One of the most famous quotations about lending books is by French author and man of letters, Anatole France (born François-Anatole Thibault, 1844-1924), who advised, “Never lend books, for no one ever returns them; the only books I have in my library are books that other folks have lent me.” [from La Vie litteraire (The Literary Life), 1888]. So how did France know that these weren’t his books? They must have had obvious marks of ownerships.
So how do book owners mark their books? Soon after Gutenberg introduced printed books in the mid 15th century, book owners began using bookplates, also known as “ex libris” (from the Latin, “from the library”) labels. Some of these were very ornate with heraldic elements and fancy borders. Another common method is a blind emboss stamp indicating the owner’s name in the middle of a circular pattern. A variation of the blind emboss stamp is the reliable ink stamp, the most common method used by libraries — before the introduction of electro-magnetic (EM) barcodes in the 1970s. Beginning in the late 1980s, EM barcodes were replaced by radio frequency identification (RFID) barcodes and labels.
Of course, all of the methods mentioned above require the purchase of materials and specific technology. What does the average book owner do to place a mark of ownership in his or her book? The most common way of marking a book is by writing or signing one’s name in the book, typically the paste down end paper or the free end paper. Recently, I came across a very unique way of marking ownership. This book, a reference book from the 1960s, arrived in the mail and as I flipped through its pages, something stood out. There on page 68, the owner signed his name, followed by his date of birth: 3/22/68. Clever eh? His system worked well, since most books have more than 68 pages. I suppose if he owned a book with less than 68 pages, he could place his mark of ownership on page 22. A different method, which I have only encountered a half dozen times, is when a person writes his or her name, followed by the date (and sometimes place) of where they bought the book, followed by the date of when they read the book. Sometimes there is an inscription that explains where and how the book was purchased, e.g., while on vacation, or on a special day or event.
Perhaps one of the crudest methods, often used by high school and college students, is to write one’s name in large block letters on all three sides of the text block. Most of the books I have seen only display the surname. Whether is displays the full name or surname, it makes quite a bold statement: “Dude! This is MY book — so don’t even think of stealing it and pretending its yours!”
One variation of the bookplate mark of ownership that I see from time to time is the adhesive address label. This might be quite foreign to Millennials and Gen Z. Back in the 1970, it would be very common to receive solicitations in the mail for 1,000 custom pre-printed return addresss labels (measuring about .5 x 1.5 inches) for a few dollars. People would order them so that they could simply peel off a label, lick it, and place it in the upper left hand side of an envelope to pay a bill or send a letter via snail mail. Very quaint.
There are purists who believe that a book should never be marked or written in; but there are many who believe that an elegant bookplate denotes that the owner is an important part of a book’s history, or using bibliophile lingo, it’s provenance.
How do you mark your books? Have you ever encountered a very clever mark of ownership?
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