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Found Book Inscriptions

Found book inscriptions: Many of the items in the collection were saved or collected for reasons of sentimentality. You will see matchbooks lovingly preserved, having been collected from the hotel that lovers may have stayed at during a romantic holiday, and ticket stubs saved from a beloved play, a first concert, a date. The reason for collecting these items may vary widely, and have reasons ranging from the nostalgic to the simple attraction to the aesthetics of an item. In some cases, someone my have simply thought, "this item might be significant or of interest someday." Perhaps we are all future archaeologists.

While many of the objects found within the museum may be obviously ephemera- wrappers, matches, cards, coasters, labels… Found book inscriptions are particularly sweet, although perhaps not traditionally thought of as ephemera. I will make the case for their inclusion.

In Maurice Rickard’s Encyclopedia of Ephemera, editor Michael Twyman notes that ephemera can bring the past to life more vividly and often with greater particularity than many other forms of documentation” (vi) Certainly, this is true of the often heartfelt missives inscribed in one’s best hand on the inside cover of book, gifted to a dear friend or family member. The inscription bears witness to the moment of gifting, as they are often dated, and the giver and recipient. The inscription adds a layer of meaningfulness to the gift itself. It is not longer simply a book, a diversion, but a book with a message. A book that was especially chosen, for a reason of its topic or author, and it is meant to be remembered. In this way, the words of the author of book become always words that the giver of the book wishes to give to the recipient.

According to Rickards’s Encyclopedia, the tradition of recording the gift of a book can be trace to Cambridge in the late 16th century: “it became the custom to record gifts of books by inserting labels of acknowledgement in the volumes concerned. The practice had the effect of not only flattering the donors and encouraging others, but of spreading the notion of the book label as such” (57). The book label itself is an ephemeral art, requiring the designing and typsetting of a printer. These cost money, and so would be used by only certain people of affluence. The labels are beautiful and often contain family coats of arm or other emblems. Thus, the handwritten inscription, although possibly the poor, but literate, person’s solution to a lack of a formal label, is arguably much more than that too. A book label was used to signify ownership of the book, and in the case of libraries, also the name of the donor. A handwritten inscription, while also serving that purpose, is also more personal. It serves to mark an occasion, as a means of remembrance. They often contain other messages: expressions of gratitude, of love, of yearning. They hint at the significance of why a particular book was chosen as a gift and its personal meaning to both the giver and the recipient. They are not simply historical; they are also nostalgic.

The handwritten book inscription hints at the desire to be the catalyst that will spark the recipient’s imagination, or intellect. There is an intimacy to the act of giving a book too. Of course the intimacy that is shared between lovers, but also between close friends who know what the other yearns for, what the other is really interested in. There is also the intimacy shared by familiar members: a gift from a parent or grandparent to a child, often of a beloved book from their own childhood. In these cases it is the gift of childhood itself, and a desire to share an experience. This act is recorded for posterity in the book itself.

Other book inscriptions record an event, the book itself being the prize. Schools and churches often use books as awards for recipients’ achievements. This practice, according to Rickards, dates to the 17th century. Often the books are inscribed by the teacher or principal to the student, and the achievement is noted, as well as the date.

The handwritten ephemeral material is bound by time, place and people. Once it is severed from the originators, it may lose some of its context, and can only hint at its original intention, while other examples remain timeless in their recording of various exchanges. They were generally intended to be private and are often informal, aside from a few exceptions such as the book prize exception.

But what happens to the inscription once the book is no longer in the possession of the recipient? What happens once both are gone? The book may pass from hand to hand, from family member to family member to stranger to stranger, with the record of the giving recorded within. It becomes a part of the book’s story itself.