October 2014 | Brett Barry

The Book Traces Project in Action

Students at the State University of New York at New Paltz had the option this semester to enroll in "Digital Tools for the 21st Century" (DHM 293), led by Professor Annie Swafford, a newcomer to the department of English. A poster advertising the class posed the questions: "Do you want to learn how to read 10,000 books at a time? Create maps of crimes in Sherlock Holmes' London?" I, for one, was intrigued, and as a part-time prof. in the Communication & Media department, I asked Swafford if I could sit in on her class, and she was happy to have me.

summit.pngLast week, we were introduced to Andrew Stauffer's Book Traces project, and following a brief tutorial on 19th-century book publishing, the class set out on a scavenger hunt in NP's Sojourner Truth Library to document marginalia in books published between 1820 and 1923. I set my sights on books by naturalist John Burroughs, and after thumbing through a couple of disappointingly barren volumes, the third book I pulled--a 1922 edition of The Summit of the Years--teamed with notes throughout several of its chapters.

Strangely, the essay, "A Barn-Door Outlook," was copyedited in pen. If this were a first edition, I'd have suspected Burroughs himself of preparing for a second printing. But as this printing was issued nine years after initial publication, I assume these are the markings of a wannabe copyeditor; or perhaps a reader who added his own words and sentence constructions to help make sense of Burroughs.

Another essay, "Nature and Animal Life" is copiously annotated by the same reader, but this time copyedits are replaced with neatly penned marginalia that questions, subscribes to, and expounds upon Burroughs' writing. At one point, the reader dated his (her?) notes with a "1930," eight years following the book's printing.

"Thousands of old library books bear fascinating traces of the past," proclaims booktraces.org. And this old John Burroughs, bound in green cloth, is no exception. In addition to the reader's handwritten notes, there's a pasted-in print of Burroughs at his writing desk; a Sojourner Truth Library bookplate revealing Russell H. Waines, dept. of Geological Sciences, as the donor of the book; plus a yellowed card pocket betraying the book's former owner: Windham College, in Putney, VT (which closed its doors in 1978, on the heels of declining enrollment following the Vietnam War, according to the Nashua Telegraph).

If you want to read Burroughs' Summit of the Years, go ahead and download the Google eBook. But for some added value and "traces of the past," check out QH81.B972, in the stacks of Sojourner Truth Library, New Paltz, NY.

--Brett Barry is a professor of audio production and broadcast performance at SUNY New Paltz, a voice-over performer, and the host of public radio's "Sound Beat."

Editor's Note: A profile of the Book Traces project, including an interview with its founder, University of Virginia professor Andrew Stauffer, is available in the fall issue of FB&C.