What Is a Book?

BookTraces is a new project to track down the human markings in 19th-century books that, in the era of digitization, will (at best) end up in deep storage throughout the nation’s library system. 

The books are “a massive, distributed archive of the history of reading, hidden in plain sight in the circulating collections,” the site argues. “Marginalia, inscriptions, photos, original manuscripts, letters, drawings, and many other unique pieces of historical data can be found in individual copies… Each book has to be opened and examined.”

While the implications of this research are large for librarians (more on that anon), for the lay person, there is a fascinating question at the heart of this project to find and preserve unique copies of old texts:

What is a book?

In the Kindle era, it seems pretty obvious. There is an implicit argument in the act of digitizing a book and removing it from the shelf: a book is its text. A book is a unique string of words, as good as its bits.

Read more. [Image: Booktraces.org]

Book traces everywhere. This is how we save them in the digital age.

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BookTraces is a new project to track down the human markings in 19th-century books that, in the era of digitization, will (at best) end up in deep storage throughout the nation’s library system.

The books are “a massive, distributed archive of the history of reading, hidden in plain sight in the circulating collections,” the site argues. “Marginalia, inscriptions, photos, original manuscripts, letters, drawings, and many other unique pieces of historical data can be found in individual copies… Each book has to be opened and examined.”

While the implications of this research are large for librarians (more on that anon), for the lay person, there is a fascinating question at the heart of this project to find and preserve unique copies of old texts…

…Each book-object has two primary categories of stories to tell. The first concerns the history of the book’s own reception. What annotations did people make on the text? What do their aftermarket markings tell us about how the book was read? How was it understood?

Read more about this digisation project, sponsored by NINES at the University of Virginia: "What Is A Book?" Alexis C. Madrigal, in The Atlantic, May 7.

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