Provenance Evidence in Bibliographic Records: Demonstrating the Value of Best Practices in Special Collections Cataloging

By Lundy, M. Winslow | Library Resources & Technical Services, July 2008 | Go to article overview

Provenance Evidence in Bibliographic Records: Demonstrating the Value of Best Practices in Special Collections Cataloging


Lundy, M. Winslow, Library Resources & Technical Services


Noting and tracing former ownership of rare materials has been a common cataloging practice for many years. This paper explores the value of examining special collections materials that may not be old and rare for evidence of provenance in order to provide notes and added entries pointing to former owners in bibliographic records. This case study of a small group of mid-twentieth century books, formerly owned by a Swiss family, demonstrates the significance of the cataloging process in revealing information about the original owners. Building on the bibliographic work of catalogers working with a collection of books on mountaineering topics, the author uses the case study to show how cataloging books as objects with a history can enable users to find new topics of research in special collections materials.

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For special collections librarians and users of their collections, provenance is an important aspect of the materials. In the exhibitions they mount and in the classes they teach, many special collections librarians often highlight evidence of previous ownership of materials in their collections. In addition to research interests in the content of rare books, scholars working in special collections also may focus on the materials as objects and the evidences of provenance they reveal. While the Oxford English Dictionary's first general definition of provenance is "the fact of coming from some particular source or quarter; origin; derivation," the second is more specific to materials in library or museum collections: "The history or pedigree of a work of art, manuscript, rare book, etc.; concr., a record of the ultimate derivation and passage of an item through its various owners." (1) Carter likewise defines provenance as "the pedigree of a book's previous ownership" and notes that "the evidences of [a book's] earlier history are always of interest (documentary or sentimental) and sometimes of importance." (2) The provenance of a particular work of art or printed work can be verified in several ways: authenticating documentation may accompany the object, catalogs or lists may include entries confirming the names of former owners, or the work itself may contain the evidence of former ownership.

Provenance has significance for special collections and the users of special collections for a number of reasons: (1) former ownership may make the book or object more valuable or important to users and to the holding institution; (2) knowledge of the content of a former owner's collection may bring insight to the intellectual interests and pursuits of a particular person; and (3) historians of the book and bibliographers often have a keen interest in the personal libraries of persons well known in their fields--for example, authors, politicians, or scientists, particularly those who lived in an earlier age. In his comprehensive reference work, Provenance Research in Book History, Pearson categorized and discussed the various types of provenance evidence and presented the bibliographical resources and indexes that support scholarly research on private libraries from the fifteenth to the early nineteenth century. (3)

To keep a record of the characteristics denoting value and significance and to facilitate the study of former ownership, catalogers of rare materials routinely note the provenance evidence in books they catalog and many provide added entries for the previous owners of the materials. The physical evidence of former ownership includes autographs or annotations, stamped names, bookplates, book labels, and presentation inscriptions, among others. The uniqueness of provenance evidence makes it paramount for catalogers to note the names of former owners to establish the relationship of other materials belonging to the same person or family. A recent posting to the rare books list Exlibris-L asked for information concerning any books libraries currently hold with provenance indicating that the books belonged to the Sidney family of Penshurst Place, Kent, beginning in the sixteenth century. …

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