The University of Manchester - The University of Manchester Library
First Impressions

The Afterlife of Books

Traditionally bibliographers and historians of the book have focused their attention on the production of books: where, when and by whom were they printed? These are still important questions, but there is also a much greater focus on the life and afterlife of books: who owned and read them? - how were they used? - what happened to the books once they were no longer in regular use? - where have they lived for the last five hundred or more years? - and so on.

Clues to these questions can be found in the books themselves: bindings, signatures, inscriptions, armorials, bookplates, book labels, library stamps and shelfmarks, when present, can reveal the previous owners of books. Modern libraries don't encourage readers to mark their books, but surviving inscriptions can indicate how early readers interpreted and interacted with books, and these are a subject of study in their own right. External evidence, such as library catalogues, sale catalogues, wills and other archival documents, may also illuminate the life and afterlife of books. In some cases we can trace the history of a particular copy through several centuries. It may have begun life as a functional text in daily use - a prayer-book or a legal text, for example - later being relegated to a dusty corner of a library, unloved and forgotten, before eventually becoming an object of reverence for a wealthy collector.

Of course, only a tiny proportion of the books printed in the fifteenth century have survived. Many editions are known only through early booksellers' and printers' catalogues, and not a single copy has survived. War, wanton destruction, fire and natural disasters have all exacted a heavy toll. William Blades listed amongst the enemies of books fire, water, dust and neglect, ignorance and bigotry, the bookworm, bookbinders, collectors, servants and children!

Find out how the wonderful collections of early printed books came to Manchester.