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Sediment of Reading

An image of a ball of fluff on a page of text from an early modern book

The cultural history of reading is a tale of intense relationships between readers and their books, of ownership marks proudly inscribed on title pages and inked annotations in the margins, of keeping books hidden within clothing and of concealing items in books. Readers ostentatiously displayed their wealth with rich bindings or concealed their secret ideologies with small books designed to be kept close to the body or stashed in hiding places. This history is diverse and rich and tells of the magnetic appeal books have to us - even now, in the unstable future of the book as we face digital innovation.

Sediment of Reading seeks to go beyond these interventions and visible relationships which readers had with their books, and extends the investigation to the items and matter left behind after the reader's encounter with the book. Specific areas of the book such as the gutters in the middle of page gatherings provide an especially suitable canvas for trapping the sediment of reading; hair, skin, dust, pollen, soot, food particles and more. Many of these remnants of the reading process are unwitting deposits, but give us valuable clues to the environment, purpose and intensity behind the act of reading. Many are the scholars who have encountered evidence of this type but without the appropriate scholarly structures to analyse, construe or evaluate the material. Recent projects have examined the bacterial residue accumulated on the surface of medieval vellum; analysed the DNA of hair trapped in the gatherings of early modern books; have cultured bacteria on pages of eighteenth-century poetry. Scholarly and general interest in analysing these deposits is growing and mapping these encounters with books can reveal multifaceted lines of enquiry which will fundamentally broaden our knowledge of the history of reading.

Initial experiments have focused on extracting hair and botanical specimens from volumes within UCL Special Collections, and field visits to the Barber Surgeons company, the Bodleian Library and Oriel College Oxford, and the UCL School of Pharmacy. While it is common cataloguing practice to remove, or record the presence of large items (for instance, locks of hair, botanical specimens, bookmarks, feathers), smaller material, even at macroscopic level, is routinely overlooked or even removed, often because of frequency of deposit (hair, red rot, pumice) and the fact that these items may hold minimal interest for library professionals unless they present conservational risk. With multiple lines of enquiry to pursue given the age of the books under scrutiny (hand-press, therefore books printed between 1450-1800), the gutter of the book offers an ideal location to spark these interdisciplinary conversations. 

This pilot study will focus on books within UCL Special Collections. The UCL project personnel are Dr Robyn Adams, Dr Ellie Kingwell-Banham, Dr Tabitha Tuckett, and Dr Angela Warren-Thomas, Andrew Watson and Chris Fripp. The project’s technical framework is directed by Dr Matthew Symonds.