“The student of provenance is beset by many problems. Inscriptions in books may be illegible, damaged, defaced, or removed altogether. Bookplates… may be partly or wholly torn out, or may have other bookplates pasted on top… Many marks of ownership in early books rely on heraldry, an ancient discipline whose arcane codes and terminology are not immediately accessible to many people today.”
– David Pearson, Provenance Research in Book History
Last week, we introduced the concept of rare book provenance, and briefly discussed some of the difficulties involved in its study. This week, we’re going to be wading even deeper into the pool of provenance issues by asking you, the reader, what you think might be important enough to warrant recording as provenance evidence. I would hardly consider myself an expert in provenance markers (I’m learning more every day), and much of what I know now I’ve had to teach myself on the job. And while there are some handy provenance evidence guides and standardized lists of terminology, the subject makes for a tricky study because of its fluid nature – instances of provenance evidence can vary widely, and you never know exactly what you’ll find until you open up the covers. Every book is unique.
Take MSU’s copy of M. Annei Lucani Civilis belli (PA 6478.A2 1515), for example – a book I came across a couple of weeks ago. It’s a modestly sized book, only 6 inches tall and less than an inch thick, smaller than most modern paperbacks. Yet between its covers are crammed a staggering number of annotations, insertions, dates, codes, and marginalia. These are the markings on the front endsheets:
Some were clearly added since the book has been in MSU’s possession, while others are much, much earlier. Some markings are relatively straightforward and easy to understand, while others are more mysterious. How many different marks do you see? Let’s be literal at this stage and refrain from judgment about which particular inscriptions are important for determining provenance. I count at least 15 different potential provenance markers on these two pages alone. I’ll highlight those below:
1. This stamp seems relatively straightforward at first glance. It was likely added by MSU, but does not conform to the way in which Special Collections marks its books today. Indeed, I pointed this mark out to Special Collections head Peter Berg, and he seemed unsure just when exactly MSU had ever had a “rare book room,” referred to as such. The acquisition of this book by MSU predates the existence of the Special Collections Department as we know it today (the Special Collections Library opened in 1962). Do you think additional research about this particular mark is warranted, or is its value in our understanding the history of this book’s chain of custody relatively low?
2. Another library mark (likely tied to the stamp above it), this time a catalog entry. It seems to be based on the Dewey Decimal system, with some additional notation added at the end. The notation conforms to early MSU catalog entries, but is obsolete by the standards used in Special Collections today. As with  above, how important is it to record old MSU markings like this, given that the book is still in MSU’s possession? Can markers like these give us any useful information about how the book might have moved around within the University itself?
3. What do you make of these letters? Could they be initials of a previous owner? They are in pen, and look to predate the library marks. Can you make out that first letter? How would you record these markings on a Provenance Evidence Worksheet?
4. What could these numbers mean? It looks like a date, but the handwriting and the nature of the medium (colored pencil or crayon) look too recent to make the date (1537) contemporary with the hand that wrote it down. Could it be telling us something else important about the work, which was published in 1515? Perhaps it’s attempting to date the signature above it, or perhaps it’s not a date at all. Should we record these markings as potential provenance evidence?
5. What does this look like to you? Could it be a signature? It’s in pencil – could it be tied to the notes in  and/or , and does it look the same as the markings in ? If we cannot decipher it, is it substantial enough to note as provenance data?
6. There is clearly a price recorded here – 2.50 – but is that price related to the other, more faded markings around it? Is the price related to the note in ? Is it the asking price, recorded by a bookseller for his/her clients, or was it added by the purchaser, recording what he/she paid? Without knowing the date of this inscription, it’s difficult to assess the relative value of this price (due to inflation), and we don’t even know the units (dollars, pounds, etc.).
7. “Second Aldine Edition – a re-impression of the 1502 edn.” Could this be a note by the bookseller, to go along with the price from ? Or are both  and  notes from the librarian who acquired the book, recording the price paid and a quick summary of the item purchased?
8. What could this be? A signature? Does it bear any resemblance to the mark in , or is it unrelated? Again, could it be tied to the notes in  and ?
9. This note is in pencil. Does it look like the same handwriting used in note ? The final part of the inscription is clearly “No. 116” – but what is that first word? Does this note tell us anything about the provenance of this particular book?
10. Almost impossible to see on the images above, there is a tiny number penciled in the corner here. It appears to be the number 13… or is it a 15? What do you think it could mean?
11. This tiny stray “C” hardly seems worthy of recording as potential provenance evidence. Or is it? What are your thoughts?
12. Ah, now here’s something more like what most people imagine when they think of provenance markers. Does this look like a signature to you? It seems old, and is even dated (1760). How would you transcribe the signature here? G. Crofs. A: B.? What do you make of this? Is it someone’s name? Have you ever seen a name written or abbreviated like that? Perhaps more research is necessary to determine just what this inscription is trying to tell us.
13. Here is an embossed stamp identifying the book as the property of Michigan State University. Well, technically it says “Michigan State College of Agr. and App. Science,” a name used for MSU from 1925 to 1955. So that at least tells us that the stamp dates from sometime in that range. Could this embossed stamp be contemporary with the “rare book room” stamp from ? The Special Collections Department at MSU was established in 1962. What could that tell us about the potential usefulness of this stamp for tracing this book’s provenance history?
14. It looks like several lines of writing were erased here. Is there any value in recording this fact on a Provenance Evidence Worksheet? Is there any clue at all to what might have been written here? Or when? What about when it might have been erased?
15. Another mysterious pencil mark. What do you think this number means? Is there any significance to the hooked mark underneath? Is any of this worth recording as provenance evidence? Do we have to know what something means to record it, or is it enough that it might be useful to someone for provenance determination?
The book raises all of those questions in the front endpapers alone. When we delve deeper into the pages, more questions about provenance markers arise. Here on page 2 are a few more potential pieces of evidence:
16. Note the stamped number on the bottom of the page. This looks like a library mark – could it be an acquisition number? Is it tied to the library markings in , , and  above? How might we find out?
17. Did you notice the note in the gutter, or inner margin? It’s the note I showed you last week, here in its original context. Note the date (7-15-43), the name (Dawson), and the price (2.50). The price listed here is the same as that listed in , but the handwriting is different. Could this be a note from the individual who acquired the book for MSU’s library? The date given here is consistent with the range of dates we noted for the embossed stamp in . And this context now elucidates the letters in front of the date: remember from our note on  that in 1943 MSU was referred to as Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science, which could have easily been abbreviated as MSC.
You see, provenance markers cannot always be considered in isolation. This note, easy to miss on a cursory glance (I myself didn’t notice it until I took this photo), gives us new insight into several of the markings on the front endpapers. Also noteworthy on this page is the underlining of a number of words and phrases.
18. In fact, there are marginal notes and underlined passages throughout the text. This example is representative of most of the annotations: the text is in Latin, and the ink is clearly old, showing signs of oxidation. What clues could these marginalia give us about this book’s provenance?
19. On the rear flyleaf is the following set of notes: “Pretium. x/6” in the top margin, and “Collated & perfect” in the center of the page, signed and dated “JB. 1750.” What do these inscriptions tell us? The date is certainly helpful, but what do you make of the other notes? What do you think JB’s role might have been in the history of this volume?
20. Hints of a pencil inscription, long since faded or erased. Is there any information recoverable here? How might we go about doing so? Is this worth recording?
21. These markings are much clearer than those in , but are they equally mysterious? How would you interpret these numbers in a circle?
22. This provenance marker is very straightforward. Is it worth recording as provenance evidence, or should we count on the fact that such conservation reports are recorded and filed elsewhere? Does the fact that this label was applied so recently (January 2012) reduce its usefulness as a provenance marker for us?
23. The final potential piece of provenance data in this particular book is a very unconventional one. A significant portion of one corner of the text block is blackened and burned. Do you think this fact is worth noting? While it may not be realistic to record every odd physical feature of a given volume, could evidence that the book survived a disaster such as a fire or flood give us any clues about its provenance? What if it was considered in combination with other potential provenance markers?
The example of M. Annei Lucani Civilis belli has been a lengthy one, but I hope it has been helpful in illustrating some of the questions we have to ask ourselves when searching for provenance evidence. Not every piece of evidence is easy to understand, and it’s often difficult to decide what particular markings are worthy of our time and effort. Most books have fewer potential provenance markers, if they have any at all, but this example (with two dozen possible entries) is hardly the most heavily annotated book in MSU’s collection. If you have any thoughts about the difficulties involved in doing provenance detective work, leave some comments below. And as always, come back next time for another update on the provenance project at Michigan State Special Collections.