The Uses of Books: Early Modern Readers Revealed

May 21, 2019

If you’ve ever underlined a meaningful passage in a favorite novel or scribbled a note in its margin, then you are part of a tradition as old as the printing press.

Centuries of scribbles, doodles and notes in books will be on view as part of “The Uses of Books: Early Modern Readers Revealed,” an exhibition at the Wilson Special Collections Library from May 23 through September 8, 2019.

The introduction of the printing press to Europe in the mid-15th century made books more common and far less costly. Early modern readers—those who lived between 1450 and 1750—had access to more books than ever before. They quickly found ways to make the books their own, with custom bindings and writing on pages.

Nadia Clifton, who curated the exhibition, said she has always been fascinated by the notes and markings people leave in books.

“I wanted to share the traces of use that I find so exciting, and to humanize our materials a bit. Many people find it intimidating to come into Wilson’s space and use rare books in the research room. But each one of these books belonged to a person who interacted with it just as we do” said Clifton, who received her M.S.L.S. from Carolina in May and who worked in Wilson Library’s Rare Book Collection as a research assistant.

One of Clifton’s favorite items in the exhibition is a copy of Philip Sidney’s 16th-century work, “The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia.” In addition to notes and underlining, the reader used four blank pages at the end to create a three-column, hand-written index. “I imagine it was a very time-consuming project, but I think the end result is beautiful,” said Clifton.

Other items on view include an early history of the British Isles, in which someone wrote in a medicinal recipe for “the Cough;” a Bible in Latin, made extra thick because somebody had it bound with a blank page after every printed page in order to take notes; and a copy of Martin Luther’s sermons for which the owner commissioned a binding featuring Luther’s portrait.

Clifton hopes that visitors will come away reflecting on the ways that they use books in their own lives and how this connects them to the past.

“These books have been used for hundreds of years and we are still using them today,” she said. “While we are very careful with them, so that we can continue to preserve them, they are all here for us to read, examine and study.”

The Uses of Books: Early Modern Readers Revealed
Melba Remig Saltarelli Exhibit Room
 Wilson Special Collections Library
 May 23 – September 8, 2019
 Free and open to the public
 (919) 962-3765 or

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