Book Traces: Nineteenth-Century Readers and the Future of the Library

by Andrew M. Stauffer 
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021, 207 pp. 
Hardcover $49.95 ISBN: 978-0812252682 

Andrew Stauffer’s Book Traces argues for the value that “traces”—the annotations, insertions, and inscriptions left behind in books in circulating libraries—add to our understanding of the roles that nineteenth-century volumes of poetry played in the lives of their original owners and readers. At one level an engaging and sentimental study of marginalia and at another a time-sensitive call to action, Book Traces was developed out of Stauffer’s crowd-sourced web project of the same name. The Book Traces project, sponsored by the University of Virginia and begun in 2014, assembles images and citations of marked copies of circulating-library books published before 1923. Both the book and the online project serve as partial catalogs of individual marked volumes while arguing that, far from being interchangeable and replaceable via a single clean digitized copy, the volumes of nineteenth-century poetry frequently identified for deaccessioning and disposal in many libraries today offer a unique window into the lives of nineteenth-century American readers.  

The book’s chapters proceed by analyzing portions of published poetry before looking closely at dated annotations and additions to individual copies of those published works. Some of these annotations demonstrate evolving sentiments over the course of a single reader’s life; others record the ways in which a book might serve as a message board, with communications written and received by multiple readers—some even contain remnants of pressed flowers, locks of hair, and other inserted objects. The result in the present volume is a series of “braided case studies” that link together the published word with a glimpse at the emotional lives of its readers (20). Captivating as separate entities, these case studies taken together point towards some of the larger modes of readership, exchange, and text-engagement in nineteenth-century America.  

The research method for such a project as Book Traces is necessarily haphazard. Unless significant because of the identity of their authors, markings are typically not noted in the catalog records of special collections libraries, even less so in the records of circulating ones. The objects of Stauffer’s study are books that contain traces left by anonymous or less-notable owners. As such, Stauffer and the other contributors to the Book Traces project, many of whom are university students, rely on shelf searches and “guided serendipity” to locate marked books on library shelves (3). As a process, this method is equal parts unpredictable and invigorating, and the result poses unanswerable questions concerning the scope possible for any such project. The necessity for proceeding in this way, however, in itself strengthens the case for maintaining browsable stacks where such “serendipity” may be fostered rather than deduplicating or sending books to offsite, non-browsable storage.  

Regardless of the strength of this case, the solution to library storage needs is not an easy one, and the method exposes as many limitations as it provides answers. Several of the authors and assumed originators of the “traces” studied by Stauffer were locally prominent figures who left behind to the university in question not only their personal libraries but also their archives. As a result, some annotators are less archivally anonymous than they might otherwise be. Yet while Stauffer has filled in as many of the details about the lives of the presumed inscribers as is likely possible, much of the exact meaning and import of the traces he considers in this volume remain speculative. Additionally, the study, focused as it is on volumes of poetry that were originally owned largely by white, middle-class, female readers, is necessarily narrow; this is a limitation that Stauffer himself identifies early on (20).  

A frequently poignant study of a sentimental topic—traces of love and loss added to the pages of Romantic-era poems themselves concerned with love and loss—Book Traces takes “sentimental attachment” as its subject as well as its method (3). Positioned as it is within the larger scholarly context of studies on marginalia, books as social objects, and Victorian literature and readership, the book contributes a number of engaging examples of personalized copies that easily captivate its reader. The reader, for example, is emotionally drawn into the upheaval surrounding the loss of a lover or death of child that the annotations suggest: an unusual place to be taken by a scholarly book. It can sometimes be difficult to discern whether these moving speculations into individual lives have the capacity to add up to anything more than so much eavesdropping. As a whole, however, Book Traces makes a convincing case that these marked volumes—which Stauffer designates as “medium-rare” in that they are unique, personalized copies even if their importance as such has not hitherto been primary to their collecting institutions (152)—can productively be approached as “sites of feeling” rather than simply material products (121). These sites of feeling, if preserved in circulating libraries, stand to retain the power to evoke the individual lives of nineteenth-century readers and the social and emotional circuits in which they existed, and possibly to answer research questions that have yet to be formulated. 

Tracy Bonfitto, The Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin