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The forgotten history of the dog-ear

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State Library of South Australia

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North Terrace

Adelaide, SA 5000

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The folded corner of a page evokes differing, and often strong emotions among contemporary readers. Join Professor Ian Gadd as he traces the history of the dog-ear from 16th-century England.

For some, it is the sign of a much-loved book; for many others, it is evidence of neglect if not abuse. No less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary appears to condemn the practice: to dog-ear is ‘to damage or disfigure’, the consequence of ‘rough’ and ‘careless’ use. Yet, for many centuries dog-earing was not only condoned, it was actively encouraged: it was the standard means of bookmarking, a scholarly tool, a sign of piety, and the source of many rich metaphors. Only in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century did sensibilities changed, and our ambivalence towards the folded corner begin.

The material history of the dog-ear, though, is hard to recover. Dog-eared leaves are rarely recorded in library catalogues and in many cases, those folded corners were literally smoothed away. Instead, it is in the text of the early printed book rather than at the edges of its pages that the story of the dog-ear is to be found.

This talk will trace the history of dog-earing practices in England from the 16th-century onwards to reveal a hitherto unexplored area of readerly engagement. It will argue that, rather than being dismissed as a symbol of misuse, the dog-ear ought to be understood as an emblem of active, meaningful use. Marginalia and manicules have had their histories told; the dog-ear should have its day.


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Professor Ian Gadd is a Professor of English Literature at Bath Spa University, UK, and Director of the Global Academy of Liberal Arts (GALA), of which the University of Adelaide is a partner. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Edinburgh, and his Masters and PhD from the University of Oxford. He held postdoctoral positions at the universities of Cambridge and Oxford, before taking up his appointment at Bath Spa. His research focuses on the literature and history of 16th-18th-century England, with a particular interest in the history of printing and publishing. He is a General Editor for the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jonathan Swift, and was a editor of the 4-volume History of Oxford University Press. From 2013 to 2017, he served as President of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing (SHARP), the leading international scholarly organisation for research into the ‘history of the book’.

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State Library of South Australia

Meet in the forecourt

North Terrace

Adelaide, SA 5000

Australia

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