Voyages in the Margins

Searching for the stories that books tell through their provenance

By Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

Ian Brown, Collection Technician (IDEA Project), Documentary Heritage

A voyage to the South Sea, and round the world, perform'd in the years 1708, 1709, 1710, and 1711Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

Museums, as heritage institutions, hold the keys to unlocking the stories behind their books.

Discover the secrets hidden between the pages, beyond the printed word.

New, authentic, and complete collection of voyages round the world : undertaken and performed by royal authority. Containing a new, authentic, entertaining, instructive, full, and complete historical account of Captain Cook's first, second, third, and last voyagesAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

First a note.

To be very clear it is frowned upon when those using our Research Library draw or write in our books. ​That being said, finding additions by previous owners from before they arrive in our collection can be a priceless resource. ​

New, authentic, and complete collection of voyages round the world : undertaken and performed by royal authority. Containing a new, authentic, entertaining, instructive, full, and complete historical account of Captain Cook's first, second, third, and last voyagesAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

These scribbles, notes, labels, plates, stamps, etc. combine to become what we call provenance.

An account of the voyages undertaken by the order of His Present Majesty for making discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere, and successively performed by Commodore Byron, Captain Wallis, Captain Carteret, and Captain Cook, in the Dolphin, the Swallow, and the Endeavour : drawn up from the journals which were kept by the several commanders, and from the papers of Joseph Banks, Esq.Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

The most helpful kind of provenance to come across are inscriptions. More formally known as marginalia these could be names, comments, or even translations handwritten on the  pages. Sometimes these names are beautifully written, though often they take some pondering to decipher.​

New, authentic, and complete collection of voyages round the world : undertaken and performed by royal authority. Containing a new, authentic, entertaining, instructive, full, and complete historical account of Captain Cook's first, second, third, and last voyagesAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

Once deciphered, additional clues can contextualise the name. Most early books were luxury items, inscriptions can include a place or a date of when it was given or bought. This small amount of information can be a point for further research. Take this inscription for example.

After some research, this book likely belonged to James Sherman Spering (1792-1864), a British gentleman worth today’s equivalent of £2,000,000. Government records tell of a bitter divorce from his wife, who claimed he had an affair with another man, a scandal at the time.

An account of the voyages undertaken by the order of His Present Majesty for making discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere, and successively performed by Commodore Byron, Captain Wallis, Captain Carteret, and Captain Cook, in the Dolphin, the Swallow, and the Endeavour : drawn up from the journals which were kept by the several commanders, and from the papers of Joseph Banks, Esq.Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

There are other forms of Marginalia that tell less explicit, but equally interesting stories. These handwritten notes from the end of chapters in a 1773 printing of “Hawkesworth’s voyages” show a reader closely engaging with the printed text.​

An account of the voyages undertaken by the order of His Present Majesty for making discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere, and successively performed by Commodore Byron, Captain Wallis, Captain Carteret, and Captain Cook, in the Dolphin, the Swallow, and the Endeavour : drawn up from the journals which were kept by the several commanders, and from the papers of Joseph Banks, Esq.Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

Unfortunately, this unofficial contributor did not leave their name alongside their work so more questions are raised than answered. ​

A voyage to the South Sea, and round the world, perform'd in the years 1708, 1709, 1710, and 1711Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

Marginalia isn’t the only thing added that can help tell its story. Many wealthy men would add Ex Libris book plates to let readers know just who owned the book. The more prestigious of these men included their heraldic coat of arms, while others had a bit more direct approach. 

Troisieme voyage de Cook, ou, Voyage a l'Ocean Pacifique, ordonne par le roi d'Angleterre : pour faire des decouvertes dans l'hemisphere nord, pour determiner la position & l'etendue de la cote ouest de l'Amerique Septentrionale, sa distance de l'Asie, & resoudre la question du passage au nord ; execute sous la direction des capitaines Cook, Clerke & Gore, sur les vaisseaux la Resolution et la Decouverte, en 1776, 1777, 1778, 1779 & 1780Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

Other types of stickers added to books are bookbinder or bookseller plates. These often small labels hold a wealth of possible information about a book’s past. This volume has a bookseller’s sticker on the inside front board, helping researchers to anchor it in place and time.​

Also note this Ex Libris!

And this museum accession stamp!​

Troisieme voyage de Cook, ou, Voyage a l'Ocean Pacifique, ordonne par le roi d'Angleterre : pour faire des decouvertes dans l'hemisphere nord, pour determiner la position & l'etendue de la cote ouest de l'Amerique Septentrionale, sa distance de l'Asie, & resoudre la question du passage au nord ; execute sous la direction des capitaines Cook, Clerke & Gore, sur les vaisseaux la Resolution et la Decouverte, en 1776, 1777, 1778, 1779 & 1780Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

Although these are just a few examples of types of provenance each one of these additions can be a spark for future researchers - a new angle to delve deep into stories that may have never been told before.

Troisieme voyage de Cook, ou, Voyage a l'Ocean Pacifique, ordonne par le roi d'Angleterre : pour faire des decouvertes dans l'hemisphere nord, pour determiner la position & l'etendue de la cote ouest de l'Amerique Septentrionale, sa distance de l'Asie, & resoudre la question du passage au nord ; execute sous la direction des capitaines Cook, Clerke & Gore, sur les vaisseaux la Resolution et la Decouverte, en 1776, 1777, 1778, 1779 & 1780Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

All three of these titles made it from their printing locations in Europe. Who bought these books? How did their books get to New Zealand? What other books were in their collections? Where have those ended up? Why did they feel the need to make notes on the pages? 

A voyage to the South Sea, and round the world, perform'd in the years 1708, 1709, 1710, and 1711Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

Questions such as these are being answered by the IDEA cataloguing project, an effort by Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum to enhance records within the Museum’s holdings. Part of this project focused on the rare books pertaining to the Western world’s voyages and exploration of the Pacific.

While working with these texts, it’s hard not to notice the similarities between the lives of the books and their subject matter. Like the stories on their pages, most of the books began their lives in Europe before crossing the Pacific. ​

These questions may not have complete answers as details are lost to time. Instead we can find parts, and through them begin journeys of our own. The possibilities go on and on.​

Credits: Story

Ian Brown, Collection Technician (IDEA Project), Documentary Heritage

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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