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Why Map?

The initial idea for mapping the provenance of items in Special Collections came after reading a blog post about mapping pre-1600 European Manuscripts in the United States and Canada. Using data from the Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts, Mitch Fraas from the University of Pennsylvania Library was able to map the journeys of manuscripts from their arrival on the East and West Coasts to their current location and all the places they stopped along the way. You can read more about Mitch Fraas’ project online at the Mapping Books Blog

This blog post started me thinking about our books in Rare Books and Special Collections, many of which contain inscriptions, signatures or bookplates of former owners, all of which fall under the description of “Provenance.” This provenance information is often accompanied with locations, so I decided to use this information to map where these books had travelled from.

Mapping is the act of tracing the origins or movement history of people, objects, occurrences etc. by marking known past locations on a map. By mapping provenance we gain an insight into the history of our books – where they have travelled from and how long ago, allowing us to peek into the lives of owners and collectors.

How did they get here?

The Barr Smith Library has been built up gradually over time and reflects the changing collection interests of the University of Adelaide as it has expanded its teachings. A significant portion of the books in our collection were donated, either by prominent book collectors or former members of The University of Adelaide. Others were purchased second-hand in the early days of the Library when the budget was small. Books were also picked up cheap by Professors on trips to England for research or personal visits.

In many cases it can be obvious where some of our books have come from. Some were purchased in bookshops after perhaps being brought over to South Australia by their early owners and later sold or given away. Some were donations which have been signed by the author, and presented as a gift to a friend or colleague who later donated it to the Library. However, for many books in the collection, we have very little knowledge about their exact history. Purchase or donation information often gets lost over time, and a lot of the books themselves have next to no provenance or other indicators of their origins.

Even with provenance, there are often large gaps in a book’s history – how did a book that was signed and dated from England in the 18th century turn up in Adelaide in the 21st?

For every book we can trace, there are many more whose origins and travels remain a mystery.

How does this exhibition work?

For the purposes of narrowing down the field, this exhibition is centered on traceable provenance.

Traceable means the book must include at least one of the following:

  • a location written inside the book (either in inscriptions or included on bookplates)
  • a person identified from a bookplate or inscription/signature who can be traced to a location without complex searching (such as former politicians or persons of peerage)
  • accompanying letters
  • signs of organisational ownership such as former library stamps. 

This exhibition features both physical and virtual elements.

The physical exhibition showcases some of the more interesting or unique examples of traceable provenance along with some books without traceable provenance, but an interesting history nevertheless.

The virtual exhibition consists of an interactive Google map featuring all of the books with traceable provenance that we have discovered since this project started at the beginning of the year.

By visiting the Google map you can see a world map featuring nearly 100 books. By selecting a marker on the map, you will be able to learn more about that book, including its provenance listed, and view any associated pictures of the item. You can also search for specific books, people or notes by using the search tool in the side bar. Make sure you expand the list of books to view them all by title – some books have travelled between multiple locations over time and appear in each new location.

You can also visit our Provenance archive to see examples of the magnificent bookplates found in our collections.

The Map

University Library

Barr Smith Library
South Australia 5005


Phone: +61 8 8313 5224