From Inventories to Signs on Books: Evidence for the History of Libraries in the Modern Age

By Flavia Bruni.

Published by The International Journal of the Book

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

The shelves of a large number of libraries in the Western world are filled with books printed in past centuries. Little, however, is known about them. The books do not give many clues about their history after they were printed; librarians can seldom provide information on the history of each book, or on that of every collection owned by existing libraries. Historians, for their part, are generally more interested in investigating the history of medieval manuscripts, rather than collections of printed ones. As a result, it is often hard to learn anything about the past life of early printed books: although they are the material witnesses of centuries of culture, they do not speak to us. The aim of this essay is to present a case-study that suggests a way round this problem: how can one force books to speak? Can “signs” and marks on books (handwritten titles, old pressmarks, ex libris, bindings or covers themselves), provide useful clues to the identification of their provenance if analysed at the same time with extant documents related to specific collections of books? Can the comparison between books and booklists shed light on both, and open new perspectives of research?

Keywords: Historic Libraries, History of Libraries in the Modern Age, Signs on Books, Booklists, Inventories, Provenance, Book History, Early Printed Books, Ex Libris

International Journal of the Book, Volume 8, Issue 4, pp.51-62. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.224MB).

Dr. Flavia Bruni

PhD Student, School of History, The Reformation Institute, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, Fife, UK

Flavia Bruni is a graduate in History of the Reformation (Roma La Sapienza, 2001) and has a PhD in History and Computer Science (Bologna, 2006). She also has a MPhil in Studies on Early printed books (Siena, 2006) and is a librarian graduate from the Vatican Library School of Bibliotheconomy (2009). She is currently undertaking a joint PhD between the universities of St Andrews and Siena on the history of the book. Her interests are mainly focused on Fifteenth century printed books and libraries; forbidden books and censorship in the Early Modern Age as well as projects involving digital humanities, digitization, text encoding, digital libraries and digital preservation. Since 2001 she is involved in the Italian project RICI (Ricerca sull’Inchiesta della Congregazione dell’Indice) that focuses on booklists of monastic libraries written in the end of the sixteenth century. She worked on significant projects for the study and cataloguing of early printed books in Italy.


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