Reflections on Researching Book Traces

Editor’s note: Book Traces @ UVA has benefited tremendously from the work of Maggie Whalen, an English Department research assistant who, during the 2015-16 academic year, spent many hours delving into the historical stories behind some of the most interesting books we have discovered in the stacks of Alderman Library. Having written up her findings in a series of excellent posts for the Book Traces @ UVA blog (including this one), Maggie agreed to write one final essay for us, reflecting on her experiences. Here are her thoughts:

As I scoured these nine books, scrolled through pages and pages of Google results, clicked down rabbit holes or to dead ends, dug through dozens of boxes of dusty and brittle Special Collections materials, flipped through digitized books and newspapers, tripped around, and, eventually, composed these seven posts, I spent a lot of time thinking about the research value of this project. Collected here are some of my thoughts on the matter.


Book Traces allows us to understand the place of physical books in people’s lives. In The Civil Engineer’s Pocketbook one brother memorializes the other in his college engineering textbook. We see that the content of the book and the content of the modification do not necessarily match. We find good stories in surprising places. The book’s contents (formulas, equations) matters to the surviving brother only because it reminds him of his deceased brother.

Book Traces records and reveals past readers’ interactions and engagement with literature. A reader annotates and satirizes Spasmodic poetry in his copy of Alexander Smith’s Poems. The text is a relic of the critical reception of this literary movement. The (inconclusively identified) reader’s marks in pencil are more interesting and more important than Smith’s type in ink. In her volumes of his dramatic works, Amélie Rives compares Shakespeare’s language to contemporary Virginians’. She locates the title of her most famous novel in a line of his poetry. She catalogs her favorite phrases and allusions on blank pages. I’m sure the many Rives biographers have spent time in UVA’s Special Collections library during their research. I doubt any have been to Alderman to see these traces of Amélie’s thoughts in her volumes of Shakespeare.

Book Traces reveals colorful stories about local figures and families. Judith Page Rives reacts politely at finding her biography in The Living Female Writers of the South. One of her daughters studies and marks up Ouvres de Boileau, perhaps a gift from the Queen of France during her father’s term as foreign minister. Eugenia and Adeline Davis, daughters of Professor John Staige Davis of the UVA School of Medicine, plan an April Fools’ prank on “Miss Mary.” Sometimes, these are private stories about public figures. Other times, they are stories about the more private members of a public figure’s family (women).

Book Traces demonstrates the fluidity between General and Special Collections. Identifying the possible victim of the Davis girls’ April Fool’s prank, verifying that the Rives family resided in Paris during William’s term as foreign minister, discovering that E.R. Reynolds entertained more than a minor fascination with Poe…many of the discoveries I made in my work with Book Traces wouldn’t have been possible without considering UVA’s General and Special Collections holdings. This kind of work raises questions about the methods and metrics used to designate books to either of the two collections. One book that was possibly given to a diplomat’s daughter by the Queen of France, another owned and signed by the son of “The Female Poe,” several others that provide insight into a prominent author’s literary process, another that contains as much pencil as it does ink in the form of biting poetry…I didn’t choose these texts carelessly, but I had no idea how rich their stories would be. I only researched nine books in my work with Book Traces, I can only imagine the treasures and tales contained in the thousands of other possible subjects.

Book Traces research is worth doing because we can do it. The internet makes easily accessible a ridiculous trove of information. Full-text searchable newspaper archives allow us to find the obituary of a 20-year-old UVA student’s drowning at a beach in Georgia. User-maintained genealogical websites fill in the family trees of even the most average American family. Google collects all of the most relevant hits on any person’s name (be they a geologist, a pianist, or the owner of a frame shop) and assembles them in a clickable list. But, at the same time, Book Traces research requires a return to techniques rarely required of us (students) these days. It sends us to Special Collections to sift through boxes thick with correspondence in cursive. It beckons us into the Alderman stacks to search for texts related to our research subject. A Book Traces research project starts with a physical book and it’s rarely complete without consulting physical materials. Book Traces revealed to me how much information is not digitized. If my research had been restricted merely to the internet, I never would have found the Davis girl’s report cards, identifying a possible victim of their April Fool’s Day prank. I wouldn’t have seen the correspondence between Judith and her daughter-in-law, so I couldn’t have verified that the Rives family accompanied their father to Paris during his term as foreign minister. I wouldn’t have seen the 1891 Corks and Curls, so I wouldn’t have able to list the extracurriculars that the Nicolson brothers participated in. I might have discovered that E.R. Reynolds collected Poe, but I wouldn’t have observed that he bound all of his Poe materials in matching marbled paper. What’s more, if I had had access to more physical documents and materials (specifically those I that were in the William and Mary Special Collections Library, in the library of the Historical Society of Philadelphia, etc.), I likely could have told still richer stories. Book Traces illustrates wonderfully the immense and unprecedented power that the internet possesses. At the same time, Book Traces suggests that we lose depth and complexity when we rely too heavily on digital research. Book Traces simultaneously embraces and resists movement towards digitization. It acknowledges the boon that the internet provides. But it sees digitization as an exciting complement, not a replacement, to traditional research practices.