Why Study Traces of Use?

When an antiquarian bookdealer describes a book as having 'traces of use' he means that the book and/or the binding is somewhat worse for the wear. The book had not been waiting in a bookcase for a reader, but has actually been read and this has left traces on the binding and in the book. 'Traces of Use' seemed a fitting name for this research project that studies ownership marks and marginalia. Research that does not perceive traces of use as worse for the wear but as better for the wear as any trace of use has the potential to be of interest.

Why study traces of use? in books printed in Lyon? between 1450-1700?

Three crucial questions of which the first one inspired the compiling of the ABC and will be gone into here.

If the Traces of Use blog and the information in the ABC have not activated the bibliophilic senses and answered the 'why study traces of use?' question, a further train of thought on the subject hopefully will. Why indeed study ownership marks and marginalia in books printed so many centuries ago? Why do we care who owned and read these books? Why do we care who left their marks inside the books and why are we interested in the character of the markings? Our life is not dependant on the result, we are not about to invent a revolutionary drug or a groundbreaking theory on the quality of light.

The book historic answer to this question is that provenance and marginalia can supply new insight into the reading and collecting habits of past owners of books. Some libraries are already adding provenance data to the online descriptions of their books. Think of the prospect if databases of libraries from all countries could be cross-referenced for specific ownership marks, thus creating the possibility to reassemble on the Web long dispersed collections, on the basis of a name found in a book. To bring together descriptions and photographs of the books owned and read by the same person, not only those of famous owners, which are relatively easy to trace through distinguishing marks either on the bindings or inside the books, but also those of the unknown reader. The reader whose name has not survived the centuries that separate us. An international network of databases that can be cross-referenced opens up a scala of possibilities for further research into the social-historic circumstances of these, until now, unidentified readers and collectors. 

Is this utopia inspired by a severe case of wishful thinking? Yes, for now it is. Libraries are only just beginning to add details on provenance and marginalia to their online descriptions. At the moment trying to find another book with the same ownership is like looking for a needle in a haystack. 

From a present day humanist point of view the impact of the squiggles, notes and names found in books is a sensory one. It is touching to realise that someone spent time reading the book and leaving his or her marks inside. The ownership marks and marginalia that have survived the ages, make us aware that a book has a history. The people who owned, read and annotated the book have died, the book survives with the traces it has accumulated through the centuries. These traces of use distinguish this book from other copies of the same edition and give the book its specific aura. A book without traces of use is a lifeless object. Like a leather chair which needs sitting in to become comfortable, a book needs traces of use to become more than just printed matter. This focus on the senses combines nicely with the book historic perspective, as in both approaches the material aspects of the book are studied and dissected. The research is focused on the book itself, in this case additions made by previous owners/readers. Both the book historic and the sensory point of view explore the form of the book and its features.  

This still may not answer the question why reading and collecting habits should merit research. What questions do we ask ourselves when studying the traces of use found in a book?  This will be the starting point for an introductory article on the status quo of research into ownership marks and provenance, shortly to be found on this site as Spoor van Gebruik. As there already is ample reference material on this subject in English, I have chosen to write the article in Dutch but plan to write an extended version in English in the near future. 

© pvanholthe 2011-2017