Gebrauchsspuren [1], like many other extremely precise and descriptive German terms, does not have an exact English equivalent. Generally it means marks or traces of use, a physical record of existence in the life-world.

When I examine a book, it is important to determine how the mark occurred, what it might mean to the object, its history, the culture that made it, the individual who purchased it, and so on. Marks of use are not only important historically, but are becoming increasingly valued aesthetically, perhaps as a counterpoint to our digitally sanitized environment. It sounds stupid to say this, but part of what I like about old things is that they look old!

I’ll go out on a limb.  I predict that in the future, the books that have real gebrauchsspuren will be the most valued. We already see the beginnings of this with some institutions buying heavily annotated and marked up copies. Although this is concerned with the text, I suspect (and hope) it will spread to the binding as well. For me, a pristine, unread book is often as uninteresting as a made-for-the-collectible-market plastic toy in the original blister pack.

Check back with me in 2040, the year singularity is projected to begin.


1.  I discovered this term thanks to Graham Moss’s  The Anagnostakis Pocket Guide to Austrian, German and Swiss Antiquarian Bookdealers Terminology (Oldham, England: Incline Press, 2012) Graham is the man! Hats off for making this useful pamphlet. He also has printed many excellent and very reasonably priced books in sheets for binding.

5 Replies to “Gebrauchsspuren”

  1. I usually consider Gebrauchsspuren as “indications of use” in antiquarian books. Indeed they are traces, as you (or Moss) translate it, lovingly (or not!) left by a previous owner or user of a book. These may be anything from pencilled (thankfully pre-ball point) marginal notes or a dealer’s code at the back, finger smudges left by a careless or hasty user or a scuffed leather binding on books more frequently referenced. In any case, such “traces” do represent use of a book, indications I like to leave for my own reference or anyone who may come to use or own the volume should or when it leaves my hand.

  2. Jeff, would you use the word “patina” as a synonym then? I am sure you’re aware that in the furniture realm, “patina” is the buzzword for this phenomenon.

  3. Good point. I do feel these are different, though I should have made it a bit more clear that Gebrauchsspuren comes from human interactions with an object after it is made. Pencil notations as George mentions, abrasions on the tail edge of a book due to being pulled on and off a shelf, a bent corner from the volume being thrown in anger or disgust all are marks of use. Patina, at least as I use the term, is due to an interaction between how an object is made and the environment. Like the oxidizing of a oil based coating, or darkening of natural wood.

    But the it gets difficult to separate the two when thinking about an instance when they occur at the same place on an object, like the the dirt, wear, abrasion and resulting deterioration on the handle of a hammer from years of use.

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