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My dear Douglas, Mary Butts and a performance of letters

All the blank pages in the archive

There are billions of pages in the archives. But how many are blank - have nothing on them at all? There are 84 blank pages of Butts's letters to Douglas and Malin Goldring. Well, 83 actually; one has some numbers (perhaps a calculation of expenses?) scribbled small in the corner of the otherwise blank page. This page is hiding somewhere in the 84 images below. And, as you see, many of the other blank pages don't actually appear to be blank: the ink bleeds through from the other side of the page. So how do we think through these objects - blank, empty, but not completely?

Preserving the complete object

"In the majority of cases, we scan both sides of every page/leaf, including books that may have blank pages/endpapers. The exception being UVic thesis as they are always printed on only one side. We don’t usually scan the verso of items such as letters, or documents that are blank (absolutely nothing) on the verso. This is then noted in the README file. ie Where the verso of the documents/letters are blank, the blank page has not been digitized."

– Kathy Mercer, Supervisor, Digitization Centre, UVic libraries

The blank pages are often scanned to record the complete object - looking to ensure preservation and offer greater access to "materials." But how many people really look at the blank pages?

The blank pages of the Butts letters were not scanned by UVic Special Collections. The images you see are from a smart phone camera, created for this digital display case. Though, as we have discovered, while searching for Mary Butts's many letters, university libraries sometimes send scans of the blank pages as well. The practice seems to vary between institutions and perhaps between employees whose task it is to scan.

Becoming aware of the material page

In the process of photographing the 84 (well, 83) blank pages of the letters for this digital exhibit, I became, almost paradoxically, increasingly aware of the materiality of the pages - conscious of stains, rips, tattered and worn edges, marks from what were perhaps paper clips or metal binders. And then the different types of paper. Some so thin that they could only be inscribed on one side or risk a confusion of words. The words that do come through the paper make the writer at her desk a more visceral presence, her hand pressing down with a pen.

Hauntings and things possible never realized

The blank pages seem haunted by text from the other side. How many other documents in the archives carry similar manifestations? The thinest of paper looks as though it has been written upon, the blank page a mirror of the other side with every word backwards, offering some conjuration in unknown but familiar language.

The blank pages speak to the possibility of something to come, or words beginning to emerge but never fully formed. They remind us of what we read or don't read as critics onto the page of another.

And the scans of the blank pages? Even more ghostly of forms. Blank images of blank paper, now unmoored from their physical selves and repositories. Do the blank pages of Mary Butts's letters conjure forth the archive, the room, and the library they came from?

< Into the archive What We Leave Behind >