“This book belongs to …” this is the standard phrase used in order to indicate ownership of a book, with these words usually found very meticulously and even lovingly copied out on the flyleaves of treasured printed possessions. In order to shorten things up a little, owners often opted for the Latin phrase “ex-libris”; “ex-dono” was used for presentation or gift copies, while “ex-preamio” indicated an item was awarded as a prize. All of these phrases offer us a glimpse into a former owner’s relationship with his book. There may be other indications of ownership present in items which may be less evident but they serve just as well in signalling that a book is one person’s very specific piece of property. Being the owner of a text could be seen as the final link in a long chain of events where a number of people have left their marks and consequently parts of themselves, figuratively and even somewhat literally, between the covers, between the pages, and within the leaves, of a book.
From the author who imagines a text and drafts his ideas into words, to the printer who literally puts these words to paper by means of his types and press, to the papermaker who presses the fibres out of old linen, scoops his mould into this odd mixture of fibre and water, pressing out the moisture in order to fashion sheets of paper by a process to which few are privy, to the binder who not only has to ensure pages of text are kept together but may also be called upon to decorate his work as richly or plainly as his patron demands, to the tanner who will prepare the leather for the outer binding, to the marbled papermaker who will fashion the endpapers, to the gilder who will brighten the exterior with great passion or reserve: the final result, the book, belongs to each and every individual who has given of himself to ensure its creation.
Each and every one of these players will leave visible traces of their handicraft within the final product. Be it the choice of type (one thinks of the Italic of Aldus Manutius),printer’s marks, some more original than others (see that of Étienne Dolet, in particular), colophons and registers that function as a sort of trademark for the printer and as an identity card for the book itself, and watermarks, in which one might see the name or the symbol of the papermaker, or occasionally, the date the paper was made, or even more rarely, indications of a sheet of paper’s original size when extracted from its mould: “raison”, “Jésus”, “écu”, etc. Identifying traces of the paper marbler, the handblock printer, or the paste paper maker is not so easy. Lost are the names of these artists of the 18th century, who strove to perfect the techniques of their craft to the point that one could not distinguish one craftsman from another due to a very intentional uniformity. However, a sense of individuality returned in the 19th century, especially in the latter part of the century; this is most likely a reaction to the newly mechanized processes of marbling and papermaking which would ensure the uniform rendering of designs with little human intervention or effort. One thinks of the binder, who might cleverly hide his initials within the decorative borders of his work, or even more subtly, will make his presence known through the adoption and perfection of style all his own and “make a name for himself” in this manner (the binders Du Seuil and Simier, amongst others, come to mind). Undoubtedly, the book belongs to its author, whose appearance on a title page will be more prominent than that of a translator or compiler; the author’s contribution (i.e. the creation of a text) is the very reason for a book being manufactured in the first place. The author’s primary importance is still clearly seen today, where strict rules of copyright govern and protect an author’s contributions.
A book also belongs to its reader. As per Umberto Eco’s theory of “textual coopera-tion”, it is the reader who has the role of assigning meaning to a text. An author (and his text) operate with the construct of the “Model reader”: it is assumed a reader will derive meaning from the text and will be able to fill in any gaps or blanks in the text himself and still uncover its significance. The “filling-in-the-blanks” by means of compilation, memory and deduction is not merely a theoretical concept. A reader may very literally fill in the blank spaces of a text in order to enhance his own understanding of a text. This could be something rather subtle like a little hand (manicule) pointing to a signifi-cant portion of a text. A more cavalier approach might be the assertive and occasionally aggressive crossing out of words or whole lines of text. A reader may also wish to ex-tend the text by adding notes in his own hand (marginalia), sometimes brief, and some-times longer than the glossed over text itself. Who knows if these scribblings were the product of boredom or inspiration? No matter the case, they unequivocally demonstrate that the reader has appropriated the text and has extended (and enhanced) his contact with it.
The possibility to feel the actual texture of paper beneath one’s fingertips or to inhale the particular odour of ink is often put forth as arguments by those who campaign for the perpetual survival of the printed book. While the various elements that come to-gether to create the “book as object” offer many potential avenues of research, many of these avenues are currently in transformation, perhaps even in danger of entirely disap-pearing, due to the growing popularity of the electronic or digital book. The printed book has a metonymical function, acting as witness to the complex journey it has made, as a physical object, through the centuries. Between its covers, on its boards, in the sig-natures sewn together or in the margins of the text , we find, sitting very comfortably, traces of all those who have accompanied this book throughout its journey. All of these players, have, for their own respective periods of association with it, “owned” this book as much, and perhaps more, than its final owner. This is what the current exhibition aims to convey, via a small plundering of the many rare book treasures at the Archives and Special Collections of the University of Ottawa.