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Online books don’t offer this fascinating historical side benefit

by Sarah E. Fisher

Walking through the stacks and having a book “jump out at you” is an occupational hazard for a library employee, but in this instance it was a game changer. A pretty book spine with gold filigree (delicate metalwork) caught my eye and I just had to open it up. Inside was a large bookplate from the Clergy Daughters’ School, Casterton. It was a prize awarded to Ethel Hodgson for “scripture.” The bookplate was also signed by the headmistress, Mabel Williams, and Bishop Edward Henry Bickersteth. It was dated July 1902.

As a self-proclaimed genealogy addict, I felt compelled to find out a bit more about these people. First step, find out about the Clergy Daughters School in Casterton. A quick google search revealed that Casterton was in Cumbria, England. What was even more exciting was the discovery that this was the school that the Bronte sisters had attended. Not surprising, this was a school for the daughters of clergy members and so it was safe to assume that Ethel’s father was some sort of minister.

After some more genealogical digging I found the name of Ethel’s niece, Christina Millest, and spent the next six months trying to track her down. After finding a mailing address, I sent her an old-fashioned letter telling Christina about her aunt’s book, found in the stacks of a library in Prince Edward Island. I had hoped that Christina might be willing to share with us some stories about her aunt.

But there was no response.

In the meantime, co-worker Robyn Thomson and I began to look through a random sampling of old books in the poetry section of the Robertson Library. The discoveries were eye-opening. We found an overwhelming abundance of books with signatures, bookplates, little notes, hand-written poems, pressed flowers, prayer cards, and letters. One book even had a hand-stitched doily, captured in time for so long that it left an imprint of itself on the page it sat on for more than a century.

Always looking for ways to include history and genealogy into the conversation, we approached the university librarian at the time, Mark Leggott, about tracking the source of some of the books in the Robertson Library. He proposed to create a website researching the individuals that were found from PEI to Atlantic Canada, and around the world. Mark was completely on board from the outset and BookLives.ca was born.

After thinking my letter to Christina was a dead end, I moved on to try to locate others long lost to time. I discovered many people of the past, from all over Atlantic Canada.

John Henry Gates was one of the Gold Rush dreamers to board the brig Fanny from Prince Edward Island in 1849. He signed his copy of the book, Home Floriculture, in 1906. It included the date and street address of his birth in London England. He is one of only eight men to return to PEI out of the 46 that sailed west to cash in on the Gold Rush of 1849. These eight men were known locally as the forty-niners.

Jean McClure was the daughter of Roy McClure from Fredericton, New Brunswick, and Jessie Eastwood from New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, but she grew up in Medicine Hat Alberta. Jean’s mother died in 1919 and some time before 1930 Jean, her father, and brother returned back to the Maritimes and settled in Prince Edward Island. Jean attended Mount Allison Ladies College in Sackville, New Brunswick and received a book prize for proficiency in the class Clothing 1—the class she attended when she won the book. The Mount Allison Ladies College bookplate was found in the book, Economics of Fashion by Paul H. Nystrom. The bookplate was signed by her instructor, Mabel Garrett.

BookLives has grown to include people from every Atlantic province and most other provinces across Canada, as well as people from the United Kingdom, USA, Britain and as far away as Yugoslavia.

The collection includes books signed by Eben Norton Horsford (the inventor of baking powder), Agnes Knox Black (the first female professor of Boston University, and a Canadian), Robert Harris (celebrated PEI artist), Meta H. Barnwell (daughter of a plantation owner during the American Civil War), Margaret MacLean (the Canadian woman who changed the face of museum programming), and Kate Douglas Riggs (author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm)... just to name a few.

Ethel Hodgson’s family. In photo: Ethel, brother Norman, family servant (name unknown), step-mother Wilhelmina, baby Mary, Reverend John (father) Isabella (sister).

Image credit: courtesy of Christina Millest

Then, on April 2nd, 2015, I received a delightful surprise in my inbox—an email from Christina Millest. She had just received my letter which had been sent to an old address in a different county in England. It took its time but was eventually forwarded to her new address. In the letter, Christina wrote:

“It is many years since I gave up serious family history research—but I packed all the notes and papers away when I moved, and they are up in the attic, from which I keep promising myself I’ll collect and sort them ‘one of these days.’  This is just the impetus I needed [to do these things], as I’m going to be 90 later this year!”

Christina continued on to say that she thought UPEI’s BookLives project sounded “most enterprising” and that she would happily contribute the story of her aunt, along with pictures for the website. You can read all about Ethel and see some of her pictures at booklives.ca.

There are more than 1,000 books in the BookLives collection with about 150, to date, on the website. It’s a great collaborative project for staff and students at the University of Prince Edward Island. Previous UPEI student Kate McClintock was involved with the project and is now working towards a Masters of Library and Information Studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax. She was intrigued by the project.

“Working on the BookLives project was a fascinating experience which happened to perfectly align with my passion for history and literature,” she says. “It ultimately inspired me to pursue a career in the library field.”

It’s almost a historical duty to bring back the memory of people from long ago. There really is nothing like the thrill of finding a previous owner of a book. Once you know their story, you can imagine them reading the book, maybe after a long day on the fishing boat, or in a rare quiet moment for a mother of six, or as a child cherishing her new birthday present. These people who signed their books maybe didn’t know it at the time, but their writing captured a snapshot in history, giving them the opportunity to be remembered in the future.

A book can be an ever-evolving artifact of history, touched by many hands throughout time. Somehow all these books left the hands of their owners and ended up on a shelf at the Robertson Library, UPEI. The fact is, a book certainly has more than one story to tell.

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