This is a guest post by Rachel Gordon, Visitor Services Specialist at the Library.
How do you identify the books you own? Some of us scribble our names inside the front cover, but often we don’t bother. Carefully noting ownership of books was once very common, as any look through the shelves of used bookstores shows. It’s fun to look at the names of previous owners and wonder about them and their reading habits. Books that have been in a family for a while pique curiosity too, sometimes across several generations. On my shelves there are books that belonged to my mother as a child in 1950s England. At some point in my West African childhood in the 1970s I added my name and the date – as did my daughter decades later in Washington, D.C. Part of our family’s history and transatlantic migrations are recorded on those pages.
Years ago, people were diligent about recording book ownership, reflecting pride in their collections when books were rare and expensive. One way to do this was to use bookplates, personalized paper labels pasted onto the flyleaf or inside the front cover. Bookplates were often works of art in themselves, highly decorated and often reflecting one’s interests or background. They have a long history; they are believed to have originated in Germany in the fifteenth century. The earliest known existing example is German, from 1516. It’s no surprise that they were well established in the home of the Gutenberg Bible and the printing revolution, given the exponential increase in book production and ownership that followed. Bookplates were still widely used until the mid-twentieth century. They became collectors’ items, exchanged and requested by bibliophiles, like literary versions of baseball or Pokémon cards.
The Library has an extensive collection of bookplates. Many designs match their owners’ interests. The wolf and snowshoe image belonging to Jack London is perfect for the author of Call of the Wild. Author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ bookplate includes his creation, Tarzan, and other characters from his stories. Railroad executive and Edgar Allan Poe fan Newman Erb featured both of these topics on his bookplate. Bookplates were a way for women to illustrate their achievements in a predominantly male professional world. Edith Helen, suffragette and founder of the Women’s Legion used her bookplate to show her pride in her role as Commander in Chief of this First World War voluntary organization; author Mrs. G Linnaeus Banks’s design includes one of her novels.
Many of the bookplates in the Library’s holdings come from the enormous collection of thousands amassed by ornithologist Ruthven Deane. His own plate is beautiful, showing birds, plants and a portrait of John James Audubon. Letters he received in reply to his many requests for contributions to his collection make entertaining reading. Woodrow Wilson sent his excuses, although he used both this plate and this one. Artist Elihu Vedder was more accommodating. He provided Deane with a design he created for his wife and of two plates he had previously used himself. He explained, however, that he could draw in his books “in less time and with less bother” and included a charming example of the owl sketch he now used. It looks rather like the owl in his plan for a mosaic of the goddess Minerva that he had contributed to the Library of Congress’ Jefferson Building several years earlier! The use of bookplates was widespread, not limited to authors or prominent people. There are some created for children, like these for a family of brothers and a boy named Buddy Lankes. Volumes for American soldiers in World War One included a bookplate from the War Service Library.
If you’d like to resurrect this charming custom, there is plenty of inspiration in the Library’s collections. The Library’s Preservation Division provides a set of printable bookplates. If you’d prefer to make your own, you may adapt any content from these free to use and reuse sets as you please. For other images that catch your eye, be sure to check the rights advisory in the description; if it says “no known restrictions on publication” you won’t be infringing copyright and may use it freely. There’s so much scope for creating some lovely designs, with a variety of wording.
The Latin phrase “Ex Libris,” meaning “from the library of” is an old-fashioned way to label plates, but you can be as inventive as you like. Add some individualized touches and everyone you give them to will be wowed. A starter library of books with adorable bookplates would make a lovely gift for a new baby. Keen chefs might like some foodie labels for their recipe books – the scope for personalizing designs is endless. Don’t forget to make some for yourself too. As well as beautifying your library, adding bookplates will ensure that any books you lend are returned. In that, you’ll be continuing the custom started hundreds of years ago by proud book owners in the early years of the age of the printed word. There’s a nice symmetry in that!