How can we be sure old books were ever read? – University of Glasgow Library

How can we be sure old books were ever read? – University of Glasgow Library

Owning a book isn’t the same as reading it; we need only look at our own bloated bookshelves for confirmation.

Although this is surely a more common anxiety in a time of relatively cheap books and one-click online shopping we should be reassured that it’s nothing new: Seneca was vocal in criticising those using “books not as tools for study but as decorations for the dining-room”, and in his early 16th century sermons Johannes Geiler (reflecting on Sebastian Brant’s‘book fool’) identified a range of different types of folly connected with book ownership that included collecting books for the sake of glory, as if they were costly items of furniture1. When we look at our own bookshelves we can fairly easily divide the contents into those we’ve read and those we haven’t. But when it comes to very old books which have survived for hundreds of years how easy is it to know whether a book was actually read by its past owners?2

Well before trying to answer we need to address another, more fundamental, question: what actually is reading? The act of reading is incredibly varied, from quick and partial to exhaustive and complete; from silent and passive to out loud and active, pen-in-hand3. We know for ourselves that every instance of reading is different, motivated by a different purpose, taking place in a different context, at a different time, leading to different results, insights and comprehensions of the text. Occasionally, fleeting traces – a marginal comment, soiling, a bookmark – can at least tell us whether a book was looked at or what a single user may have thought (on one reading at least). While the surviving material evidence of reading can never hope to capture and convey all of these things (not to mention being fraught with interpretative pitfalls) it is potentially hugely valuable as a historical source, telling us things we simply can’t find anywhere else. Here are a few different types of evidence of reading we can still find by examining old books.

Open or closed?

It is often difficult to say with certainty whether someone has read a specific text. However, it can be easier to say that a specific copy of a text hasn’t been read. Historically, the hand-press printing of books required multiple pages to be imposed on a single sheet of paper subsequently folded into gatherings, meaning that for certain smaller formats of book a would-be reader needed to use a paper knife to cut the folds in the gathering to reveal the contents. When a book survives where the gatherings remain unopened, we can be fairly certain that the copy in question hasn’t been read4. What is perhaps more common, as in this example, Alexander Pennecuik‘s 1780 account of trade guilds and labour unions in Edinburgh, is when a reader has opened all of the early gatherings but clearly hasn’t read the book to the end since those at the back remain uncut.


Different readers have different methods of physically marking their reading progress in a book. Once upon a time (I confess!) I was a dog-earer, who turned over the top corner of the page to mark my place; now – evidence of where I do much of my reading – I tend to use a train ticket as a bookmark. Inthis fascinating blogpost Cornelis J. Schilt, editor of the Newton Project, describes how one famous reader of the past, Isaac Newton, used large and often multiple dog-ears to act as mnemonic aides reminding him of specific words and references in books he was reading.


Dedicated purpose-made bookmarks seem to date back rather a long way. Erik Kwakkel, a medieval book historian at Leiden University, has written this interesting blogpost about a number of medieval examples retained in books to help readers keep their place. However, perhaps more common seems to be the ‘ad hoc bookmark’ – something opportune and near-to-hand slipped in to mark the place. The web is full of sites listing some of the more bizarre bookmarks – just try a web search for yourself! A particularly nice, and touching, example of a bookmark held in our collections comes from the library of astronomer and mathematician Robert Simson. Slipped into Simson’s copy of Éloges des académiciens de l’Académie royale des sciences, morts dans les années 1741, 1742 et 1743 is a single red ribbon, the binding’s own internal integrated bookmark, placed beside the elegy to his good friendEdmond Halley. Having remained so long in the same place, it has transferred a faint ghostly red outline to the paper beneath. Can we be sure that it was Simson who left the page marked thus? No. But it wouldn’t be an unreasonable conclusion.

Dirty books

Mucky marks and stains on a page are one sure-fire way of telling us that a book has lain open, even if they can’t tell us with certainty that it has been read. Kathryn M. Rudy, an art historian at St Andrews University, is particularly interested in this approach to assessing book use. Her (fabulously titled)Dirty Books project uses densitometry to measure the degree of staining on different pages of medieval prayer books. This can provide clues about intensity of use and handling (and therefore popularity) of different prayers. A slightly more anecdotal example – but one which can perhaps give us a clue about one specific context of reading – can be found in our copy of the 1537 Matthew’s Bible. The mucky footprints of a chicken (or similar fowl) lazily meander across one full double page spread. Rather than an instance of reading, this surely captures the very opposite – evidence of an instance when the book was most certainly not being read, and had been abandoned by the reader and left lying open. But was the Bible abandoned outside? Or was the mucky-footed bird inside?

Marginal comments

Perhaps the most insightful evidence for historic reading can be found when a reader has written something in a book confirming it has been read. Reader marginalia can come in all shapes and sizes but one of the most useful in this respect is the perlegi mark (Latin for “read”) – simply a single word such as “perlegi”, “legi”, or “read” occasionally accompanied by additional information like a date, or a review or comment on the text. In this great blogpost Claire M. L. Bourne, recent long-term fellow at the Folger Shakespeare Library, discusses this category of marginalia as found in early modern playbooks. Interesting examples of contemporary readers’ handwritten opinions on the text can be found in numerous books we hold, including our Shakespeare First Folio. One of my favourite examples can be found on the titlepage of one of our copies of Edmund Spenser’s 1590 Faerie Queene where not one but two different readers from the past complain about the poem. For John Colquhoun (19th century judging by the hand) the Faerie Queene is “a very nonsensical book I assure you upon my word of honour” while for another, possibly earlier, unnamed critic (perhaps someone identifying as ‘high constabel [sic] Lond[on]’) it is “horabel most horabel”!

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