Every book tells a story. Some tell more than one. In addition to the words the author and editor intended to be published, there are times when a book picks up an additional story with many more co-authors. Every time someone writes in the margins of a page or inserts a postcard or an old photograph as a bookmark, that individual contributes to a book’s provenance. The Merriam-Webster dictionary offers the following definitions for “provenance”: 1) The origin or source of something. 2) The history of ownership of a valued object or work of art or literature. I like to think of provenance as a book’s life story, or history. It’s a way to trace who has previously owned or borrowed the book and provides a fleeting glimpse into the lives of individuals who share at least one commonality: they all, at one time, perused the same book. A book’s provenance is like a string of beads on a necklace; each contribution distinct with a definitive beginning and end, yet all linked by a common thread.
One exceedingly interesting and beautiful part of provenance is the bookplate. Bookplates are images generally attached by an adhesive to the inside front cover of a book in order to show ownership. Bookplates can be simple or intricate and are meant to represent the owner. It’s just another way to leave a piece of yourself in a book. Find more on bookplates here, and enjoy a couple of bookplates that piqued my interest.
While looking through my book of study, I noted that, aside from two stamps and a barcode sticker, this edition of Through Fairy Halls does not have any provenance. The ink stamp, the imprint on one page, and the barcode all tell the same story: Marshall University Libraries own this book. I wondered if I could find out who had previously owned this collection or who had gifted the set to the library, but it turns out that there wasn’t a gift note or order form associated with these volumes. This means that this collection certainly wasn’t ordered, and, if it was a gift, the donating patron did not wish to have his or her contribution formally acknowledged.
Any time I encounter a piece of provenance in textbooks or novels, I feel as though I have discovered a secret clue or hidden treasure. Provenance can make you feel a kinship with others who read the book before you or make you consider the book’s content in an entirely different light.