Pet Book Project Part 3: Preservation or Provenance: Which Matters More?

I was able to find digital facsimiles of The Girls’ Own Outdoor Book, published in Philadelphia in 1889, on two different websites/databases. One was on, and one was on HATHItrust, the second of which provides a good comparison for the pet book copy that I’ve been looking at. While the textual content and the images in both versions seem to be the same, the two versions have elements to them that make them quite different. There are pros and cons to both. One major pro to the digital facsimile is that it is the complete version of the text. My pet book copy has pages missing at the end, so it does not provide the full extent of information that could be gleaned from the text. As mentioned in previous blog posts, all of the chapters and sections in this book seem to have been chosen very carefully by the editor. This means that the information that is contained in the book is there because it was seen as especially important at the time of the book’s publication. Because pages are missing from the pet book copy, there is information missing from the copy that the editor viewed as valuable. Knowing what information is in the book allows us to gain insight into the way that society and education functioned at the end of the 19th century (particularly in regard to what people viewed as important information for young women and girls to know). My pet book copy, due to that fact that it is missing pages, does not allow for us to gain this full insight. The digital facsimile, however, which is not missing pages, does.


*Last page of the digital copy (left) vs. last page of the physical copy (right)

Another pro of reading the online version is that it does not pose the risk of damaging the book. My pet book copy is from nearly 130 years ago, and needs to be handled carefully. Whoever is handling the book must have clean hands, and the book must be set out on a table in a specific manner, so as not to put strain on the spine. Beyond the missing pages at the end of the book, my pet book copy is worn down in other ways as well. The binding of the book, the spine in particular, is barely attached anymore.

While this shows that the book was clearly well-used, it also means that picking up the book and even just turning the pages is somewhat nerve-wracking. I do get the sense, while handling the book, that it could fall apart at any time. The pages on the inside of the book are actually in fairly good shape (they only have some smudges on them and occasionally some tearing on the edges), but the binding is obviously necessary to hold the book together. The digital facsimile provides the same content of my pet book copy without the danger of further harming the book.
As for the pros of the physical copy, it allows us to see the wear and tear of the book. How worn down a book is is a critical part of determining its use and its social life, and we cannot investigate those things if we only have the online versions of books. The fact that my pet book copy is literally falling apart and the pages that are yellowed means that it was used frequently, and was likely an important part of the education of at least one person. The physical form of the book also tells us how large the book is, which helps determine the context of its use. Specifically, it helps us to figure out whether the book was meant to be displayed, stored on a shelf, or used on a regular basis. It also tells us whether or not the book is meant to be portable. The appearance of the physical copy of my pet book indicates that the book is portable, and probably meant to be read frequently, both of which are things that we would not be able to infer from the digital version. Once again, form affects meaning. The physical copy also allows us to turn to specific sections and chapters, whereas the digital version of my book is somewhat difficult to navigate. It is divided into 27 sections, but these sections do not necessarily correlate with the beginnings of new chapters, which makes it less useful. 

Finally, one major advantage to having the physical copy of (my specific version of) this book is that it provides a lot of information about the provenance of the book. One of the fly leaves in the front of my pet book contains a name (Mary Wallace), a date (December 25, 1890), and an address (25 Oxford St. Boston, Mass.).

These details allowed me to infer that the book was likely bought/given as a Christmas gift, but also provided useful information about the possible owner of the book. Using, I was able to determine that this specific copy probably belonged to a primary school teacher who lived and worked in Boston at the end of the 19th century. I was even able to find a sketch of the school that this woman taught at, and the address of a room that she rented at one point. While we cannot know for certain that it was this school teacher that owned the copy (I found two other Mary Wallaces who lived in Boston in 1890), the fact that she was a teacher and that this book is meant for educational purposes, it seems fairly likely. This information is what I found most interesting and exciting about my pet book, and it is information that we would not be aware of if we only had access to the digital facsimile of The Girls’ Own Outdoor Book. Because the digital version has no record of ownership, it makes the book less personal and gives it (in my opinion) a less interesting social life.

All in all, while both copies of this book have their advantages, I have to say that I personally prefer the physical version that I can hold in my hands.