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Curator of the Turnbull's rare book collection Ruth Lightbourne and research associate chief librarian Ronald Milne used examples from New Zealand collectors to explore "the secret life of 15th-century books" at the hands of their makers and early owners.
The Turnbull Library is this year celebrating 90 years of collecting and preserving New Zealand culture and collections.
Ms Lightbourne said early jottings in the margins of some books, or recycling unwanted earlier manuscripts in printed books, were not considered vandalism at the time.
Several old books from the Reed Rare Books collection at the public library were displayed during the presentation.
Handwritten notes could be seen in the margin of one book, and, in another, part of an unwanted manuscript was added to the inside cover.
Marginal notes in early books were prized by scholars because of the insights they gave into how the texts had been viewed by readers, she said.
In some cases, it was only through their use in parts of later books that some manuscript fragments had survived.