Member Profile: Frank X. Roberts
Editor's Note: There are only a few true scholars of bookmarks and our member Frank X. Roberts is one of them. This profile explains his interests and research methods.
Tell us about yourself – where you are from, your education and occupation.
I am a New Englander by birth (b. 1932) and educated in schools and colleges in the Boston, Massachusetts area, except for a PhD degree from the University of Buffalo, in New York State. I have worked as a Professional Reference Librarian, but most of my career has been spent teaching English and American literature, and Library Science world-wide, in England, Africa, Australia, and across the United States.
How did you start collecting bookmarks?
Though I have collected bookmarks, I had no special emphasis for collecting but simply picked up in my travels bookmarks that caught my eye or piqued my interest. Over time I found I had accumulated a number of interesting specimens. Upon retiring in 1997 from the University of Northern Colorado, I gifted most of my collection to the University, where it is now housed in the Archives of the University’s James A. Michener Library.
However, I did keep two leather bookmarks from my collection of historical and human interest. (I will touch more on this below.)
We often get requests about how to “retire” bookmark collections from collectors or those who inherit collections. Can you explain how you donated your collection to the University?
During the ten years I was employed as professor of Library Studies and Bibliographic Instruction in the James A. Michener Library at the University of Northern Colorado, my bookmark collection of some 900 items was frequently pressed into service to augment exhibits mounted by the library to celebrate, for example: "The Book" or "Reading" or "Academic Research" etc. When not being used for exhibits the collection was boxed and shelved in my office or elsewhere in the library. Thus, upon my retirement it seemed that the thing to do was to transfer ownership of the bookmark collection to the university. It is now kept in the Michener Library Archives where it is available upon request by library users (from on or off campus) to view or examine [ see [Description of Item], Manuscript Collections, F. X. Roberts' Collection: Bookmarks & Writings (SC 73), Archival Services, James A. Michener Library, University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, Colorado. Accessed October 09, 2019.]. Transferring ownership was (in my case) simply a matter of signing a "Proffer of Gift" form. The proffer gave both physical and intellectual control of the collection to the Michener Library to manage, and use as wanted.
My special interest is the study of the history, development and use of bookmarks.
Tell us about your research into bookmarks. What questions were you trying to answer and how did you go about conducting your research?
My interest in researching the origin of bookmarks stemmed naturally from my collecting activities. Though, as I said earlier, collecting bookmarks was for me a casual activity. However, as I accumulated bookmarks of various kinds and types, two questions became uppermost in my mind: First, what really is a bookmark? that is, how do we define a true bookmark? Second, what was the origin of the bookmark? that is, when and where were bookmarks first used, and (per impossible!) by whom? (Spoiler alert: I eventually found no definitive answer to any of these questions.)
In an attempt to answer question one, (How is a bookmark defined?), I read through many dictionary definitions of the word "bookmark." (Working in a university library gave me access to a large number of dictionaries from the small pocket size to the OED.) Although details differed, depending on the size of a dictionary and the length of the entry for "bookmark," in the main dictionary definitions devoted themselves to the preserving, finding (or locating) function of the bookmark. Based on this fact and on my reading of as many articles about the use of bookmarks as I could acquire, I created my own working definition of the term: "A 'bookmark' is a finding device acting as a portable (or sometimes stationary) 'index' to guide readers to where they left off reading, or to mark for relocation some particularly interesting, appealing or useful section of text in a book." Dictionaries and glossaries do not normally define "bookmark" as something to be collected.
So the question remained, and even the "duck test" would not answer it. If it looks like a bookmark... If it acts like a bookmark... But what does a bookmark "look" like, and what does a bookmark "act" like? Obviously there may possibly be as many answers to these questions as there are types of bookmarks in existence. Perhaps for the bookmark collector the ultimate test would be to have the word "Bookmark" appear on the item. But that merely begs the question. It is a bookmark because it says it is! But can this really be the ultimate criteria? For example: In the library of Balliol College at Oxford University, there is still in place in a fifteenth-century manuscript (MS 161 Andreas Billia) a slip of parchment with Latin in medieval hand written on it. And in another fifteenth-century manuscript at Balliol (MS 209 Duns Scotus) there resides a larger parchment piece folded in two with writing in a medieval hand between the folds. Both of these scraps are no doubt long-forgotten "bookmarks." There is nothing written on them that says so, but who can doubt it. And what really avid collector would not want to posses such ancient "bookmarks?"
I began my preparation for researching the origin of bookmarks by studying sources on the history of the book, and on the history of libraries, from ancient to modern times. My "reading research" gave me clues to where I might locate libraries in institutions of education, in religious institutions, such as cathedrals, and in museums, whose holdings included manuscripts and early printed books containing items notionally defined as "bookmarks" of various kinds and types. Having identified such places, I wrote to a number of them to make application as a visiting scholar on sabbatical leave from my university post. In this way I gained access to the manuscript and rare book collections held by, for example, the British Museum, the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, other college libraries at Oxford and Cambridge universities, the libraries of both Exeter and Hereford cathedrals, the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England, and others. In these libraries I was able to do a hands-on, close up study of ancient bookmarks in medieval manuscripts, and in early printed books, as well as in more contemporary printed sources, up to and including the nineteenth century.
Where did you publish the results of your research?
Some of the results of this research has been written up in my 2009 monograph: Essays on Bookmarks and Related Topics. I plan to bring out a second edition of this book soon. In the book there is an essay titled, “Royal Bookmarks and Grecian Urns.” It reprises a tale of love and tragedy related to the two leather bookmarks mentioned above, and illustrated [below]. These souvenir bookmarks are now to be found (if at all) gathering dust in collectors’ cabinets, but still expressing like John Keats’ Grecian Urn, their flowery tale in silence and slow time.
In addition, my Bookmarks: An Annotated Bibliography has, as part of its introductory matter, a short, historical discussion on some possible origins of the bookmark. (See also the Subject Index of the annotated bibliography for sources which provide clues to the early uses and possible origins of the bookmark.) However, the definitive history of the bookmark has yet to be written. So for the nonce and most probably forever, the origin of bookmarks must remain only educated speculation. It would appear that the closest we may ever get to the exact origin of the bookmark is as it relates to that period of world history when "writing," "reading," and the creation and production of "books" (and by logical extension "bookmarks") were in their infancy.
What is your current interest in bookmarks?
Though I no longer actively collect bookmarks, I still pick up freebies, and sometimes make a purchase, if a bookmark sparks my interest. I do enjoy very much reading online about activities of IFOB members. And I look forward to celebrating with members World Bookmark Day in 2020.