The Long Lives of Very Old Books: Books as Historical Artifacts

An exhibition at the Harry Ransom Center examines centuries-old books and how they’ve been altered, used, and sometimes abused by generations of readers
courtesy Harry Ransom Center Book Collection

Diary of David C. K. McClelland written from 1968–1971 in Hugh Broughton’s Concent of scripture (London, 1590).

Even when fielding everyday reference queries at the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin, I try not only to provide basic answers to the questions researchers and students ask but also to suggest additional ways to approach materials - ways that might offer new historical insights - and, ideally, introduce new research questions and nudge projects down untrodden paths. 

As I see it, a core part of my job as a curator is to help people develop the kinds of bibliographical literacies that empower them to get more out of our collections. It’s one thing to be able to read an old book and another to be able to read that book as a book. As bibliographers and book historians have long argued, looking beyond content leads to a richer sense of how culture has, quite literally, been created and preserved.

For my first major exhibition, I wanted to put together something that brings this point home, that communicates to a broader public what researchers do - or could be doing - when they come to our reading room. Those who visit The Long Lives of Very Old Books, on view this fall through December 30, 2023, will read labels that emphasize narrative, but I hope it will also be clear that the exhibition is as much about cultivating ways of looking as it is about the stories of the particular books on display. Or, to better connect the two: I’d love for visitors to come away understanding that analyzing each book as a unique historical artifact can lead to richer storytelling. And that the Ransom Center is a great place to do this kind of work.

As the “Long” part of my title may suggest, I have a more specific aim, too. Nearly all the books represented in the galleries were printed before the eighteenth century, but nearly all, too, have been altered in one way or another by the centuries of collectors and institutions that have shepherded them from early modern bookshops and into modern libraries. Not infrequently, academics I work with bemoan rebinding and repairs as extraneous to - and often directly at odds with - their goal of studying the medieval and early modern past. And, to be fair, they’re not entirely wrong. 

A lot of valuable evidence has been shed in the workshops of binders. It’s also true, though, that we wouldn’t have so many of the books we do if later collectors hadn’t intervened to keep their pages turning. Moreover, by studying the systems of value that have continually reshaped the bibliographical landscape, we can better understand what we have lost. We have much to gain, too, from connecting the collecting and restoration practices of the past to the lineage of our own research methods. We may no longer condone the things collectors did to their books in the 19th century, but in them, we can find biases and other assumptions that continue to influence scholarship today.

Islamicate binding on Stephanus of Byzantium
Courtesy Harry Ransom Center

Left: Islamicate binding on Stephanus of Byzantium, Περι Πολεων / De urbibus (Venice: Aldo Manuzio, 1502). Right: Title-page with inscriptions from The Faerie Queene (London: William Ponsonby, 1596). 

British Museum stamp
Courtesy Harry Ransom Center

Left: Transmitted light detail showing an excised British Museum stamp and patch from Christopher Marlowe’s The famous tragedy of the rich Ievv of Malta (London: Nicholas Vavasour, 1633). Right: Special engraved dedication leaf from Willem Janszoon Blaeu’s Teatrum orbis terrarum, sive Atlas novus, vol. 5 (Amsterdam: Willem Janszoon Blaeu, 1654). 

A seventeenth-century document storage box
Courtesy Harry Ransom Center

A seventeenth-century document storage box from England lined with printed waste.

The Long Lives of Very Old Books features more than a few traditional high points. Among the more than 150 objects in the exhibition, visitors will see Copernicus and Newton first editions, Oliver Cromwell’s presentation copy of Joan Blaeu’s atlas of Scotland and Ireland, Aldines bound in the Islamicate world, a Nuremberg Chronicle that underwent multiple campaigns of hand coloring, and all three of the Center’s copies of the First Folio - it is, after all, the Shakespeare edition’s 400th anniversary. 

Each is a compelling, research-worthy volume. Easily as exciting to me, though, are the quirkier, messier items: a Geneva Bible that purportedly arrived on the Mayflower, a copy of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene that was rented by a Cambridge undergrad, English playbooks with leaves stolen from the British Library, a seventeenth-century archival storage box lined with printed waste, and an extra-illustrated demonology treatise that recently had a cameo in a Christian Bale movie.

The exhibition opens with a favorite acquisition of mine, one firmly on the odder, more surprising end of the spectrum. On the evening of December 7, 2018, I had been up late scrolling through eBay listings when a book listed by Midtown Scholar in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, caught my eye: “1590 EARLY PRINTING HUGH BROUGHTON A CONCENT OF SCRIPTURE PHILIP HOFER HARVARD.” After perusing the photos and description, I knew I had to have it. As the listing’s title indicated, the book was once owned by a Harvard curator, Philip Hofer. 

His use of this book is interesting - he removed the edition’s engravings to insert into another copy he owned - but I saw something else, something I’d never seen before in an early printed book: a young man used blank leaves bound at the back of this Elizabethan edition for his personal diary around 1970. (As the listing was sure to note, the diarist mentions getting a copy of The Beatles’s album Let It Be.) Desperate not to miss out, I scrambled to find a bookseller who was still awake to pull the trigger for me. Enter Heather O’Donnell of Honey & Wax Booksellers, who had just posted on Twitter and was willing to buy the volume on the Ransom Center’s behalf. The book eventually provided inspiration for this exhibition’s attention to early editions’ later histories of circulation.

Following this evocative—and, for some visitors, provocative—volume, the gallery is divided into four sections: 

  • 1) “Survival” analyzes books that we still have today to think through just how much we’ve lost and why we’ve lost it. A subsection considers instances when the early modern culture of recycling has preserved manuscripts and printed documents that would otherwise probably be lost. 
  • 2) “Variation” explores aspects of content and binding that differentiate copies of early editions from one another. Among them are stop-press corrections, special issues on large and colored paper, custom volumes that bring together multiple editions between a single pair of covers, and bindings from the most humble to among the most deluxe. 
  • 3) “Marking” attends to some of the myriad ways collectors, institutions, and booksellers have inscribed and otherwise marked their books. Bookplates, gift inscriptions, book trade markings, doodles, and fore-edge painting appear here. Annotation, too. 
  • 4) Finally, “Repair” looks at techniques used for mending paper and bindings over the centuries. Amateur efforts sit alongside professional work so impressive that it can be hard to detect.

In the end, each book on display in The Long Lives of Very Old Books serves as a case study in what looking at old books can teach us, not only about the books themselves, but about the people who have engaged with them over the centuries, who have left signs of their beliefs and values both in and on them.