The University Record, February 25, 1998

Bookplates offer glimpse of owner

Francis Kelsey's bookplate.

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

Engaging book jackets are one of a publisher's many marketing tools. Often the author, title or content will entice a buyer. But the Clements Library occasionally purchases a book because of its bookplate. Volumes with Colonial bookplates that document the existence of large personal libraries and give hints of the original owner's social aspirations are especially desirable, says John Dann, the Library's director.

Custom designed bookplates were standard in earlier centuries and often were designed in an armorial pattern with symbols such as university insignia, indicating the educational and social history of the book's owner. A book from a personal library given to another reader was traditionally inscribed and dated by the original owner.

The volume in which a bookplate is placed also has a story to tell. One book belonging to a Maryland preacher was "highly predictable reading for an Oxford educated, 18th-century cleric living in a rural Colonial American parish," Dann says. Though the owner probably would have had Loyalist sympathies during the American Revolution, the family obviously survived the conflict. That survival is indicated by an inscription in the book that the rector's wife presented the volume to a neighbor in 1812.

Another bookplate in the Library's collection shows among its elaborate engraving of fruits, cherubs, birds, books, globe and a banner proclaiming "Hope Springs Eternal," an open volume of Shakespeare, printed without the final "e." This reference to Shakespeare in the engraving's foreground documents a rather shadowy career in the theater, which the book's original owner followed in his youth, Dann says. Later inscriptions in the book indicate that in 1810 it belonged to yet another avid reader, and that as late as 1823 was purchased at a sale of the previous owner's effects.

"Too often rebinding of 17th- and 18th-century books, even today, obliterates book plates, and with them evidence of our Colonial forefathers' reading habits," Dann says. "It is important that such information be saved."