What can you learn from an old book?

You may have wondered why the library keeps so many old books in Special Collections. One reason, of course, is because of their rarity or monetary value. But why keep old copies of works by, say, Martin Luther or Aristotle when you can get newer copies online, in your local bookstore, or the library’s general stacks?

Old books can be evidence of the creation and reception of texts we take for granted today. Take for example works by Greek philosophers like Aristotle. Though they’re standard readings for philosophy and history of civilization courses, they were unavailable throughout most of the Middle Ages. Only with the rediscovery of older Greek manuscripts during the Renaissance did Aristotle’s complete works become known to European thinkers. Renaissance scholars had to learn Greek and edit the manuscripts for wider readership through the new medium of printing. So an examination of early printed editions gives today’s scholars an idea of how these texts were transmitted, standardized, and translated in the decades after their rediscovery.

1518 Latin edition of Aristotle's Physics, annotated by several scholars

1518 Latin edition of Aristotle annotated by several scholars

These old books also indicate how people used books. Scholars often try to track down the provenance, or ownership history, of rare books. Signatures, bookplates, library catalogues, and auction records can show who owned a given book at the time of its publication and across the centuries, providing important clues about book ownership, readership, and collecting in different times and places. Furthermore, many old books show traces of their earliest readers, who underlined words and passages, marked important points, took notes, and cross-referenced or indexed their texts. William H. Sherman’s Used Books: marking readers in Renaissance England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008) is an interesting study of how Renaissance readers were taught to read and study their books, and how marked-up books provide evidence of scholars engaging with the texts they read.

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