The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Stuff in Books: a conundrum

When we think of book history, most of us focus on the creation, dissemination, and reception of texts. But as many scholars have begun to discuss in the last few years, books and manuscripts ended up being used in many different ways unrelated to their status as textual objects. Once we begin to consider what purposes bound books and manuscripts might have served beyond their primary function as sources of knowledge and learning, the list gets long fairly quickly. Based on round water damage marks on the surface of bindings, books were (and are) used as coasters for drinks; sketches and doodles show that they also provided drawing surfaces; regularly-spaced slash-marks make us wonder whether books were also used as cutting surfaces. Books were also apparently great places to store things internally, such as eyeglasses, receipts, newspaper clippings, knives, and other objects. Books are also handy for smashing things flat, whether that’s the rolled-up poster I would like to hang on my wall (currently under my old library school database textbooks), a troublesome but unlucky insect that happens to land on the surface of a page, or a sprig of plant-life someone wants to save. 

These are just a few examples of the lives of bound, text-based objects as they exist alongside human beings, and the preservation of traces left behind by any of these uses gives us a glimpse of how people might have interacted with their books in ways both related and unrelated to the text inside. Perhaps a person may have grabbed the book closest to them to use as a flat cutting surface—does that mean the book was close to hand, or perhaps already sitting out? It might mean nothing that someone chose to press a bunch of flowers in a certain book. Or, someone might be saving samples related to the text, in the case of plants pressed in an herbal, or which are particularly meaningful as a sensory link to the poetry or plays contained within the book.

Whatever the reasons, we at Folger are deeply interested in the history of books as material objects, as well as how they were perceived and existed in multiple dimensions in relation to their readers, owners, and users. Over the life of our institution, librarians, conservators, and curators have increasingly moved towards finding ways to preserve these objects as completely as possible. However, with additional (sometimes organic) material, the usual challenges of preserving and caring for a text block are multiplied exponentially. We want to keep such items in place as much as we can in order to allow researchers access to the original context and potential layers of meaning behind the presence of a crushed insect or a pressed flower (as well as to allow for later advances in technology that may let us discover even more than we currently think possible), but what happens when doing so might result in the ultimate destruction of the item? Preserving and making these items accessible involves conversations across our entire staff—how best to describe the additional, non-textual items in our catalog records and finding aids, how to make them digitally available, and how to contain and care for them for the foreseeable future.   

As the Folger prepares for our “intermission,” coming up in just a few short weeks, our cataloging staff is busy working through the stacks, shelf-reading and ensuring that all our collection items have proper identification slips. Recently, one staff member noticed this book, Folger 265255 Sh. Col., sitting upright on the shelf. Alarmed by the extent to which the boards were forced open, she discovered that a truly astounding amount of plant matter was stuffed in between the pages, and brought it to me. The cover is at a near-permanent 45 degree angle relative to the rest of the text block—the pages are stuffed with irises, roses, baby’s breath, carnations, and even varieties of grass and straw. 

Folger 265255
An Absolute Unit, held open by Flower Power. Folger 265255. Photo by Beth DeBold

In the past, our way of handling books with this amount of plant material has been to create custom boxes and to mount each sample. For an example of this, see Folger STC 19302 copy 1, a copy of botanist John Parkinson’s “Theatrum Botanicum” which came to us with similarly large amounts of plant matter. This item came with the Harmsworth collection in 1938, and in 2008 the samples were removed from between the pages and housed in custom boxes. The locations of the fragile specimens are recorded, both in the actual housing and in the digital images of STC 19302 copy 1 that were subsequently taken.

STC 19302 copy 1
Folger STC 19032 copy 1, on the shelf. Photo by Beth DeBold

 

STC 19302 copy 1
Folger STC 19302 copy 1 samples 1, opened. Photo by Beth DeBold

There are ways we have learned we could improve these records—for example, today we would likely photograph the plants in situ before rehousing them, and currently how the images line up in Luna doesn’t place the images of the specimens next to the openings from which they were removed (although this may be more easily fixable). The Hamnet record will also benefit from future descriptive attention.

As we consider Folger 265255, the situation is slightly different—we already own multiple copies of this edition of Shakespeare’s plays, published in the last quarter of the 19th century by the Boston firm of Lee and Shephard, also in the original publisher’s binding. We’re unsure whether this plant material was placed intentionally or not: clearly someone wanted to save these flowers, but did their locations in the text matter? Or was someone just using a conveniently heavy book to squish the flowers as flat as possible? They seem to be placed somewhat randomly throughout, and it’s also unclear whether or not the person was trying to space them evenly. We also don’t know what plants may have fallen out that might obscure any method or rationale.

A selection of flowers from Folger 265225
Clockwise from upper left: grass laid into an opening in Timon of Athens; roses in Antony & Cleopatra; an iris laid into Merry Wives of Windsor; a rose at an opening in Henry VI. Photos by Beth DeBold

Would it be worth it to leave these items in place? In our conversations about this particular book, my colleagues and I have discussed the fact that the flowers and the book itself will likely be damaged by that decision, but it is something to consider. Our general policy for “stuff in books” is to leave items in place whenever possible, which addresses most of the cases we come across, but there are always exceptions. What might researchers lose by not encountering the flowers in the way that we have encountered them? Furthermore, how much time and energy does our conservation lab have to devote to this kind of custom housing for an item that is frankly not as much of a priority as other more damaged or more highly-requested collection items awaiting treatment or stabilization? We have an eighteenth-century herbal that is currently awaiting a similar treatment decision, and which for a variety of reasons, takes priority. We likely agree that this book ought to be photographed before treatment, but if so, that is also a high time investment for our photographers and metadata specialists. How much staff time should be given to a book like this, which while fascinating, worthy of study, and worthy of preservation, is again not necessarily the item that commands our limited time and energy at this particular moment? And if we fully digitize it, build new housing for the specimens, and describe it as completely as possible in the catalog records, are we prepared to provide safe access to these specimens in the future? Are special handling instructions needed, or will researchers need to make an appointment with a Folger conservator to handle these fragile items?

Special Collections libraries everywhere face these sorts of decisions every day—what to prioritize, how much time to spend on a single item, and how to move forward with difficult questions about preservation and access. For now, our decisions are somewhat deferred—our conservation team will build a custom box for this book to make sure that it can be kept in stable condition, and it will be added to our already-lengthy list of projects to tackle while the Folger is closed over the next two years. There is no “one size fits all” decision possible for items like this. Each object must be carefully evaluated on its own terms, and I feel lucky that my colleagues here are able and willing to think through not only how to take care of immediate problems such as this, but (hopefully) anticipate enduring issues and needs as the book’s life continues under our care.

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