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Provenance research

Determining the previous history of a particular item now in the British Library can be important to researchers, for example when attempting to reconstruct the library of an historical figure or identify the authorship of manuscript annotations.

A substantial proportion of early Western printed books now in the British Library was acquired 'second-hand'. Most items arrived as part of one of the major private or institutional libraries added to the collections in the late 18th and early 19th centuries (Sloane, Edwards, Old Royal Library, George III, Grenville, etc.). Many others were purchased individually through the antiquarian book trade.

This guidance applies primarily to books now in the care of the British Library Early Printed Collections department. Much of the guidance will also be relevant to items in other departments whose books, periodicals and ephemera were once part of the British Museum Department of Printed Books (i.e. Modern British/Irish, European, and American Collections). Fuller details of the printed reference works mentioned are given in the bibliography.

Establishing the history of a particular book now in the British Library

The vast majority of catalogue records for antiquarian books now in the British Library do not include any provenance information. In some cases however, this information is noted in specialist catalogues, such as the Catalogue of books printed in the XVth century now in the British (Museum) Library or The Garrick collection of old English plays by G.M. Kahrl and D. Anderson. David Pearson provides a fuller list in Chapter 7 of Provenance research in book history.

For the most part, the earlier history of a book usually needs to be established by examining the item itself. The library stamps used inside the volume might indicate when and how it was acquired, perhaps via an entry in the registers of acquisitions and donations. The book's current or former shelfmarks (call numbers) might show that it arrived as part of a major private library. Equally, it might have a binding, bookplate, inscription or even annotations that indicate association with a particular person.

Library stamps

The British Museum and subsequently the British Library routinely used inked library stamps (acquisitions stamps, book stamps) to show their ownership of an item. These library stamps often give a reasonably precise date of receipt for the volume, and might lead straight to entries in acquisitions registers or to invoices. In general terms:

  • Type 1: Stamps containing only the words MVSEVM BRITANNICVM or MUSEUM BRITANNICUM were in use from 1753 to around 1836. The shape of the stamp and the arrangement of the letters changed over time. Research is underway to identify the significance of these variations. A small number of early examples incorporate the initials of the previous owner, e.g. 'C.M.C.' for Revd C M Cracherode (illustrated above) or 'F.H.' for Frances Hargrave.
  • Type 2: Oval stamps containing the royal arms flanked by a lion and unicorn, and the words BRITISH MUSEUM were used from 1837 to 1929. An abbreviated date of acquisition will often be added, either with another inked stamp or in pencil.
  • Type 3: Round stamps containing the royal arms but no lion or unicorn, and the words BRITISH MUSEUM were used from 1929 to 1973. An abbreviated date of acquisition is incorporated into the stamp.
  • Type 4: The round stamp as previous but with the words BRITISH LIBRARY has been applied to early printed books acquired since 1973.
A library stamp specially cut to include the initials of the previous owner

A library stamp specially cut to include the initials of the previous owner, Revd CM Cracherode. © The British Library Board


The date abbreviation is usually self-evident. Note however: JU = June; JY = July; MA = May; MR = March.

A range of different coloured inks has been used:

  • Red most often indicates a purchase, but a square stamp may indicate a book donated as part of the Edwards Bequest.
  • Blue indicates copyright deposit (whether British/Irish or colonial), including the Old Royal Library.
  • Brown most often indicates a donation made before 1768.
  • Yellow/orange indicates a donation made 1768-1944.
  • Green indicates a donation made since 1944.
  • Black was used on a wide range of early acquisitions, including books from the library of Sir Hans Sloane; on purchases made 1781-1798 and 1804-1813; and on copyright deposit materials received 1813-1816. It was re-introduced for much of the 20th century to indicate materials acquired through international exchange.

Caution should be applied when relying solely on library stamps to determine when and how a book was acquired. Many volumes were stamped a considerable time after they had entered the collections, and mistakes are known to have occurred. 

Annotated library stamps

From 1837 to 1849 it was usual practice to annotate one of the stamps with pencil markings which indicated the precise date of entry in the acquisitions records (both donations and purchases). These annotations are in the shape of a diamond, and give the date of acquisition, plus a reference line in the Acquisitions Register.

The example below shows the usual library stamp used on materials acquired from 1837 right up to 1929. The red colour indicates a purchase. The annotations show that this item officially entered the collections on 18 October 1844:

  • the top number is the year of acquisition (44 = 1844);
  • the middle-left number is the month of acquisition (10 = October);
  • the middle-right number is the day of acquisition (18 = 18th of the month);
  • the bottom number is the entry line in the Acquisitions Register for above day (line 144).
The annotated library stamp

The annotated library stamp in volume at shelfmark 1462.h.4. [Vitterhets Arbeten by G.F. Creutz and G.F. Gyllenborg (1812)].© The British Library Board


Acquisitions registers, donations registers, and purchase invoices

Information about material acquired during the 18th and early 19th centuries is dispersed across the private and official papers of British Museum staff members. These are kept variously in the corporate archives of the British Museum or British Library, or in the Library's Department of Western Manuscripts. There is a general Donors' Book (1756-1823) in the British Museum Central Archives, but in the case of large bequests of printed books, individual items are not normally specified.

In around 1837, the British Museum began to compile dedicated Acquisitions and Donations Registers for printed books. The Acquisitions Registers were maintained until 1949, after which the original invoices can be used in their place. The Donations Registers continued until 1953, when they were replaced by a card index. From around 1833, selected original purchase invoices were also retained. All these sources are now held by the British Library Corporate Archive. Note however that it is not usually possible to find a particular entry in the Registers or purchase invoices without first examining the library stamp (and any pencil annotations) found inside the collection item in question.


Many different historic shelfmarks are in use across the British Library. In some cases they indicate an important collector, and therefore previous ownership. The following table cites some regularly encountered examples.

Shelfmark rangeFormer owner
1.a.1. - 304.k.23.King George III (1738-1820)
657.a.1. - 666.a.69.Sir Richard Colt Hoare (1758-1838)
669.f.3. - 669.f.27.George Thomason (d. 1666)
671.a.1. - 688.l.9.Revd Clayton M Cracherode (1730-1799)
Ashley.1. - Ashley.5711.Thomas James Wise (1859-1937)
B.1. - B.746.Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820)
Burney.1a. - Burney.1001b.Revd Charles Burney (1757-1817) *
C.1.a.1. - C.16.i.16.King George III (1738-1830)
Dex.1. - Dex.316.John Furber Dexter (1847-1917)
E.1. - E.1938.; E.2103. - E.2143.; E.2255. - E.2271.George Thomason (d. 1666)
Eve.a.1. - Eve.c.29.John Evelyn (1620-1706)
File.1. - File.849.Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)
G.1. - G.20240.Thomas Grenville (1755-1846)
Voyn.1. - Voyn.137.Wilfred Michael Voynich (1865-1930)

* Note that an unknown quantity of non-Burney material was added to this collection by the British Museum.

Only rarely was a collector's library kept entirely together when it reached the British Museum: there is often further material collected by these individuals shelved in other sequences. Entries for these collectors and others can be found in the directory of Named Collections of Printed Materials and also in A Directory of rare book and special collections. PR Harris's A History of the British Museum Library 1753-1973 discusses the acquisition of many collections and even some single items of note. 

Bindings, bookplates, inscriptions and annotations

Antiquarian books should always be examined to see whether they contain any physical evidence of earlier ownership. David Pearson's Provenance research in book history is an essential resource in this area. Look for the following features:

  • A coat of arms or other heraldic device incorporated into the binding. The Guide to bookbindings in the British Library may prove useful in these instances, as will Chapter 4 of Pearson and the British Armorial Bindings database, created by John Morris and Philip Oldfield.
  • A bookplate or similar paper label indicating ownership pasted inside the volume: see Chapter 3 of Pearson. For bookplates which include only an illustration and no name, the index to anonymous plates in vol. 3 of Catalogue of British and American book plates bequeathed to the Trustees of the British Museum by Sir AW Franks is often helpful.
  • A library stamp from another institution or indeed a personal name stamped directly onto a page of the book. Again, Chapter 3 of Pearson may help.
  • A handwritten name, phrase, motto or code, usually inscribed on the title-page or a fly-leaf. Mottoes and codes might not incorporate the name of the individual concerned, but it might still be possible to identify the owner in question, as in the case of the Sir Hans Sloane book illustrated below. Chapter 8 of Pearson ('Palaeography' section) discusses the issue in detail, and includes several important examples from the British Library. Seymour de Ricci's English collectors of books & manuscripts (1530-1930) and their marks of ownership can also be consulted.
  • Copious annotations in the volume itself. The full British Library catalogue record for the item might record the authorship of these marks. If the annotations are unattributed, Chapter 8 of Pearson ('Palaeography' section) might help with their interpretation.
Example of an annotation attributed to Sir Hans Sloane

The distinctive title-page annotations on this copy of the 1538 Basle edition of Aristotle's De Anima [shelfmark: 520.b.16.(1.)] show that it was once owned by Sir Hans Sloane. ©The British Library Board

Finding books formerly owned by a particular person

In some instances you might simply need to find out whether any early printed books from a particular collector's library are now in the British Library. In these cases the directory of Named Collections of Printed Materials might help. This documents the current shelfmark sequences where these private libraries are now stored, and gives some information about relevant catalogues, handlists, published research, and webpages.

In a small number of instances, printed editions of the British (Museum) Library catalogue can help identify books which have passed through the hands of a major writer. For example, the entry for Samuel Taylor Coleridge contains the appendix 'Books containing MS. notes by Coleridge'. These appendices do not appear in the online version of the catalogue.

RC Alston's Books with manuscript: a short-title catalogue of books with manuscript notes in the British Library contains useful indexes of annotators and owners. For 15th century books printed in France or the Low Countries, LG Clark's Collectors and owners of incunabula in the British Museum... is invaluable. For books from this period printed in the rest of Europe, an unpublished index of provenances is available for consultation by arrangement with the Incunabula team.

If you have no idea where a collector's books might now be, book sale and auction catalogues might help. The name indexes in the following two works could help establish when and where the books were sold: List of catalogues of English book sales 1676-1900 now in the British Museum and British book sale catalogues 1676-1800. In some cases, the copy of the sale catalogue now in the British Library is annotated with information about the purchaser. The Guide to sale catalogues in the British Library explains which catalogues are held, which ones are usually annotated, and how to gain access to them. Chapter 5 of Pearson places sale catalogues into the wider frame of provenance research.

Other resources include the index to A directory of rare book and special collections, and of course reference works specifically about book collectors. A small selection of these is provided on the open shelves of the Rare Books and Music Reading Room, beginning at shelfmark RAR002.092. 


The following list gives fuller details of the printed reference works mentioned in this guide. It also gives the location of selected copies in the British Library's Rare Books and Music Reading Room [shelfmarks in square brackets]:

  • A directory of rare book and special collections in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, edited by BC Bloomfield. 2nd ed. (London 1997). [RAR027.041].
  • Books with manuscript: a short-title catalogue of books with manuscript notes in the British Library, by RC Alston (London, 1994). [RAR090.16 ENG].
  • British book sale catalogues 1676-1800: a union list, by ANL Munby & L Coral. (London, 1977). [RAR381.45002].
  • Catalogue of books printed in the XVth century now in the British (Museum) Library (London, 1908- ). [RAR093.016 ENG].
  • Catalogue of British and American book plates bequeathed to the Trustees of the British Museum by Sir AW Franks, ERJ Gambier Howe (London, 1903-4). [RAR769.52].
  • Collectors and owners of incunabula in the British Museum: indexes of provenances for books printed in France, Holland, and Belgium, by LG Clark (Bath, 1962). [RAR093.016 ENG].
  • English collectors of books and manuscripts (1530-1930) and their marks of ownership, by S de Ricci (Cambridge, 1990). [RAR002.0922].
  • The Garrick collection of old English plays: a catalogue with an historical introduction, by GM Karhl & D Anderson (London, 1982). [RAR822.008].
  • A history of the British Museum Library 1753-1973, by PR Harris (London, 1998). [RAR027.541].
  • List of catalogues of English book sales 1676-1900 now in the British Museum, compiled by H Mattingly & IAK Burnett (London, 1915). [RAR381.45002; RAX381.45].
  • Provenance research in book history: a handbook, by D Pearson (London, 1994. repr. 1998). [RAR090.16].

Further help

Curators in the Early Printed Collections department may be able to give general advice on the provenance of a particular volume now in our care. When the exact date of acquisition is discernable from library stamps (or accompanying annotations), staff in the Corporate Archive may be able to establish who sold or gave the item to the British (Museum) Library, and how much was paid in the case of purchases.

The complex nature of provenance enquiries makes them difficult to resolve quickly over the telephone. We therefore ask you to contact us in writing by email, letter or fax.


Printed Heritage Collections
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7564
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7691


BL Corporate Archive
Corporate Information Management Unit
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7565
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7305