Today’s post marks the first in a series focusing items from the Rare Books Collection. Further posts in the series will appear over the coming months.
There are certain things which you expect to find when you open a rare book – text and illustrations being obvious examples. But books can be full of surprises, not only in their published content but also in the materials and markings that they accumulate over the years.
The Rare Books Collection at Southampton includes examples of early books in such good condition that they could have been printed yesterday, but many bear, all too clearly, the evidence of their age and use. This is seen in the condition of the bindings and in annotations and bookplates, additions which have sometimes been seen as detracting from their value. With the increasing availability of early texts online, there is renewed interest in this copy specific information, now more easily traced through online catalogues and databases. Such features can provide an insight into the history of an individual book, in terms of its ownership and use, and also contribute to the study of both the history of books as cultural objects and the history of reading.
Ownership might be indicated by an owner simply writing his or her name in a prominent place and possibly recording how much the book cost and where and when it was acquired. Bookplates were often pasted inside the front cover, whilst wealthy owners also had the option of including a coat of arms on their personally commissioned bindings. As well as recording ownership by individuals, books can also bear the labels of long defunct libraries and reading societies, some of which even list the borrowers’ names.
Evidence of use can be seen in the critical annotations made by former owners, often in a book’s margins whilst blank pages at the beginning and end of the text were used for a variety of purposes. These included unrelated lists and handwriting practice, as well as the records of family births, marriages and deaths which are often found in Bibles. Books could also be personalised with the addition of illustrations and cuttings related to the text or meaningful to the owner in some other way.
The structure of the book can also be revealing. The fact that a binding is in poor condition or that a book has been rebound suggests that it has been well-used and valued, whilst a book with uncut pages tells a different story. Even damaged bindings are useful in exposing the practises of book-binders. Printers’ waste and discarded manuscripts were commonly re-used in bindings and only become apparent when damage has occurred.
Later posts will highlight examples of different copy specific features found in items from the Rare Books Collection, as well as books which on their publication contained unusual materials, quite literally in the case of the Repository of Arts, with its tiny samples of early 19th century fabrics.