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?

UVA 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.

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 UVA professor of ancient languages.

Stephanie Gross

He contacted professors at other colleges and universities, including N.C. State, Davidson, Columbia 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 UVA 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.

UVA Marginalia: Book traces with ties to UVA


Poems by a Collegian ►

This book once belonged to John Staige Davis, who graduated from UVA in 1841 at age 13 and earned his medical degree in 1841 at age 16. The book contains rubbings of early 19th-century coins as well as the inscription on the back inside cover. Davis taught anatomy at the University for more than 30 years.

The inscription reads:

I own this book
est meum
touch not this mine honest friend
for fear the gallows be your end

Edgar Allan Poe: His Life, Letters, and Opinions ►

In the first volume of this late-nineteenth century biography of Poe, William Gordon McCabe wrote the following marginal note:

“My father — Revd. Jno. Collins McCabe — who was then a young man, a contributor to the /Messenger/ & an intimate of Poe’s, once told me that he said one day to Poe — ‘Poe, Mr. White is greatly hurt at you having spoken unkindly of him.’ ‘McCabe,’ said Poe warmly, ‘I never said a word against Mr. White in my life.’ ‘Did you never say he was a fool?’ ‘Oh!,’ said Poe with a relieved air, ‘I did say that he was a d—-d fool, but Mr. White can’t object to that — every body knows it.’ W. Gordon McCabe. March 26th. 1882.”

William Gordon McCabe graduated from UVA in 1861, served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War and served on the UVA Board of Rectors from 1888-1896.

Longfellow’s Poems and Ballads 

This book once belonged to Jane Chapman Slaughter, one of the first women to receive a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. It contains extensive marginal notes addressed to her lost beloved, John Adamson. For example, the following note is written in pencil on the front free endpaper:

“Our readings together were in this book, ere you went to your life of work and sacrifice, and I remained to my life of infinite yearning for your presence, the sound of your voice; a yearning never to be satisfied in this world or the next. Now never I see thee/ Never more hear/ The voice of my comrade/ Ever more dear…..’And he never came back.’”

Slaughter graduated from the college of William and Mary in 1910. After teaching school for a number of years she returned to the College of William and Mary where she obtained an M.A. degree in 1923. In 1935 she earned a Ph.D. in Romance Languages from the University of Virginia at the age of 75.