When studying book history you adopt a wide array of new bibliographical terms. One term we familiarised ourselves with was a bookplate otherwise known as ex libris. The latter originates from the Latin term ‘from the books of’. Quite simply a bookplate is a sheet of paper text or a decoratively designed label that is attached to a book to indicate its ownership. Usually a bookplate will be found on the inside of the cover page. The beauty of a bookplate is that they can range from simple initials to a detailed artistic design for example a family crest to a personal motto. Nowadays as G. H. Doane H (1954) points out ‘even booksellers’ can be oblivious to the terminology. The reason for this is self explanatory as instead of designing and attaching our personal bookplates we just place our name or initials on the inside of the cover page. Today, the idea of designing your own bookplate can seem ancient or unnecessary but bookplates served as a major tool in centuries gone before us. Bookplates carved their way into book history in times where books were extremely rare and precious items.

According to Cambridge University’s online archives bookplates are said to have come into play around the Middle Ages and the first printed bookplate was produced in the ‘mid 15th century’. In the beginning bookplates took the form of ‘simple inscriptions’ however they soon transformed into ‘elegant engravings’. The following images were taken from two rare books in the special collections library here in NUIG. Both images highlight the fundamental ownership purposes of bookplates while the image on the right shows that bookplates were often accompanied by handwriting. For example in this case the handwriting shows that the book was bought as a present for a certain gentleman. However, it key to note that these bookplates could also have been added by a librarian. The two bookplates were photographed from Ruaidhri O Flaithbheartaigh’s 1685 Ogygia and a 1745 edition of Aristotelis de Poetica. As you can see when looked at closely despite been centuries old both bookplates indicate their former owners.

Special Collections, NUIG

Special Collections, NUIG

Special Collections, NUIG

Special Collections, NUIG

Moving away from the fundamentals of bookplates we now look at the more complex notion that is bookplates and their role in textual and book history. The collection of bookplates developed into a major hobby for several book historians in the 20th century and has lead to the formation of many bookplate societies and websites. Also bookplates serve as a useful mechanism when investigating the provenance of rare and famed books. G.H Doane’s 1954 paper ‘Collecting Bookplates in Wisconsin’ gives a detailed insight of how bookplate collecting came of age in the mid 20th century in Wisconsin. Doane emphasizes how books became more widespread in the 19th and 20th century which increased the demand for bookplates in terms of ownership. A very relevant part of Doane’s paper was his very clear differentiation between ‘typographic bookplates’ and ‘heraldic bookplates’. Through Doane’s descriptive paper you learn that typographic are usually simple yet effective bookplates that are ‘printed from movable type as books are printed’ (155). Furthermore most of these bookplates will convey basic text but it is not uncommon for the text to be bordered with artistic quotations or even curses. The curses were there to reinforce the owner’s wish of having his book returned at all costs. Heraldic bookplates on the other hand brought about the use of family crests or coat of arms been implemented on bookplates. Duane stresses that these were more common in ‘England and Europe more so than America or Wisconsin’ (155) and were very popular around the time of King James I. The heraldic bookplates were designed to represent a family’s social standing and could be often seen as a way to reinforce their status while highlighting their ownership of the book.

A further reading in relation to bookplates is Edith Anderson’s 1989 paper ‘Bookplate Sleuthing.’ In it she documents very relevant aspects of the historical side of bookplates. Very interestingly she outlines how early ‘European bookplates identified owners by symbols or pictures’ (3). Furthermore Anderson shines light on how the invention of the Gutenberg printing press triggered the need for bookplates. Thanks to the printing press thousands of identical manuscripts were in circulation around Europe and book owners sought a way of establishing ownership. Quite simply the bookplate was the solution ‘from the same German printing tradition came the solution, patterned on the woodcut print the bookplate’ (Anderson 5).

Anderson, E., C. K. Harris, K. Rockwell, L. A. Fuertes, and L. Ward. “Bookplate Sleuthing.” Jstor. The University of Chicago Press, 1989. Web. 22 Feb. 2015.
Aristotle. Aristotelis De Poetica. Glasguae : In Aedibus Academicis, Excudebat Robertus Foulis, 1745. Print.
Doane, G. H. “Collecting Bookplates in Wisconsin.” The Wisconsin Magazine of History. 3rd ed. Vol. 37. Wisconsin: Wisconsin Historical Society, 1954. 154-59. Spring. Jstor. Web. 21 Feb. 2015.
“King’s College, Cambridge.” Ex Libris: Bookplates in the Archives. King’s College Cambridge, Jan. 2012. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.
Flaherty, Roderic O. Ogygia : Seu, Rerum Hibernicarum Chronologia, Ex Pervetustis Monumentis Fideliter Inter Se Collatis Eruta, Atque è Sacris Ac Prophanis Literis Primarum Orbis Gentium Tam Genealogicis, Quam Chronologicis Susflaminata Præsidiis. Benjamin Tooke, 1685. Print.

Contributed by Diarmaid Farrell.


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