Basic types of provenance records

A description of the book owners’ records has significant informative value, for one thing in terms of history and the formation of specific book collections and sets of books, and for another in terms of the history of book culture in general. Provenance records in books represent an important source for the study of book culture (especially the history of libraries and book collections, the history of reading) and other historical phenomena related to the history of the book, but not for these alone. Study of the form and content of book provenance records can also offer an interesting source material for literary history, art history, historical linguistics, psychology, sociology, the history of elites, history of everyday life and general cultural history. It significantly helps in mapping out and documenting cultural transfers in the Middle Ages and early modern and modern eras.

The most common types of provenance records:

  1. A handwritten ex-libris is probably the historically oldest form of ownership designation. Medieval readers marked their codexes with inscriptions such as “Iste liber est/pertinet…”, “Catalogo inscriptus…”, etc.
  2. A dedication is a special form of handwritten inscription whose author is the donor. Frequent donors are of course the actual authors, who are giving the book to someone: either as an expression of friendship or as a token of estimation for a distinguished, respected or just rich and powerful figure.
  3. Supralibros (in Latin literally “on books”), a decorative, generally embossed and gilded imprint on the front and back cover of a book, potentially on its spine, which labels the book with the name of its owner, their initials or a coat-of-arms.
  4. A graphic bookplate (or ex-libris) is generally the best known and to date most widespread manner of marking ownership of a volume. It is a label of ownership printed on paper and pasted into a book.
  5. The stamp is a relatively new form of marking provenance, only appearing in the 19th century. Essentially all the other known forms of labels mentioned here are used on stamps.
  6. Indirect evidence of provenance – indeliberate and unintentional – can also often help identify the former owner of a book just as well as direct provenance records. This primarily includes handwritten marginal or interlinear comments and notes on the text that lead to a closer identification, or potentially a type of signature, type of binding, etc.

Map of provenance sets

P R O V E N I O - Provenance Database of Book Owners