Presented by Professor Andrew Stauffer of the University of Virginia English Department, Book Traces is ostensibly an ongoing “crowd-sourced web project aimed at identifying unique copies of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century books on library shelves.” (http://www.booktraces.org/about/) But identifying these books is really just the beginning of a multifaceted process that bears fruit in both pedagogy and digital scholarship, and has important implications for the relevance of digital humanities projects in libraries.
The event I attended was a day-long effort to identify unique marginalia and inserts in the circulating collection of Columbia’s Butler Library. Advertised on the NYCDH.org event calendar, and was open to students, scholars, and anyone with interest in the project. Broken down into sessions throughout the day, each group began with an introduction to the project presented by Professor Andrew Stauffer, the project creator. He presented his inspiration for the project as an effort to assemble an “army of seekers” across many institutions nationwide, to examine the holdings of university circulating collections of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century monographs. I attended the 2:00 session, and by 2:15 I was on my way up to the Butler stacks of English literature texts, along with the rest of my group, including some librarians, teachers, as well as a class of NYU freshman. We commenced our search, and it was particularly interesting to hear students’ reactions to what they were finding. Almost right away, people started discovering marginalia, but it was most often the result of former students’ annotations. When Professor Stauffer came up to see how we were doing, he looked at some of the findings and redirected us to disregard student annotations unless they were really interesting or unique—such as one instance of an early ink inscription of additional poems in a volume of poetry. What he was more interested in was the inscriptions and other marginalia that indicated former ownership of the book. With that in mind, we began to disregard underlined segments and other trivial markings and look specifically for names and longer snippets of text. By the end of two hours of searching, some had come away empty-handed, but many had at least one book to contribute to the next phase of the project. When we returned with our findings, those who had smartphones were able to photograph and provide rudimentary descriptive metadata, and then upload items right to the “Book Traces” website. Although I only found one inscription, inside a copy of a play called “Pocahontas,” indicating that the book’s owner was in Philadelphia in the mid-eighteen hundreds, this aspect of instantly being able to see my own contribution to the project was really gratifying, and indicative of the collaborative and inclusive essence of the project. After I submitted my item, I had the opportunity to speak with Karla Nielson, curator of the Curator of Literature, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Libraries, about interesting findings from throughout the day. Items were tagged and sitting on a long table, and she indicated that many of the best findings had come from the collection of books that they had recalled from an offsite storage facility for the purpose of checking for the project. There were a few gems among the findings she showed me, including a copy of Longfellow’s poems inscribed for the donor by Longfellow himself! And this was actually amongst the circulating collection that anyone could request and borrow. By 4:00 pm, the event was coming to a close, and Professor Stauffer took to the podium again to make a few closing remarks. He spoke about the mission of the project, and his own research interests that were being aided by the discovery of unique copies and the narratives formed by patterns and expressions of ownership. He also mentioned that, beyond his scholarly interest, he hoped the project would serve to bring awareness to the issue of how to preserve and protect these unique copies of books among university libraries, and start a dialogue on how to incorporate considerations of that nature into future collection management policies. In light of many texts from this era being released into the public domain, and aided by efforts like that of Google Books, many university libraries are downsizing their print collections in this domain, due to storage necessities and low circulation stats. But weeding these particular materials without consideration for unique “book traces” could be a huge mistake and lead to the loss of very valuable books. Stauffer also presented some interesting findings of the day, including one book that had once belonged to the dean of one of the women’s college, containing a flirtatious dialogue with a man, interestingly not the man she subsequently married. And in fact there were many books that were donated from the private collections of notable historical figures, like Mrs. Barnard, and include personal inscriptions from the author. Stauffer thanked everyone who had donated their time to the project, and made the program possible—and it was clear that the digital aspect of this humanities project—crowd sourcing and a dynamic, interactive web interface, were what made this project innovative and viable.
Reflecting on the event, what stands out to me was that the project is not only important for scholarly research, which would tend to reflect what Stephen Brier terms, “the primacy of the research focus in the DH world” (Brier, 2012) Rather, this project is equally engaged in pedagogy, collaboration, and the role of libraries in digital humanities. The interactive, crowd-sourcing elements help make this project accessible and relevant to students, drawing them into the academic aspects of the project in an innovative way that wouldn’t be possible to the same extent without the toolkit of the digital humanities discipline. This project event at Columbia achieved learning outcomes for the NYU freshman class, as evidenced by their subsequent blog posts describing their experiences. In that way, this particular digital humanities project reaches beyond scholarly research outcomes, to engage and raise awareness of the possibilities for teaching and learning in the digital humanities. As for the role of libraries, the shared goals of libraries and the digital humanities were highlighted in one of the points in Stauffer’s closing comments, about the project’s role in the preservation of the undocumented information resources that Book Traces is collecting. At this point in time, libraries are already collaborating in this project, in the form of events like the one at Butler. This exemplifies the significant gains for both DHers and libraries, as the libraries in this context “function as a place where scholars can try new things, explore new methodologies and generally experiment with new ways of doing scholarship.” (Vandegrift & Varner, 2013)
Book Traces. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.booktraces.org/
Brier, S. (2012). Where’s the pedagogy? The role of teaching and learning in the digital humanities. Debates in the Digital Humanities. Retrieved October 14, 2014, from http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/8
Calendar. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://nycdh.org/calendar/
Thinking and Writing Through New Media. (2014, October/November). Retrieved from https://wp.nyu.edu/licastro_fall14/tag/booktraces/
Vandegrift, M., & Varner, S. (2013). Evolving in Common: Creating Mutually Supportive Relationships Between Libraries and the Digital Humanities. Journal of Library Administration, 53(1), 67-78. doi: 10.1080/01930826.2013.756699