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Writing in Books

A new exhibition in Stanford’s Green Library, co-curated by Stanford Ph.D. candidate in history Hannah Marcus and Curator of Rare Books John Mustain, explores the phenomenon of writing in books from multiple perspectives. Through examples of early print and manuscript hybrids, scholarly annotation, dialogue in the margins, censorship, the use of blank pages and margins for incidental storage, and writers editing their own work post-publication, the exhibit considers the ways in which print and manuscript notation exist symbiotically in books to the benefit of historians and other scholars.

Writing has long been part of the process of reading, and the books on display from Stanford’s Special Collections reveal the great variety of ways that books have been transformed by readers’ marks: A 1483 volume of Pliny’s letters once owned by influential fifteenth-century humanist Bernardo Bembo, includes his commentary on the text embellished with hand-drawn manicules. A folio edition of Seneca contains a record of a land dispute in England in the seventeenth century. A 1776 edition of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense printed in London shows how a determined reader filled in the blanks left by censorship. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s edits in his own book of poems, Sibylline Leaves, substitute entire sections of verse that would appear in later editions, and beat poet Allen Ginsberg wrote freely and explicitly in his copy of Ann Charters’s Kerouac: A Biography, recording his disagreement with the author’s portrayal of particular events in his life.

Notes Paula Findlen, Ubaldo Pierotti Professor of Italian History at Stanford University, “Writing in books is one of the most fundamental and fascinating ways that authors, editors, and readers engage with text. We annotate, alter, perfect, erase, and deform the printed page when we write on it. For the past two decades curators, literary scholars, and historians of the book have understood that writing in books provides rich and fascinating documentation of what we do with printed artifacts and why each one is unique. Today we see writing in a book as the very mark of its history. A pristine, unsullied page, untouched by human hands, tells us far less than a page filled with evidence of its use."

Recognizing the paradox of presenting an exhibit that celebrates writing in books in a lending library where readers are strongly discouraged from doing so, the organizers emphasize that the exhibit features books that were annotated before the libraries acquired them and have historical interest based in part on their provenance, or chain of prior ownership. The exhibit also explores the negative impact of writing in library-owned books from the preservation perspective of long-term access to library collections. Paper damage and impaired legibility are among the problems posed by markings (for example, a circulating copy of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland on display is so heavily annotated and underlined as to obscure the text). Marked up copy also presents challenges for optical character recognition software used by visually impaired readers and for digital preservation of text.

The contemporary artists’ book genre of altered books gets brief attention in the exhibition, with display of Tom Phillips’s iconic work, A Humument, and Walden Marginalia by Amelia Bird, a recent publication from the Women’s Studio Workshop.

Exhibit cases are illuminated Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 6 p.m. The gallery is accessible whenever Green Library is open; hours vary with the academic schedule. To confirm library hours, call 650-723-0931 or go to

For a map of campus and transportation information, go to

NOTE: The exhibition is free and open to the public; first-time visitors and those without Stanford ID must register at the entrance to Green Library before entering the building.