What is it about books that matters?

Why do we keep books, spend money on books, and keep looking after them in libraries?

battered books

When I think of saving Libraries, I always think about how and why books captivate me.

Firstly I want to highlight an article by David Pearson, Guildhall Library, that was written up in the Cilip Rare Books and Collections Group Newsletter November 2012 issue:

What is it that’s worth flaunting?

‘Simultaneously, there is a growing interest in books as objects, as material culture, in asking what can be learnt from their physical characteristics. That is certainly observable in the academic activity around the history of the book. The growing interest in studies of marginalia and the history of reading is demonstrated through the quantity of new books published on these subjects. There is a growing development of the copy census as a methodology; looking at lots of copies and seeing what can be learnt from copy-specific evidence. Custodians of historic collections acknowledge that increasing numbers of researchers are coming to them interested not so much in the books as texts, but in the characteristics of particular copies or of collections. The growing numbers of web-based guides reflect this. That is my theme in Books as History’ 2008 (1)


So I want to just expand on what I believe David is referring to as ‘The value of books’.

Marginalia: Have you ever considered the uniqueness of scribbles and notes in the margins of books? As a Librarian I really should be dismissive of this as damage, however, in my heart, I have a real fascination for it. A previous reader, from a myriad of backgrounds, and what those comments reveal. A thousand different minds ‘seeing’ something different in the written text!

History of reading: ‘In the second century, and as a result of the Alexandreian summaries and collations, an epistemological rule for reading was firmly established, decreeing that “the most recent text replaces all previous ones, since it is supposed to contain them”.’ (2)

Copy-specific evidence: Book plate, Library stamps, or binding, can call be classed as copy-specific evidence about a particular book or its reader and/or owner.

Provenance: Not so different to marginalia, is the wonder of the provenance of a text. Consider an inscription, possibly one of the most famous ones is that of a young King Henry VIII, “Thys Boke Is Myne Prince Henry” – in letters almost an inch high. This is becoming one of the most significant subjects in rare book collections – ‘Determining the previous history of a particular item now in the British Library can be important to researchers, for example when attempting to reconstruct the library of an historical figure or identify the authorship of manuscript annotations.’

It does seem that increasingly we are being seduced by the e-book…Kindles and the like are without doubt, a very handy tool for readers, and I am guilty as charged. However, I am also finding more and more fascination with having books, the object at hand and all of the animation of the senses that they bring. Help the British Library continue successfully with their book conservation work so that we may enjoy these unique editions throughout the century.

‘Every reader exists to ensure for a certain book a modest immortality. Reading is, in this sense, a ritual of rebirth.’ (2)

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: My local libraries | Books and Library stuff
  2. Trackback: Minimum 4℃ feels like -2℃…time to reflect! | Books and Library stuff

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