Provenance Research for books in the British Library

Title page of a book once owned by 17th century book collector John Morris, acquired by Charles II and added to the Old Royal Library. John Morris has added his name in capital letters at the foot of the text panel in the centre of the illustrated bordered title page. British Library shelfmark C.21.a.14.(1.)
Title page of a book once owned by 17th century book collector John Morris, acquired by Charles II and added to the Old Royal Library. British Library shelfmark C.21.a.14.(1.)

How to find evidence that can identify past ownership of printed books now in the British Library.

The British Library was founded in 1973. All books already in the library by then will therefore have been acquired second hand. For the majority, this will include a period of ownership by the library of the British Museum, most of whose printed book collections were transferred to the new institution. For many volumes, and indeed for early books acquired more recently, there may also be a story to discover about the private individuals, bookdealers, institutions and even monarchs who owned them in the past. 

Investigating the previous history of a particular book or reconstructing the content of an historical library are aspects of provenance research. This considers the unique characteristics of each copy (binding, annotations, marks of ownership, etc.), and can provide insights into who read what, how ideas spread, and how books were traded as commodities. 

Evidence of connections to slavery, profits from slavery or from colonialism

The British Library has made a commitment to its staff and its users that it will become an actively anti-racist organisation, and will take all the necessary steps required to make this promise a reality.

Some items now at the British Library, previously owned by particular named figures cited on these pages, are associated with wealth obtained from enslaved people or through colonial violence.

As part of the Library’s ongoing work to interpret and document the provenance and history of the printed collections under our care, curators in the Printed Heritage Collections team have undertaken some research to identify these. The aim is to share knowledge with researchers, so that they can judge whether these aspects are important to their understanding of the circumstances behind the creation of individual collections. The Library is committed to openness around the provenance of the collections in our care and we recently published the initial findings from this research.

However, we acknowledge that the presentation of these findings has caused confusion and concern, which was absolutely not our intention. We have therefore temporarily removed the document and the research will be re-published on these pages once a review has been completed.

Undertaking provenance research at the British Library

Sometimes you may already know the identity of the individual or institution whose books you wish to trace in the library’s collection. In these cases the resources listed in the guide to Major named collections of printed books now in the British Library may provide the information needed to locate and confirm the identity of those books today. Book sale catalogues may also prove to be a helpful resource in reconstructing historic collections dispersed at auction or via bookdealers, and annotated copies may identify subsequent owners.

More often, however, you will have a British Library book in hand and will want to find out who its previous owners were. In these instances a range of external and internal evidence can be sought.

Catalogues

Historically, the main printed book catalogues of the British (Museum) Library did not generally record the earlier ownership or copy-specific information about the books it describes. It is only recently that provenance details have begun to be added as a matter of course to records in Explore the British Library. Nevertheless, it is always worth checking to see whether your book is one of the few that does include this information.

Some specialist catalogues can be particularly helpful. Provenance information for the British Library’s incunabula (15th-century printed books) can often be found in Catalogue of Books printed in the XVth Century now in the British Museum [British Library] and online in the 15th Century Book Trade Project’s Material Evidence in Incunabula database (British Library items can be found under ‘LondonBL’ when browsing by Holding Institution).

Many Western printed books acquired at the foundation of the British Museum (and therefore published before 1753) have their origins in the collections of Sir Hans Sloane. Although this are now dispersed across the British Library and indeed other institutions, a quick check of the online database of Sloane Printed Books will confirm if a researcher has already examined your copy and found evidence to support a Sloane provenance. Details of relevant published catalogues of other collectors, whether contemporary or reconstructed, are given on the guide Major named collections of printed books now in the British Library.

Shelfmarks

Where an earlier collection has largely been kept together, the shelfmark (call number) of the copy in question may suggest its provenance. Prominent examples include:  

  • 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.                                         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)
  • Davis                                                        Henry Davis (1897–1977)
  • 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)
Library stamps of the British Museum and British Library

The British Library and its predecessor organisations (including the British Museum) have consistently marked their ownership of books using an ink library stamp, sometimes in combination with a handwritten annotation. The colour of the ink can indicate the method through which the volume was acquired (purchase, donation, legal deposit, etc.). The stamp’s design and date codes, whether incorporated into the stamp or added by hand, can offer a fairly precise date for its receipt. This data can sometimes lead to archival records, such as entries in Acquisitions Registers or to the original invoices (see ‘Archives’ below).

Library stamp colours:

  • Red: generally indicates a purchase (but a square red stamp is associated with the Edwards bequest, one of the British Museum’s Foundation Collections of books)
  • Blue: indicates copyright deposit / legal deposit (British/Irish or past colonial copyright) and the Old Royal Library (past monarchs were entitled to a copy of a published book)
  • Brown: most often indicates a donation made before 1768
  • Yellow/orange: a donation made 1768–1944
  • Green: donations made since 1944
  • Black: used on a wide range of early acquisitions, for example in books from the library of Sir Hans Sloane; on purchased made 1781–1798 and 1804–1813; and on copyright deposit materials received 1813-16. Black was used in the 20th century to indicate materials acquired through international exchange

Library stamp designs:

  • Type 1: Stamps simply containing the words, MVSEUM BRITANNICVM or MUSEUM BRITANNICUM were used from 1753 to 1836. Specific variations in size and arrangement of letters help further identify more precise periods
  • Type 2: Oval stamps containing the British royal arms flanked by a lion and unicorn, and the words BRITISH MUSEUM were used from 1837 to 1929. These were accompanied by abbreviated dates of acquisition in either inked stamp or annotated in pencil
  • Type 3: Round stamps with the royal arms but no lion and unicorn with the words BRITISH MUSEUM were used from 1929 to 1973. An abbreviated date is incorporated into the stamp
  • Type 4: The round stamp of Type 3 but with the words BRITISH LIBRARY has been applied to printed heritage acquisitions since 1973
  • Type 5: The words BRITISH LIBRARY above and beneath a crown has been used for printed heritage acquisitions made in recent decades

The dates incorporated into library stamps indicate when the volume was formally accessioned into the collection. It was usual practice to change the date stamp twice a month, as it related to the way in which associated purchase invoices or other documentation was filed. Dates can be abbreviated, for example: JU = June; JY = July; MA = May; and MR = March. Other evidence should be used to complete a two-digit year (‘41’ will be either 1841 or 1941).

From 1837 to 1929, pencil markings in the shape of a diamond indicate the accession date for purchases and donations. The year of acquisition is at the top; the month is middle-left; and the day is middle-right. The bottom number is the entry line in the Acquisitions Register for the stated date.

A visual Guide to British Library Books Stamps has appeared on the British Library’s Collection Care blog. Stamps used in the British Museum library in the period 1753 to 1836 are discussed by P.R. Harrris in Appendix I to Giles Mandelbrote and Barry Taylor (eds.), Libraries within the library: the origins of the British Library's printed collections(London, 2009) - click on the title to access this invaluable text in digital facsimile.

Archival records

Records relating to library acquisitions are today divided between the British Museum Central Archives and the British Library Corporate Archive. British Museum Central Archives holds a general Donors’ Book for 1756 to 1823, but in the case of large bequests printed books are not normally listed individually.

The British Library Corporate Archive holds the following acquisitions records:

  • 1837–1949 – Register of Accessions
  • 1836–1953 – Register of Donations
  • 1953–1973 – Donation Cards
  • 1826–1995 – Invoices for Purchased Acquisitions

These are available for consultation. You will need the date of accession recorded in the library stamp or its accompanying annotation, including the entry line where supplied.

The British Library Corporate Archive also holds correspondence, minutes, papers and reports relating to the British Museum Department of Printed Books, which may provide further provenance information.

Enquiries relating to acquisition records should be addressed to the British Library Corporate Archive at BL-archives@bl.uk.

Bindings, bookplates, inscriptions and annotations

For older printed books, distinguishing features in the volume itself may indicate something of its earlier ownership. David Pearson, Provenance research in book history : a handbook (London, 1994), provides a guide to interpreting this kind of evidence, and draws many of his examples from the British Library collection. A major new edition of this major reference source for provenance research has been published in 2019.

Some bookbindings incorporate a coat of arms, heraldic device or other identifying decoration. The Library’s Database of Bookbindings documents many examples, with detailed notes and images. It can be searched by shelfmark or ownership mark. An Index of Binders and Owners is also available. The British Armorial bindings database is a major reference work freely available online that contains details and images of all known armorial binding stamps used by British owners from the 16th century to the present day.

A paper bookplate (ex libris) may have been affixed inside the volume by a previous owner. Some are finely illustrated but many are simple and discrete. Many incorporate the owner’s name or moto, but others do not. It may be possible to identify an anonymous bookplate using the Index to Anonymous Plates at the end of Vol. 3 of Catalogue of British and American Book Plates bequeathed to the Trustees of the British Museum by Sir A. W. Franks (London, 1903-4).

Inscribed on title pages, fly-leaves or even fore-edges of a book, there may be handwritten names, inscriptions, phrases, mottoes or codes that can lead to the identity of a previous owner. These marks are only rarely recorded on the main British Library catalogue. Seymour de Ricci, English collectors of books & manuscripts (1530-1930) and their marks of ownership (Cambridge, 1990) is a useful source of reference. R.C. Alston, Books with manuscript : a short title catalogue of books with manuscript notes in the British Library (London, 1994) identifies a number of book owners and books which contain significant manuscript notes. The availability of digitised books freely available online makes pursuing, cross-checking and comparing evidence of past ownership increasingly more feasible.

Book sale catalogues

Sale catalogues can be helpful in reconstructing historic collections that were dispersed through auction houses or bookdealers. Those annotated at the point of sale may also identify purchasers’ names and the prices fetched. It is not currently possible to search across multiple sale catalogues looking for a particular book. Their usefulness is therefore limited to when you already have a collector’s name, and ideally, also a place and date of sale. An outline of what is held at the British Library and the associated indexes of owners is given in the guide to Book sale catalogues.

A note of caution

It is always worth looking for supporting evidence for any provenance identification. Books can be stamped many decades or even centuries after their acquisition, and historically copies may have been moved around from one shelfmark to another without a full understanding of implications for researchers today.

Further resources Contact points for further enquiries

Looking at the books and using the guidance above should help you begin to understand the past history of books now in the Library’s collection. Specialist help is available online from the Rare Books Reference Team and by email rare-books@bl.uk

Enquiries about accessing acquisition registers be made to the British Library Corporate Archive at BL-archives@bl.uk