Project Dust Bunny and the First Folio Tour

When I was in Special Collections today doing research for a Hitchcock project, I ran into Wendel Cox, the World’s Best Reference Librarian. As we were chatting (and they were working on exhibits for the upcoming Shakespeare events next week), our discussion of Pliny led us into a conversation about the First Folio. Wendell mentioned a project that I later found out was called Project Dust Bunny, one of the Folger’s research projects.

From what I could find online, Project Dust Bunny melded science and old manuscripts by scraping dust from the pages of one of the First Folios, and sending the dust samples to the National Institutes of Health to see if DNA could be retrieved. Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, said that “people lean over books, depositing a bit of dust and themselves while peering at the pages” (1). From sending the samples to the NIH, at least two complete DNA profiles were compiled from the dust, which reveal what our biological profiles were like before penicillin. Witmore tells American Libraries Magazine that “we’re the first research library to host a bio-archive in its basement” (2).

For me, the removal of documentary evidence raises some interesting ethical qualms. If dust, i.e. human skin, can be removed from the folio for testing, what other elements of the book are then viewed as “disposable?” Would the fly in Pliny’s Naturalis Historia also be removable because it isn’t actually the book? How long does something need to be in a manuscript or book before it is considered part of the artifact itself? Or, how large does something need to be to be considered irremovable? Dust is tiny and invisible, but it seems as if this action could lead to the removal of other parts of books and rare manuscripts for similar biological or documentary evidence.

I checked in the ALA’s Standard for Ethical Conduct for Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections to see what the language was regarding the safety of books. Of course, libraries have as a primary responsibility the safeguarding of their materials, but the code also explains, “The physical integrity of the materials must be protected; the materials guarded against theft, defacement, alteration, and physical damage; and measures taken to insure that their integrity and meaning are not impaired in consequence of conservation treatment, arrangement, or use.” Thus, the code implies that remnants or paraphernalia that don’t contribute to the book’s meaning may be more disposable.

In the code, language about general physical care of collections typically emphasizes minimizing damage to the materials and preserving them unimpaired. Since the removal of dust in no way damages the materials, the Folger’s “bio-archive” seems to be in accordance with the code of ethics. I’m not entirely convinced that scraping something from a rare manuscript for testing is a road that won’t lead to trouble, but I do think that few (if any!) Special Collections librarian would allow the collection to actually be harmed by something like this.

In writing this post, I also became curious about what the proper term would be for “things left in books,” although the dust isn’t something that’s been “left” in a book, so to speak. To answer this question, I found that the Library of Congress had actually answered this inquiry in a Facebook post: “You have raised an interesting question, and it turns out there doesn’t seem to be one generally-used name for items that are left in books and discovered later by subsequent readers or owner. After consulting various colleagues here, I took to the Internet and among the terms used I found “memorabilia,” ephemera,” “mementos” (3).

Neither dust nor the fly in Pliny are really memorabilia, but they do contribute to the growth of a book or manuscript’s pages from a piece of paper with words, into a layered biological sort of palimpsest. I haven’t looked yet, but I’m going to search for a few other articles to see if I can find any that mention interesting life forms, flowers, animals, or human remnants left within the pages of a book.

  1. Laurie D. Borman, “Will is the Word: Shakespeare’s First Folio Tour,” American Libraries Magazine, February 3, 2016, http://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/blogs/the-scoop/will-is-word-shakespeares-first-folio-tour/
  2. Ibid.
  3. “What’s the name of those things left in books?” Facebook, June 11, 2013. https://www.facebook.com/notes/i-love-libraries/whats-the-name-of-those-things-found-in-books/10151477905723601/
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6 thoughts on “Project Dust Bunny and the First Folio Tour

  1. You raise a good ethical question about removal or sampling of non-integral aspects of the object. As you characterize them, “remnants or paraphernalia that don’t contribute to the book’s meaning” might be disposable. Who determines absence of contribution? And how is the book’s meaning defined: content, or physicality? You are starting to see the differing priorities of literary scholars and rare book scholars and conservators. A book can be valued for its thingness as much as for its content language, imagery, and narrative. Bill Brown is the primary purveyor of Thing Theory: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1344258?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
    Project Dust Bunny is a great find, not surprising that Wendel knew about it!

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    • You know, that’s a really good question. I wasn’t able to find anything that displayed published results, but I think that the research is still ongoing. From what I could tell, it seems like the “bioarchive” will be available for public access at some point, but there’s actually pretty little information available about it. I would hope that with information as potentially valuable as this, the answer would be yes. The Folger has been so good about sharing materials, research, etc. for public use, so I don’t see a reason why this would be restricted.

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  2. I found a still valid $20 Target gift card in a second hand book once, about two years ago. Had no reservations about spending it on some kitchen towels. Still have the towels. The book is long gone and forgotten. What else has anyone found in an old book?

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  3. Pingback: Project Dust Bunny and the First Folio Tour | Marguerite Happe | Panning for ink

  4. I found some four leaf clovers found pressed in a very nice copy of Shakespeare Sonnets in a Bangor ,Maine rare book shop. I left them in the book.

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