Monday, 15 July 2019

Reading Beyond the Lines - a blog by Caylee Dzurka (Library summer intern)

Mountain Flowers in Colour by Anthony Huxley 
& the notice from the National Tourist Organization 
of Greece that was found inside it
It’s hard to explain to someone why books can become important Archaeological objects. We are told not to leave physical marks on books from primary school and given how much more expensive books are new versus used, it’s understandable why most of us think the ideal state for a book is untouched and pristine.

But sometimes the books that are marked up, written in, and filled with smatterings of paper can be the most interesting. These kinds of books provide us with information beyond what is written in them. They allow us to analyze the history of that book such as who owned it, what they thought of it, and how they interacted with the text. Annotations, bookmarks, and loose papers are the physical traces of the past that are left behind for future readers to discover and interpret. These historic footprints allow us to achieve a new understanding of the past and figure out how this book fit into the larger historical narrative.

Doesn’t sound that far off from Archaeology now does it?

Thinking of books as material culture was the aim of the Library’s internship project I worked on. By reading the physical traces that were left behind in the collection donated by the Garden History Society, I attempted to understand the history of these books and the discipline of Garden History at large. Recently, no one had looked through this collection to see what was in it and it’s easy to see why when you look at the collection itself. The majority of it is on the Ground Floor of King’s Manor Library and - until this summer - was classified with a system that was different from the rest of the Library. This meant that many of the titles were out of order. My task was to document this collection and discover any annotations that had been left in the books by the famous Garden Historians who donated them. After spending countless hours hunting down books at both JB Morrell and King’s Manor Library, I am happy to report that the collection has been moved to JB Morrell to be re-classified, and that I found a number of different physical traces which inform us about the history of the books themselves.

Throughout this collection I found loose papers, annotations, and other objects hidden away inside these books that informed me of the context in which they were read, who the owners of these books were, and who contributed to the Garden History Society library. All of these marks brought the story of the collection into focus, and reminded me of the importance of thinking of books as material culture.

Reading in the Garden

Some of the treasures I found in these books – which seems very obvious when you think about it - was a number of pressed flowers. Pressing flowers between the pages of a book seems to be a habit that has persisted throughout time since I found a strawberry leaf in a book from 1829, a fern leaf in a book from 1897, and what appears to be another flower in a book from 1973.
Pressed strawberry plant from book published 1829

Pressed flower from book published 1973
Pressed flowers are to be expected in books about gardens and nature, but what their presence could indicate is that a previous owner read this book in a garden or a park where they had access to these types of flowers and shrubs. They could also demonstrate that the person reading the book wanted a visual aid of the plant they were learning about, which could be the case of the fern leaf since I found it near a chapter on fern plants. Regardless of the reasoning behind these pressed flowers, their presence gives us insight into what kind of setting these books were read in and a human habit that has lasted quite a long time.

Pressed fern from book published 1879, found near the chapter on fern plants
Reading for the Garden

At some point every desperate book reader has used a scrap of paper as a bookmark. So it wasn’t uncommon for me to find random bits of paper tucked between the pages of the books in this collection. These included personal notes, grocery lists, and most frequently, newspaper clippings. Typically, these clippings were related to the subject of the book - such as a book review for Julia Berrall’s The Garden: an illustrated History from ancient Egypt to the present day being taped to the back cover of that novel.

However, one in particular stood out because I found it in an envelope in the back of a book, and that the title of the article was “Monsters of the Garden.” I recovered this article from a book titled The New Gardening, and when I read it, I found out it was about the death of an American man named Luther Burbank. However, this wasn’t a respectful obituary of Burbank’s life accomplishments. Instead, the author heavily critiques the man he calls “Frankenstein” because he experimented with the fruits and vegetables in his garden to make them larger and sweeter.
The newspaper article from April 4th, 1926
Today this seems a bit over the top but in the 1920’s when hybridization of plants wasn’t really common, some people might have agreed with the author of the article. The owner of this book clearly did since the other newspaper clippings in that envelope were about how insect infestations of crops remind us that nature is always in control and we are never the masters of it. Given that the book itself is on garden cultivation, it is clear that the owner was educating themselves about the laws of nature and wasn’t particularly fond of people who tried to meddle with it.

Contributions to Garden Reading

One of the main aims of this project was to document who the main contributors to the Garden History Society collection were. This was done by locating the bookplate – typically inside the front cover - and seeing who the book was donated by. The main contributors included Eileen Stammers-Smith, Basil Williams, and John Anthony; all of whom had their names written on bookplates which were created during the time the collection was donated to King’s Manor Library.

At the start of the project, we believed that this was going to be the only way we determined who had contributed to the collection. However, while reviewing the section on flower identification, I noticed that a number of these books had the name Cynthia Newsome-Taylor written in the front. Knowing that this is usually done by someone who owns the book, I began to wonder whether or not these books had once belonged to Cynthia and if she had donated them to the Garden History Society library.

Example of Cynthia Newsome-Taylor's signature
Cynthia noting her contribution to the book

After doing some research, I discovered that she was an artist who had drawn a number of flowers for the authors of these books, which isn’t surprising given that she wrote in one “Colour plates by Cynthia Newsome-Taylor” when the title page didn’t mention her contribution.

While not listed as a contributor, these inscriptions indicated that Cynthia may have donated over twelve books to the library, some of which belonged to her husband Peter Hunt. Their marriage also might have occurred during the time she owned some of these books as the name Cynthia Newsome-Taylor and Cynthia Hunt are written in the same book in different ink.
Two separate versions of Cynthia’s name written on the same page in different ink

It is this discovery over the other two that reminds me of the importance of looking for annotations in books. If Cynthia had never written her name in the front cover, we might never have known about her contribution to the collection, or the progression of her life. This small annotation was a massive clue about one of the faces behind the Garden History Society collection and brought another name to the front of our discussion about how this collection was built.

So perhaps books are not ideal in a pristine, untouched condition. Perhaps they are most useful when they have grown into something entirely new and different. When you can read something else beyond the words on the page.

The project Caylee worked on was arranged by the Careers Student Internship Bureau. The work experience was paid for by the Library. The Garden History Society collection is normally kept at the King’s Manor Library, but is temporarily at the JB Morrell Library for reclassification work.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Anybody can comment on this blog, provided that your comment is constructive and relevant. Comments represent the view of the individual and do not represent those of The University of York Information Directorate. All comments are moderated and the Information Directorate reserves the right to decline, edit or remove any unsuitable comments.