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What is provenance and why do we record it?

Provenance is a record of ownership, custody or location of an historical object. In the case of books, this can mean signatures or notes written in books, as well as bookplates and stamps. The study of provenance in books allows us to learn more about how people throughout history have interacted with books, as well as the influence that books have had on social, intellectual and written history. It can also allow us an insight into the lives and interests of people throughout history, from merely seeing the items they collected to reading their detailed annotations and notes.

The nature of provenance in books appears to change over time, covering a wide array of formats and styles such as;

  • handwritten (ms) notes which may sometimes be copious and seemingly random
  • inscriptions
  • handwritten recipes
  • marginalia – notes and annotations written in the margins of texts
  • genealogies written in family Bibles and hymn books
  • annotations and commentaries about the text
  • brief statements of ownership often in the form of signatures or bookplate

Many early forms of provenance often reflect the scarcity of paper for general use, shown in the use of blank spaces in books used for handwriting practice or notes. Bookplates and book labels increased in both popularity and complexity amongst those well off enough to afford large personal libraries, and later became an item more for vanity rather than indicators of ownership.

With time came changing attitudes towards marking or ‘defacing’ books. Now it’s often considered ‘taboo’ to write in or on books and books printed today often won’t last as long as books printed 300 years ago. Mostly provenance now takes the forms of noting or highlighting in books used for research.

Today provenance in books is highly valued by researchers, historians and librarians alike as it allows us to:

  • understand how people collected and arranged books
  • reconstruct lost libraries and collections of historical figures
  • discover patterns and trends in the history of book users
  • aid in research of individuals and their families.
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