Most of the books at Burns Library have passed through the hands of many owners before arriving on our shelves. Discerning a book’s sequence of owners, or provenance, is fascinating, and the inevitable comparisons to puzzles and mystery solving are as apt as they are ubiquitous. Catalogers record provenance because researchers are as interested in the people who used a text as they are in the text itself, and because marks of ownership, bindings, and imperfections make each copy of a book unique. Even when the book itself bears no physical evidence of its provenance, a book’s history is often documented in other sources, such as deeds of gift, bookseller’s descriptions, or auction records.
As a rare book cataloger, I interpret the physical evidence of ownership, such as inscriptions, signatures, and bookplates. Recording names as they appear on bookplates and inscription, however, is only the first step. Library catalogs need authority control to distinguish among people who have the same name to be useful to researchers.
While local context and institutional knowledge will sometimes show the way (the autograph of the 19th-century attorney and abolitionist Robert Morris, for instance, has become familiar to Burns Library staff), typically clues such as dates, place names, and initials can positively identify a book-owner with a stubbornly common name.
As a case in point, I recently updated the catalog record of The Elements of Armories (London: George Eld, 1610), an illustrated work on heraldry. The Burns Library copy is signed on the title page “Wm: Cole, Coll: Regal: Cantab: A:M: 1745″ and has the bookplate of “Robert Day, Jun., F.S.A., M.R.I.A.” The abbreviated Latin in the signature translates to King’s College, Cambridge, so I was looking for a William Cole who graduated King’s College before 1745. My first stop was the Virtual International Authority File (VIAF), where I predictably found a profusion of William Coles, but not so many active from the middle of the 18th century, and only one, a Cambridgeshire clergyman and historian, with the requisite academic credentials.
Now on to the bookplate. VIAF presented me with a daunting array of Robert Days to choose from. The Irish photographer and antiquarian Robert Day (1836-1914), looked promising, with his concurrent period of activity and interest in collecting old things, but how to be sure? The initials again provided the clue. Our Robert Day was both a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London (F.S.A) and a member of the Royal Irish Academy (M.R.I.A.). Like Cole, his interest in heraldry is well documented, and I like to think Day may have consulted The Elements of Armories as he commissioned his own armorial bookplate.
Bookplates will occasionally try to play sneaky tricks on the provenance detective, as in the case of a recently acquired first edition of Henry James’s The Golden Bowl (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1904). It would be reasonable to suppose this is the bookplate of the famed Art Nouveau glass designer René Lalique. In fact, Lalique designed the bookplate, for Emilie B. Grigsby, whose biography is the stuff of a real-life Henry James novel, replete with the themes of adultery, social class, and wealth. She made headlines in the 1890s as the youthful “ward” of the older, and married, transportation magnate Charles T. Yerkes. Grigsby amassed a spectacular library and art collection which she sold before moving to England, where she became a high society hostess and friend to prominent European artists and writers.
Often glossed over in discussions of provenance is the stubborn fact that so many, perhaps most, former owners turn out to be regular folk with low-profile occupations, who cannot be found in biographical dictionaries, Wikipedia, or any name authority file. I do my best to trace their ownership all the same. I recently cataloged a copy of the anti-Catholic narrative The French Convert, printed in 1794 at Exeter, New Hampshire, and found not only the bookplate of noted collector Arthur T. Connolly (1853-1933), but also the earlier signatures of unsung Massachusetts residents Rachel Guild and Vashti Drake of Stoughton.
I had thought to conclude this blog post with a by-no-means comprehensive list of book provenance resources, but cannot improve much upon the fine libguide by the staff of Princeton University Library. The databases maintained by the Consortium of European Research Libraries are particularly useful for very early books and the inscriptions from monastic libraries. In the modern period, provenance research shares research strategies with genealogy, including biographical dictionaries, student registers, obituaries, and even census records. For a reference work in print, see David Pearson’s Provenance Research in Book History: A Handbook, available at Burns Library. Perhaps of less practical use but a great read nonetheless is Seymour de Ricci’s English Collectors of Books & Manuscripts (1530-1930) and Their Marks of Ownership, first published in 1930 and available from the Internet Archive.
–Noah Sheola, Special Collections Cataloging Librarian, Burns Library