Secrets Hidden in the Stacks
Poets & Writers Magazine|July - August 2020
When University of Virginia (UVA) professor Andrew Stauffer sent his class to the library in the fall of 2009, he expected them to focus on the printed text of the books they brought back.
ADRIENNE RAPHEL

But Stauffer and his students soon realized that was just one story being told in these volumes. While looking at nineteenth-century copies of work by Felicia Hemans, a poet wildly beloved at the time for her sentimental verse, the students were immediately drawn to everything else happening in these books: not just the expected underlining and dog-ears, but bookplates, diary entries, letters, quotes, pressed flowers, and readers’ own poetic flights of fancy. One reader had even penned an elegy for her daughter Mary, who had died at age seven. What they found in the Hemans books “opened our eyes,” Stauffer says. “It suddenly clicked. This wasn’t noise or damage— this was augmentation.”

In 2014, Stauffer founded the Book Traces project to investigate what else the library might be hiding in plain sight. He started an online archive of his findings at booktraces .org, and has since invited anyone from around the world to submit photographs of the “traces” they find in library books published before 1923—meaning books that are in the public domain—in circulating collections.

Interested in formally expanding the project, Stauffer and Kara M. McClurken, the library’s director of preservation services, successfully applied for a grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources. He recruited Kristin Jensen to manage the project and hired research assistants to comb through thousands of books on the open shelves of UVA’s libraries and catalogue the extra material the books yielded.

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