One of the most rewarding aspects of rare book cataloging is seeing and decoding the various markers of history that make their way into the pages. Most of these markers are permanent – bookplates, sellers’ and binders’ tickets, annotations, and doodles are inextricably linked to the physical item and can’t be removed.
However, for a lot of the books in the Burns Library, the most revealing clues about an item’s history can be removed, and in fact should be. Due to their potential research value, these materials aren’t thrown out, but housed in an acid-free folder, and can be pulled and viewed
alongside the book they came from. Think of everything you shove into your books – notes, official bookmarks, unofficial bookmarks, flowers or leaves to press, Post-Its (public service announcement: please don’t stick Post-Its to your books). This isn’t a new practice, and a lot of the books we get at Burns aren’t cleared out before arrival (and rightly so!).
In the six months since I started working at Burns Library, I have removed enough extraneous things from books to fill two full (acid-free, of course) boxes. Some of the items I’ve found are useful when analyzing the subject of the book – many people take notes on bits of scrap paper while reading, and leave them between pages or inside the cover.
Other things– such as letters, photographs, and flyers for readings or other events– help flesh out the provenance of an item, where it has been and when, and in whose hands.
Some materials may not necessarily tell us anything concrete about the history of the book or donor, but are interesting, beautiful, or amusing in their own right.
Depending on what you’re researching, all of it can be useful in bringing context to what you read.
You can tell if a book you’re interested in looking at has associated materials in our library catalog; just scroll down and look for the phrase “removed to inclusion file; available upon request” in the “Description” area of the record.
- Tess Amram, Special Collections Cataloging Assistant, John J. Burns Library