Provenance in Books: An Introduction

Course Organiser: Dr David Pearson

This course is primarily a training ground to give students a personal toolkit to identify and interpret the various kinds of provenance evidence found in books before 1900.  Interest in historical book ownership and what we can learn from individual copies and whole libraries has been steadily growing in recent years, among librarians, scholars and collectors, and more effort is being put into recording it in catalogues.  The course will cover different manifestations of provenance – inscriptions, bookplates and book labels, armorials and other evidence from bindings – and include practical sessions on palaeography and reference sources.  Teaching will be supplemented with exercises and opportunities to see examples drawn from the Senate House collections.  Although the focus will be on practical and factual learning to take away, some time will be devoted to the theoretical and interpretative book historical context within which provenance evidence is of value.

The course will be taught by David Pearson, whose Provenance Research in Book History (1994, reprinted 1998) is widely respected as a standard reference book in the field.  It is closely modelled on a similar course which has been successfully run at the Rare Book School in Charlottesville.

Course Outline 


1 Introduction; provenance evidence and why it matters; the wider book historical context within which provenance has become increasingly important.
2 The history and motives of book ownership and private libraries: an overview from ancient times to the 20th century.  This will cover questions of size, contents, storage and motivation for book ownership.


3 The forms of provenance evidence; what it is, and what it is not; frustrations of provenance research, challenges to be aware of at the outset.
4  Inscriptions, annotations, and things written in books.
5 Palaeography; reading inscriptions in books (students will undertake some exercises in deciphering typical inscriptions following tuition in the basics needed to read early handwriting).


6  Bookplates and book labels; stencils and ink stamps.  This session will provide an overview of the historical development of bookplates, including the knowledge needed to date them on stylistic grounds.  There will be examples and exercises.
7  Armorials, names on bindings, and other aspects of bindings as provenance evidence.
8 Heraldry: provenance research often depends on the interpretation of coats of arms on bookplates, bindings or elsewhere.  A grounding in the essentials of heraldry and heraldic blazon (the language of heraldry) will be followed by some exercises to show it’s not as hard as it may at first seem.


9 Heraldry continued: working through the exercises. 
10 Tracing and identifying owners and their library collections; reference sources in print and on the web; sale catalogues, and private library catalogues.
11 Recording provenance in catalogues; preparation for the final exercise which will involve working directly with books manifesting multiple kinds of provenance evidence.


12 and 13 Practical exercise on provenance evidence.

Outcomes for Students

  • Fuller understanding of the range and value of provenance evidence in books
  • Detailed knowledge of the forms of provenance evidence likely to be found in books, how common (or otherwise) they are, what the trends are over time
  • Improved personal skills in deciphering, dating and identifying different kinds of provenance evidence
  • Improved personal skills in tracing and identifying owners and in tracking the history of private libraries

Recommended Introductory Reading

D. Pearson: Provenance research in book history: a handbook.  London and New Castle (British Library/Oak Knoll), 1994, reprinted, with a new introduction, 1998.
D. Pearson: Books as history.  Revised Edition. London (British Library/Oak Knoll), 2013. 
D. Finkelstein and A. McCleery: An introduction to book history. London and New York (Routledge), 2005.
Joseph A. Dane: What is a book? The study of early printed books.  Notre Dame (University of Notre Dame Press), 2012.
S. A. Baron: The reader revealed.  Seattle and London (University of Washington Press), 2001.
W. Sherman: Used books.  Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania Press), 2008.
R. Stoddard: “Looking at marks in books.”  Gazette of the Grolier Club ns 51 (2000), 27-47.Type your text here.


David Pearson is Director of Culture, Heritage & Libraries for the City of London Corporation, and has previously worked in various major libraries and collections. He has lectured and published extensively on aspects of book and library history, particularly around the ways that books have been used and bound, and has taught at Rare Book Schools in America and New Zealand. He was President of the Bibliographical Society 2010-12.