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Provenance research

Provenance, or the history of ownership, of individual books and collections is a growing area of research. Allied to this is an increasing interest in the use of books during their lifetimes, in the cultures and practices of reading, and in the history of book-collecting.

Anyone interested in the provenance of the Library’s printed collections should first consult the online catalogue, which contains provenance information for many Special Collections books. Currently there isn’t a separate search field for former owners, so you will need to use the author field instead.

The Library’s own archives contain a great deal of information on the history of our collections. There are various manual records of provenance, including accession registers, and sheaf catalogues of inscriptions, bookplates, armorial bindings and illuminated arms. However, these are very incomplete. If you have a provenance enquiry it is therefore advisable to contact us.

There are also excellent reference collections of bookplate literature and binding literature. These are held at The John Rylands Library and are recorded on the Library catalogue.

The following printed and online resources are very useful for provenance generally:

  • David Pearson, Provenance research in book history: a handbook (London: British Library, 1998).
  • Seymour de Ricci, English collectors of books and manuscripts (1530-1930) and their marks of ownership (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930), reprinted by the Holland Press (London, 1960).
  • Jennifer Andersen and Elizabeth Sauer (eds), Books and readers in early modern England: material studies (Philadelphia: Philadelphia University Press, 2002).
  • Harold Mattingly and A.W. Pollard, List of catalogues of English book sales, 1676-1900: now in the British Museum (London: British Museum, 1915).