Wednesday, June 18, 2008

cockroaches of the book

On today's Morning Edition was a great story about lawsuits and electronic information management: the essential point was that most companies do not have an electronic data management policy, and when they are sued, the cost of sorting through all those emails and instant messages can far far outweigh the cost of settling a lawsuit. The lesson a lay person should take from this is that emails can never be deleted. You think you've deleted what was sent to you, or what you sent, but it very well can already have been backed up on tape, or it could have been forwarded, or any other scenario that keeps it available to be retrieved in the future. My favorite quote from piece was this fabulous comment from Sharon Nelson, head of Sensei Enterprises: "Emails are the cockroaches of the electronic world." It's not the scurrying little feet that are the connection, or their rapid proliferation, but that they are both impossible to get rid of.

The quote made me wonder about what are the cockroaches of the early modern printed world. What proliferated and was discarded, only to turn up again? Binding waste.

Here is the definition of "waste" from John Carter's ABC for Book Collectors:
Spoiled or surplus printed sheets are called waste. Binders have often used these in the back of a volume, for making up boards, or in the earlier days for endpapers. Such waste might derive either from a printing house (proofs, trial sheets, overprintings) or from a bookseller (surplus quires or spoiled copies of recent books, discarded fragments of old ones).

(Wondering what some of those other terms mean? Look them up in this online edition of the ABC provided by the International Leage of Antiquarian Booksellers.)

Do you see the cockroach connection? There's some old stuff you don't need, so you use it to do some necessary material work, and then years later, it crops up again! It just won't go away! There are plenty of examples of waste in the Folger's collection. Here's one image (from Charles Fitz-Geffrey's 1636 The blessed birth-day) that makes the practice easily visible. On the right side of the book is a blank leaf, here with inscriptions; on the left is the pastedown, with the printed waste showing through under the edges of the glued-down binding leather:

Sometimes what is recovered from waste is not particularly of interest in and of itself. Other times, however, it can be quite valuable to us. The Folger has a fragment of John Skelton's poem The Tunnyng of Elynour Rummyng that appears to have survived because it was used as binding waste. It (along with the fragments at a couple of other libraries that were donated by the same patron who gave us our fragment) is the only surviving copy of that version of Skelton's poem.*

And who printed that poem, you ask? Wynken de Worde.

* (Want more information? Here's the book's listing in Hamnet, the Folger's catalogue, and there's an article about the fragments by Robert S Kinsman: “Eleanora Rediviva: Fragments of an Edition of Skelton’s Elynour Rummyng, ca. 1521” Huntington Library Quarterly 18 (1955): 315-27.)

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