Bookmarks, in one form or another, are ubiquitous, with a long and fascinating history. But there are things that mark our place in books, and there are bookmarks good and proper. We want to read on from where we were when we closed the book. What we shouldn't want is to leave evidence of our interrupted passage through those pages.
Most of us probably put some thought into what we read. But how many of us extend the favor of a little judgment to the books of our choice and bookmark them with care? Who among us recalls the last time, as we reached for whatever we were about to use as a bookmark, we pondered the chemical components, the acidic nature and possible interactions, of the paper of the book and that of the intended bookmark? Will they be good partners?
What's marking your place in the books you're reading now? The odd slip of paper or ticket stub, the envelope, postcard, brochure, or a receipt for the book you’re enjoying, or something else, whatever was at hand? A gift card that came with the book on your birthday? A pressed flower collected on a country ramble when you had a long, peaceful read under a fine old tree? Why not preserve the birthday card or drying rose in an acid-free clear plastic sleeve, perhaps, or even waxed paper, and shelve it next to the book?
The problem is this: you can mark your place in a book and leave that place marked forever. As dealers specializing in old books, we see it frequently: discolored pages preserving the outline of something that should not have been there, whether as bookmark or keepsake.
The ideal bookmark as an effective utilitarian device should be acid-free, thin enough that it will not indent the pages it rests between, and include no substances (such as colors or decorative materials) that can bleed into book paper.
There are place holders no book deserves. Paper clips leave indentations at best; they can stain (if there is any foreign matter oxidizing on them) or tear the page when they're removed. Staples can abrade, rip, and discolor paper; if you must bookmark with something that's been stapled, remove the staples!
Another no-no is the fabled dog-ear. This folded corner of a book page reduces the commercial and aesthetic value of a book. The crease can weaken the paper until the corner simply falls away, leaving you with unsightly damage that, while it can usually be repaired, is more easily avoided. Bookmarks can do more than show you where you left off reading. They can provide everything from diversion to mania.
Bookmark collecting has its charms. On its most rudimentary level, such a collection means that you always have bookmarks for all the books you're reading. Do you have more bookmarks accumulated in a desk drawer than you have on your computer? Then you may have the start of something as fun as it is practical. Bookmarks are certainly easier to store in quantity than books. You can focus on decorative, advertising, informational, or other specialized bookmarks, or hunt for some of the fine specimens of the Victorian era, both hand- and machine-made, or the woven Stevengraphs, or the bound-in bookmarks (complete with the books they’re bound to) that were common in the 18th and 19th centuries.
And there's an infrastructure. There are bookmark sites galore, with links to people who collect bookmarks (one gentleman in the Netherlands reports that he has more than 80,000) as well as those who swap bookmarks, who blog about them, who trace their history, who design and market them, who promote the craft of making your own. You can read a book about them, too: Collecting Bookmarkers by A. W. Coysh.
If book tourism is on your travel wish list, add these places to your next European itinerary: the Lesezeichen-Sammlung has some 10,000 specimens in its holdings. It is open to the public at the Bezirksbibliothek Rheinhausen, a branch of Stadtbibliothek in Duisburg, Germany.
A browse through the world of commercial bookmarks reveals something for every occasion and attitude: fine and funny design, technical innovation, variety and ingenuity in size and shape as well as in the choice of natural and manmade materials used. Admire them all, but when buying a bookmark that is destined for books you love, look for some indication that it's acid-free. No statement to that effect on the product or its packaging? Contact the manufacturer; ask how their product may interact with book paper. If that's not a priority with manufacturers, perhaps it should be; tell them about all the concerned consumers out there, that book-friendly products are what they want to buy.
When it comes to a bookmark's structure, you want flat, thin, and gentle edges. As a rule, if you can imagine using a bookmark as something like a hair ornament, by all means buy it for that purpose alone. Browsing Internet bookmark sites is a great option, too. And don't forget to bookmark the sites you like. We can guarantee that those bookmarks are absolutely acid-free!
The ultimate safety bookmark, of course, might be memory. Would it be good brain exercise to try it? If we can remember where we left the book, why can’t we recall the page that's waiting for us to return?