A chance discovery

December 20, 2022

The book that turned out to be something special was among what Lara Unger, digital conversion supervisor, lovingly calls "the rejects."

They are the exceptions, the ones that come back unscanned from a Google facility because they're too big, or too small, or, most commonly, because of their condition — they don't scan books with cracked spines or brittle pages.

These rejects eventually land on a shelf in the library's Digital Conversion Unit, which is equipped with a variety of tools and a staff experienced in the handling and scanning of these outliers. This is where the work of the Michigan Digitization Project continues, almost a decade after its most intense phase, when trucks full of books moved routinely between the library and the Google site.

Margaret Israel turning the page of a book under the glass plate of a book scanner.
Margaret Israel digitizing one of the library’s fragile books.

Unger often has to make an assessment of these problematic items before putting them into the scanning queue. For example, sometimes she'll check and see how many other libraries have copies, because an item's rarity can have an influence over how it's handled. She might also need to consider the item's condition: a broken binding can actually make scanning easier, and might also call for post-scanning treatment by the library's Conservation Lab, which is just a few doors away.

"And sometimes, like in this case, I just randomly pull things off the shelf just to see what's there," she said. The book didn't seem special — it was an ordinary-looking volume, old and worn, titled "Report of the International Council of Women, Assembled by the National Woman Suffrage Association, Washington, D.C."

Perhaps it was this title that sparked her interest; after all, this was in 2019, the year that marked the centenary of the Nineteenth Amendment, which provided women the right to vote. Or maybe it was luck, the kind that strikes people like Unger, who remains open to finding something new and surprising even after more than two decades working on the library's effort to digitize all of its print collection. 

This time, her curiosity was certainly rewarded: when she opened the book she saw that it had been donated to the library by the famous suffragette Susan B. Anthony (1820 – 1906). "And I thought, wow, that's interesting." 

Bookplate inside the front cover of a book: Presented to the library of the University of Michigan by Susan B. Anthony, Dec 5, 1889.
The bookplate recording Susan B. Anthony's gift to the library.

It got even more interesting when Unger turned the page and saw the handwritten inscription.

Not only had Anthony donated the book, she'd also included a note and her signature.

Book inscription: To the library of the Michigan State University at Ann Arbor, from Susan B Anthony, Rochester, Dec 5, 1889.
The misnomer in Anthony’s 1889 inscription — “To the Library of the Michigan State University at Ann Arbor” — can be forgiven, since our peer institution in East Lansing was then known as the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan.

Handwritten notations in books — formally called marginalia — make them unique, and this one delighted Unger so much that she shared it on social media. She also walked it down the hall to the Conservation Lab after it was scanned, because she knew it needed work.

From the conservation report:

The case is separated from the textblock. The upper joint of the case is split with ~1.5 cm remaining attached at the tail. The spine lining, which is made of printed paper, is exposed and cracked. There are minor abrasions and stains overall.

The sewing is broken at multiple locations, separating the textblock into parts. The upper flyleaf, which includes the inscription by Susan B. Anthony, and the frontispiece are detached from the textblock. These leaves have damaged and unstable edges. The paper is slightly brittle. There are small losses and tears around the edges, especially on the first and last gatherings.

Once the repairs were complete, the book was rehoused among the library's rare and special materials, viewable upon request in the Special Collections Research Center, and by everyone online via the HathiTrust Digital Library.

The book's introduction includes a call issued by the event's organizers that still resonates more than a hundred years after women in the United States obtained the right to vote:

An interchange of opinions on the great questions now agitating the world will rouse women to new thought, will intensify their love of liberty, and will give them a realizing sense of the power of combination. 

However the governments, religions, laws, and customs of nations may differ, all are agreed on one point, namely, man's sovereignty in the State, in the Church, and in the Home. In an International Council women may hope to devise new and more effective methods for securing the equality and justice which they have so long and so earnestly sought. Such a Council will impress the important lesson that the position of women anywhere affects their position everywhere. Much is said of universal brotherhood, but, for weal or for woe, more subtle and more binding is universal sisterhood. 

Women, recognizing the disparity between their labors and their achievements, will no doubt agree that they have been trammeled by their political subordination. Those active in great philanthropic enterprises sooner or later realize that, so long as women are not acknowledged to be the political equals of men, their judgment on public questions will have but little weight.

FYI: The conservation report, and the repairs, were completed by Yan Ling Choi, a third year student from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, who was completing an advanced internship in library conservation. She finished the treatment on March 13, 2020 — the day the university announced the shift to remote instruction and work due to the emerging pandemic.


by Lynne Raughley

Lara Unger shares her find: a book signed by Susan B. Anthony.


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