Monday, 11 August 2014

Finding that needle in a haystack

Last week, I wrote about the centuries of unsigned bookbindings which lie in our Special Collections and the difficulty of pinning down the year/ location/ craftsman involved. Our collections are not unique in this. There can also be a difficulty in pinning down bibliographic information, often the result of scant title-page and colophon detail, and printers’ devices can be used to fill such gaps in information. With issues of provenance, however, the types of clues provided (signatures, initials, stamps, bookplates, armorial detail, ex-libris) and the sources of information used to identify them (search engines, bibliophile indices, censuses, street directories, image databases) can be wide and varied.
Take this detail from Joseph Cooper Walker’s A historical essay on the dress of the ancient and modern Irish (Dublin : George Grierson, 1788).

A gilt stamp, located at the top of the item’s ornately tooled spine, is the only ownership mark on the item. The tools of the rare books cataloguer then come into play and, after much refining of possible search terms, an exact match is found and the mystery solved: in this case the previous owner was Charles William Bury, 1st Earl of Charleville (1764-1835).
Some provenance mysteries are unsolvable, and usually result from the effacement of ownership marks, such as is seen here on the title-page of René Descartes’s Principia philosophiæ (Amstelodami: Ludovicum & Danielem Elzevirios, 1656).

Other mysteries remain unsolved, however, such as the mysterious provenance of our copy of De occvlta philosophia libri tres. Markings and signatures, all curious and barely legible, including a red wax seal, may or may not be contemporary with the item’s 1533 publication date, and may result from more than one owner. This cataloguer is stumped.

If you would like to view/ consult any of the above items, please submit an online request or contact the staff of the Special Collections Reading Room in the Hardiman Building at

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