across the nation will join the search. “We’d love for everybody to join in—the website is meant to reach out to the public,” Stauffer says.