How can we be sure old books were ever read?

My Library, by Tom Gauld. Used with kind permission of Tom Gauld

My Library, by Tom Gauld. Used with kind permission of Tom Gauld

The 'bookfool' by Albrecht Dürer in Sebastian Brant's 'Das Narrenschiff' (Sp Coll BD16-e.4)

The ‘book fool’ by Albrecht Dürer in Sebastian Brant’s Das Narrenschiff (Sp Coll BD16-e.4)

Owning a book isn’t the same as reading it; we need only look at our own bloated bookshelves for confirmation. You may remember this great cartoon by Tom Gauld doing the rounds on social media a year or two ago. We love it because, in it, we can clearly see our own bookshelves and our own absurd relationship with books: unread, partially read and never-to-be-read books battling it out for space with those we’ve successfully tackled. With our busy lives and competing demands on our leisure time, the ever-growing pile of unread books can even sometimes feel like a monument to our failure as readers! 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.

Pennecuik's An historical account of the blue blanket, 1780, with several opened gatherings at the back. (Sp Coll BE6-f.34)

Pennecuik’s An historical account of the blue blanket, 1780, with several unopened gatherings at the back. (Sp Coll BE6-f.34)


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. In this 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 friend Edmond 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.

Robert Simson's copy of Éloges des académiciens de l'Académie royale des sciences with a red marker placed beside his friend Edmund Halley's entry (Sp Coll Ea6-g.22)

Robert Simson’s copy of Éloges des académiciens de l’Académie royale des sciences with a red marker placed beside his friend Edmund Halley’s entry (Sp Coll Ea6-g.22)

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?

A bird's muddy footprints in Matthew's Bible, 1537 (Sp Coll Bk8-e.11)

A bird’s muddy footprints in Matthew’s Bible, 1537 (Sp Coll Bk8-e.11)

Spenser's Faerie Queene (Book 1-3), 1590. Sp Coll 171

Spenser’s Faerie Queene (Book 1-3), 1590. (Sp Coll 171)

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”!

A major barrier to researchers investigating material evidence of historic reading more systematically is the difficulty of finding it; very few early books have been catalogued to the necessary level of copy-specific descriptive detail required to easily locate them. Our incunabula – our earliest printed books – are one important exception. The Glasgow Incunabula Project has described a wealth of material evidence of reading in our 1000 plus incunables, indexing each example in the various annotation indexes. Another important ongoing project in this area is The Archaeology of Reading in Early Modern Europe – a collaborative project based at UCL’s Centre for Editing Lives and Letters, which is studying large numbers of manuscript annotations in early printed books5.

With the help of Tom Gauld, one final thought: just how easy will it be for academics of the future to look back at our present reading behaviour? Bits, bytes, page-clicks and logged keystrokes will surely be able to tell them what web pages we visited but what of physical material evidence confirming reading? That may be more elusive.

New on your e-reader: used book simulation by Tom Gauld. With kind permission of Tom Gauld

New on your e-reader: used book simulation by Tom Gauld. With kind permission of Tom Gauld


1 These references from Alberto Manguel, A history of reading (London, Flamingo, c1996) pp. 296-300; for more on historical anxieties concerning book ownership and reading see Ann M. Blair, Too much to know: managing scholarly information before the modern age (New Haven & London, Yale University Press, c2010)

2 The knee-jerk assumption is to think that survival itself is evidence enough that a book was read but it is not necessarily so; the contrary may even sometimes be true, with many of the most heavily read books having being read to destruction. For more on this see this previous blog on “lost books”

3 The act of reading and the manner in which readers of the past interacted with their books is so varied that some have taken to prefer the term book “use” rather than “reading” in an attempt to convey this richness cf. William H. Sherman, Used books: marking readers in Renaissance England (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, c2008)

4 The exception might be if a reader had read the book while it was ‘in sheets’ prior to being folded into gatherings and bound.

5 The University of Utrecht-based collaborative project Annotated Book Online (ABO) is another important resource offering a virtual research environment for scholars and students interested in historical reading practices.

Categories: Special Collections

Tags: , , ,

8 replies

  1. “but what of physical material evidence confirming reading? That may be more elusive.”

    Not so, alas! in so many books from floor 9 – English literature – where almost every volume that might have been read by recent undergraduates (?) bears extensive underlining, often in ink or even highlighter.

    It is a lasting surprise that no notice deprecating such marking in Library books and/or stigmatising it as an academic offence is to be found in GUL.


  1. How can we be sure old books were ever read? — University of Glasgow Library | Daniela Dobreva
  2. Historical Highlights #033
  3. How can we be sure old books were ever read? – University of Glasgow Library – Gravity Drift
  4. Book Marks – University of Glasgow Library
  5. Pixel Scroll 6/19/16 MacArthur’s File Is Posting In The Dark, All The Sweet Green Pixels Scrolling Down | File 770
  6. أغرب ما عُثر عليه في كتب العصور الوسطى

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: