Thursday, 7 February 2013

Provenance masterclass

Back in January I was fortunate enough to get a place on a provenance masterclass, Discovering provenance in book history at Cambridge University Library, taught by David Pearson, Director of Culture, Heritage & Libraries at the City of London Corporation.

CUL with the remains of a very large snowman outside.

This was a great overview of provenance evidence. Although I've been recording provenance in library catalogue records for over nine years now, it was good to be able to take a step back from the catalogue records and look at the whole provenance picture.

To me, it seems obvious that the history of what happened to a book is interesting and worth recording and studying, but this hasn't always been the case. Recording provenance evidence means we can see how books were used, read and circulated around society, who owned them and how they fitted in with other books they owned.

Provenance isn't about association copies - book owned by famous people. It is a lot lot more than that, as it's about all the marks of ownership that occur both in the books (bookplates, armorial bindings, inscriptions, annotations, marginalia) and externally (sale and library catalogues).

Pearson took us through different styles of inscriptions (names, mottoes), the development of bookplates from the late 15th century onwards as well as some definitions of bookplates, book labels and stamps. He then discussed provenance found on the outside of books, such as armorials stamped onto bindings. A brilliant new(ish) reference resource for this is the British Armorial Bindings Database, which has plenty of illustrations to help in identifying armorial bindings.

He also discussed the problems of provenance research, where no markings have been left, or they are incomplete, illegible or partly removed. Ways of dealing with provenance evidence included taking the time to practice, for instance inscriptions can become much easier to decipher with a knowledge of palaeography and lots of practice. The National Archives has an online palaeography tutorial. A bibliography of provenance related reading and suggested sources of help for different types of provenance was one of the workshop handouts. CERL is another good source of provenance information.

Finally, we were shown examples of different types of provenance and their associated difficulties, using incunabula from the Cambridge University Library collections. As we were a small group we were able to handle the books and examine the evidence for ourselves.

I really enjoyed having the chance to spend an afternoon taking a step back to think about provenance, as well as the opportunity to see such rich provenance evidence provided by the incunabula. It provided much food for thought for how to record this information in catalogue records and in a way that is useful to researchers. My thanks to David Pearson and all in the CUL Rare Books department for organising the masterclass.

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