Shake out a book: A Library Exercise for a History Class

Here’s a fun activity for historians and students in history classes:  Go to your school or university library, open up old books and shake them out  (not literally shake them, you guys!).

How many books might you need to shake out before you find a piece of paper?  Usually its about 20 or 30 books. The most common things you will find are paper scraps used as placeholders, or receipts of the purchase of the book.  Most books in a large library probably haven’t been open or “shaken out” in a good 40 years or so, so sometimes you can find some treasures.

When I was a grad student at Florida State University, I shook an old 1960s photograph out of a book. It was a photograph of a student at the university, I think, and I pass the photograph on to the university archivist.

When you shake out books, also take a look for any Ex Libris stamps or other cool features. Have students take images on their cell phones. As a class, you can try to explain what all these papers and features of a book mean.

If you are interested in more creative ideas for history, look for my book, Creative Historical Thinking (Routledge, 2018).


  1. Sofie Garcia · · Reply

    Hi, my name is Sofie. Friend and student of Mrs. Ingram. I go to the Habitat for Humanity for used books, all used and all at my book spending budget. I clear a shelf at a time and I found one used book with a graduation photo of a boy dated 6/8/81. The book is inscripted on the inside cover page and on a page inside the book, “David Holt”. There’s an address stamp on the inside from a book store in Georgia. A number, address, and everything. I found this interesting, but unfortunately “Holt” is a popular last name and it would be very hard to find him. He’s probably 54 now and would look totally different anyways.
    I thought you just might like to know,


    1. Very cool! Keep “shaking out” books. You never know what you might find. Maybe even a dollar bill from time to time!


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