On Scribbling in Rare Books

Close up of Life of Horace text with lots of pencil drawings and brown ink writing.
Submitted by Neil Weijer, Curator of the Harold and Mary Jean Hanson Rare Book Collection
Title Page of Quintus Horatius Flaccus with numerous annotations and drawings in pencil
We discourage patrons from writing in our books, but some come to us with post-publication additions that tell a story.

Finding a book like this in a library might shock those who prefer to keep their pages and margins in original condition. But writing in a book can give us a much larger picture of what that book, and ones like it, were used for, and provide a window into the larger lives of their owners and users. This nineteenth-century edition of the Roman poet Horace’s collected works was owned and used by one of the earliest American popular poets, James Russell Lowell (1819-91), during his sophomore year as a student at Harvard. Lowell had a reputation for attracting trouble, so much so that one of his earliest poems—dedicated to his graduating class—could not be read in person because Lowell was suspended at the time.

"JRLowell 1856" written on fore edge of open book
Lowell boldly marked the fore-edge of his book. Horace’s poems and letters were the set text for Latin students in England and America, and would have been read aloud.

In the pages of Horace we get a glimpse of the characteristics that must have irked Lowell’s teachers. In a juvenile mix of Latin and English, Lowell notifies the future readers of the book that this particular copy should be transmitted to future generations adorned with the “scribbles” depicting the poet and his patrons, along with dapper animals and cartoons of Lowell’s instructors and classmates, tagged to the passages they were assigned to recite.  The biography of Horace in the front is written over with the statement. “All lies. James Russell Lowell.”

Close up of Life of Horace text with lots of pencil drawings and brown ink writing.
Lowell’s drawing here also satirizes the author, standing hat in hand before the Roman emperor Augustus.

In the self-conscious scribblings of a sixteen-year-old student, readers may find a prelude to Lowell’s future satirical works, evidence of his youthful arrogance, or perhaps recall a similarly tedious lecture they themselves sat through. Lowell, along with many of the poets in the Howe library, used books as mementos, calling cards, and even time capsules. They wrote new poems to each other in the margins, recorded important events and meetings, and preserved parts of their character on the pages of ordinary works.

Picture of Epistle 13 with drawings and annotations in pencil
Lowell’s drawings of faces would not be out of place in a medieval book, and his signature underneath his illustrations show us how deeply ingrained the features of books were in is mind

In recent years, the scribbles in the margins of books have become the focal point of scholarly questions: Is the writing in these books evidence of reading and understanding the words on the page? Of use or misuse? Or is it something else entirely? This and dozens of other annotated books in our collections are yours to ponder, peruse, and enjoy. But please, no (more) writing in them.

Closed book in open archival folder on black background
The Parkman Dexter Howe Library contains over 4,000 books written, and written on, by authors in New England.

Quinti Horatii Flacci opera [The works of Quintus Horatius Flaccus] (Boston, 1833). Howe Library JRL ANA 4. See The Parkman Dexter Howe Library pt VIII (Gainesville, FL 1992), p.82.

Interested in other books from the Howe Library? Read The Work of Eric Gill and The Golden Cockerel Press

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  1. […] If you’re interested in Rare Books you’ll also enjoy reading On Scribbling in Rare Books […]


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