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Provenance Research in Rare Books: Home

A guide to studying marks of ownership and marks of use in rare books.

What is Provenance?

Provenance, from the French provenir and the Latin provenire (to come from, originate), in its most basic sense refers simply to the origin of an object, the circumstances of its creation or production. But in the world of art history, and increasingly in the world of rare books, provenance often has a second meaning — referring to not only where something came from, but also where it has been. In this sense, provenance refers to the chain of custody of a historical artifact, the trajectory of its ownership from its origin through the present day.

Special collections librarians and scholars of book history study provenance by examining the evidence left behind in books by former owners, sellers, and others. This copy-specific evidence can include inscriptions, bookplates, annotations, bespoke bindings, forgotten bookmarks, and so much more. Studying a book's provenance can often reveal a great deal about the work's production, distribution, and the ways in which it was read and used. The study of provenance can uncover secrets about the previous lives of books, as well as the lives of their readers, giving us crucial insight into the history of the book, the book trade, and the wider world.

Book History/General Provenance

  • Carter, John. John Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors. Oak Knoll Press, 2016.
  • Pearson, David. Books As History: The Importance of Books Beyond their Texts. Oak Knoll Press; The British Library, 2011.
  • Pearson, David. Provenance Research in Book History: A Handbook. Oak Knoll Press; The Bodleian Library, 2019.
  • Ricci, Seymour de. English Collectors of Books & Manuscripts (1530-1930) and Their Marks of Ownership. Cambridge University Press, 1930.

Finding People

Guides to Arms/Bookplates

  • Allen, Charles Dexter. American Book-Plates: A Guide to their Study. G. Bell & Sons, 1895.
  • Fairbairn, J. Fairbairn’s Book of Crests of the Families of Great Britain and Ireland. Heraldic BookCo., 1968.
  • Fox-Davies, A. C. A Complete Guide to Heraldry. Revised by J. P. Brooke-Little. Bonanza Books, distributed by Crown Publishers, Inc., 1969 (rev. 1985).
  • Lee, Brian North. British Bookplates: A Pictorial History. Newton Abbot; David & Charles,1979.
  • Papworth, John W. Papworth’s Ordinary of British Armorials. Five Barrows, 1977.

Other Resources