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The Book as a Reader's Experience: Provenance

Book ownership and collecting has become an important aspect of book history. Think of it as the history of a particular book. In addition to the authorship, printing, and publishing of a book, each individual book has a unique ownership history. An item finds new meaning in each collection as it relates to the rest of the collection, the owner, and the readers.

Provenance is a record of ownership, custody, and/or location of an object such as a book. Tracing the provenance of a book provides contextual and circumstantial evidence related to the book's production, ownership, custody, and storage over time. It can also be used to authenticate a book. In other words, was this book actually owned or read by a particular person.

Inscriptions, bookplates, bindings, marginalia, and notes can all help establish provenance.

The study of private and public libraries can be used to study book ownership. In Whose Shelf Life is it Anyway? (Jill, 2012), one book is traced to three collectors. The article states,

"a book can have many lives, passing from one collector to another over the course of centuries, and in each collection it finds new meaning."

Everyone loves the mystery of provenance. Even Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson had a passion for book history. Here’s a passage from A Study in Scarlet, in which Holmes is unpacking his belongings upon arrival at 221b Baker Stree (thanks to Marcia Keith for finding this passage):

“This is a queer old book I picked up at a stall yesterday – De Jure inter Gentes – published in Latin at Liege in the Lowlands, in 1642 . . . .”

“Who is the printer?”

“Philippe de Croy, whoever he may have been.  On the flyleaf, in very faded ink, is written ‘Ex libris Guiliolmi Whyte.’ I wonder who William Whyte was.  Some pragmatical seventeenth century lawyer, I suppose.  His writing has a legal twist about it.”

Book Rhymes

In some cases, book owners place rhymes inside the front cover of a book to discourage theft and acknowledge ownership. These book rhymes were particularly popular during the 18th and 19th centuries. When the use of book plates became common, the book rhyme tradition faded.

A commonly used book rhymes are shown below

If thou art borrowed by a friend, 
Right welcome shall he be,
To read, to study, not to lend,
But to return to me.

If this book you steal away,
What will you say
On Judgment Day?

This book belongs to BLANK.
Neither blemish this book nor the leaves double down, 
Nor lend it to each idle friend in the town; 
Return it when read; or, if lost, please supply 
Another as good to the mind and the eye."

Book Plates

durerA bookplate, also known as an ex-libris, is a label attached to a book providing ownership information. These are generally found inside the front cover or on the endpaper of a book.

A book plate normally contains the name of the owner along with images such as the family coat of arms. They may also include mottos, crests, and badges. Library bookplates often express gratitude for donations.

Printed book plates emerged in the 15th century in Germany. Albrecht Durer is known for his bookplate designs from the early 16th century.

The image on the left shows a bookplate dated 1516 by Durer for Hieronymus Ebner.

The earliest known American bookplate was a label by John Williams in 1679.

Examples can be found at the New York Public Library Gallery, Wikimedia Commons, and A Treasury of Bookplates.

They were individually designed until the 19th century when printer began mass producing the plates only changing the name.

try itTry It!
Read Jill (June 2012). Whose Shelf Life is it Anyway?, Cambridge University Library Special Collections. Available:

Explore the online exhibit "Thys Boke Is Myne". Create a list of clues that are used to establish provenance.

Think about provenance. Do you have any books that were owned by others? Was there anything left in the book by prior owners that provides clues or insights into earlier readers?

Let's explore an example from my life. The image below shows a book from my father's collection. He and my mother both have copies of the book Sing Children Sing by Edith Lovell Thomas (New York City, 1939). The book contains a bookplate showing the owner is Billy Smith, my father William L. Smith. Of additional value is the blog entry made by my father sharing his memories of the book.




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