Cindi gifted Jimmy a copy of The Little Prince for Christmas, 1972. Almost 34 years later, Uncle Mike bought that same book, presumably at a second-hand bookshop, and gave it to his nephew, Birch, hoping that he would find his “own little asteroid someday”. This year the book reached a friend of mine as a gift from her boyfriend.

For Pratiti, who is finishing her undergraduate programme at Ithaca, inscribed books such as these are no longer easy to find. The ones that friends or members of her family living in India send her come with Amazon’s personalised gift message. “I took to saving the little slips”, she says. “I don’t think it’s the same as actually writing in the book, but it’s a tolerable substitute, I suppose.”

Three of us – Shalmi Barman, Anushka Sen, and I – started the Endpapers archive with a view to create a collection of inscriptions on books. Gifted books, books purchased first or second-hand, books borrowed and never returned. This is not the first attempt of this kind. The most prominent one is perhaps the Book Inscriptions Project, which has been functioning since 2006.

Did we really need another project along similar lines? To be honest, when I first thought of creating an archive, I didn’t have in mind a public blog. I thought it could be a digital archive that does the work by networking with people and collecting archival images.

But none of us was certain where we’d be this time next year, and we really want to continue this for a few years at least! Besides, it seems somewhat easier to crowd-source through a blog or through social networks.

While looking through the various available models we realised that what we had in mind was somewhat more detailed. More details also mean potentially fewer submissions, but this is a gamble we are willing to take. Apart from a local language focus, this is where I think the Endpapers project is trying something different.

How it works

A contributor sends us images of the pages they want to share. Along with this, they are asked to fill in a form with some bibliographical details – the basic publication details, how it came into their possession, where they bought it, and additional comments. This information is posted on the blog along with the image, but we also use it for tagging and categorising.

Besides optimising searchability, the tags can then enable you to see, say, only those books that were, say, bought second-hand at Golpark in Kolkata or at Blossoms in Bangalore, or only inscriptions on books written by Michael Moorcock.

We’re also hoping to come up with some neat way to represent the travels of these books. (Ranendranath Ghosh’s copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare was originally purchased in New Zealand, and bought by our contributor at Golpark.)

The categories are also flexible. You’ll find school prizes, emphatic declarations of ownership, and even a detailed bibliography among the entries. We realised, after the contributions started trickling in, that Professor Abhijit Gupta’s suggestion to name the blog “Endpapers” actually saves us a lot of trouble in terms of justifying these submissions! It is more about what is contained in these pages than the exact nature of the writing – although we are occasionally bending the rules to include marginalia.

Scribbled memories

Speaking of other categories of scribbling, here is the first endpaper of a copy of Poems by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, belonging to RK Dasgupta (former Director, National Library of India). He has made a list of eight editions of the Poems in a very neat hand, making it a point to mark even the line-breaks in the printed title pages with little vertical bars.

He adds, “I have also seen in the Bodley two editions of Upon Nothing – both undated, at Parker’s there are two copies of Bagge’s [sic] 1707 edition.” Rabindra-babu “bought the book from Parkers of Oxford in 1955, presumably while writing his PhD on Milton under the supervision of Helen Gardner”, explains the contributor, Abhijit Gupta.

The archive is not just about the remarkable. We are trying to encourage people to send in as many inscribed endpapers as they can find. Some, like a copy of Nakshatrer Raat by Moti Nandi, which was gifted by the author to Premendra Mitra, another Bengali modernist stalwart, are bound to stand out.  But it seems to me that over time even the most mundane grow to acquire meaning that may not be obvious at a given point of time, and, considered in large numbers, these entries may reveal changing practices and patterns, such as the emergence of Amazon personalised gift messages, for instance.

Of course, a crowd-source archive does fall short of certain archival standards. The images, for instance, are not ideal. We accept any kind of digitised image (scanner, phone camera, anything goes), and it’s a call we took happily because we wanted to encourage more submissions. We also rely entirely on the accuracy of the contributors when it comes to the publication details, because these are not accessible to us in most cases.

Once we thought of creating this database, we realised that people remember these little scribbles far better than we had initially thought. And this is an effect that we observed in many of our contributors, and among friends and family. Somewhere, my father had tucked away the memory of receiving his inscribed copy of Tagore’s Sanchaita from his parents, following which he had thought it fit to continue the dialogue and thanked them on the same flyleaf.

The funny thing is that when we think of fleeting encounters with strangers, we tend think of them as anonymous. In these pages, the encounters are anything but that! We know them only by name – unless the contributor chooses to conduct thorough research such as for this copy of Singular Travels, Campaigns and Adventures of Baron Munchausen).

Associated with books we give or receive are memories we can’t always express in full, and with these unknown characters written of in the books are associated worlds that we may never find out about: it’s all equally interesting for us.