Ex Libris

Andrea here, musing today on a topic that combines two of my favorite things—art and books. I became fascinated  with bookplates as a child when my mother showed me a very old book that belonged to her father. Affixed on the inside page was rectangular piece of paper with an elaborate illustration and below it, the words “Aus der Bücherei von Ernst P. Münch,” which my mother translated from German into English: From the Library of Ernst P. Münch.

I loved the idea of a special “signature” style  (other than a simple scrawling of one’s name to proclaim ownership of a book. And I seem to recall that I promptly fetched colored paper and crayons and made some of my own. (Sadly, none of them seemed to have survived.)

In college, I discovered a magical place in the stacks of the main library called The Arts of the Book Collection, which was this amazing set of rooms filled with samples of  marbled paper, bookbinding examples, hand made books and all sorts of of ephemera, including a large collection of bookplates from over the centuries.

I had great fun looking through all the different styles of both illustration and typography. One of the the things that attracts me to bookplates is their sense of individuality and personality, especially in the more modern examples. The whole point of a bookplate is to not only identity the book’s owner but also to give a sense of who he or she is. The range of images—from serious to whimsical, from stately black and white to exuberant colors—was really wonderful, and yet another reminder that great art with a capital ‘A’ takes so many forms, including the deceptively mundane bookplate.

So I thought I would take a quick at the history of the bookplate, and what better place to consult than a library!

According to the Yale University library, the bookplate, or Ex Libris (“from the library” for those of you who, like me, didn’t study Latin in school) originated in the middle of the 15th century. Part of the reason was the printing press, which could run off multiple copies of the same book, all essentially identical looking. So it was important for a person to identify his or her copy.

The one of the earliest surviving bookplate is that of Hildebrand Brandenburg of Biberach, a Carthusian monk in Buxheim, Germany. It’s dated at around 1480, and was printed on scrap paper, hand-colored, then pasted into the books that Brandenburg gave to the monastery’s library.

Many early bookplates simply showed the owner’s coat of arms, as it was mostly the aristocracy who owned books and their heraldic crest identified them as clearly as any name. This style of Armorial Ex Libris was the most common form of bookplate until the late 1800s when artists began to have some fun with the artform.

According to the Yale University Library, “Bookplates may be divided into three broad stylistic categories: armorial, typographic, and pictorial. Even among the earliest examples, however, many ex-libris feature some combination of these three elements.”

By the 20th century, more and more book collectors were not from aristocratic families with a coat of arms, so they wanted another way to personalize their books. Often they wanted something that reflected their particular interests—hunting, fishing, botany, reading itself. And so they would hire an artist to create a unique design. As you can see, the creativity is really impressive!

The bookplate became even more democratic in the 1920s when there were catalogues printed of various design. A book aficionados could peruse the choices, and then order a batch imprinted with with his or her name.

It’s no surprise that bookplates have become popular collectibles just for their intrinsic beauty, Societies of bookplate lovers have popped up, and today, a number of museums and libraries put on exhibits, honoring their wonderful heritage of artistic creativity. (all images courtesy of Wikicommons Media)

What about you? Do you have your own bookplate? Do you have family books  with bookplates from a past generation? If you could design your own bookplate what would the theme be?










22 thoughts on “Ex Libris”

  1. I did study Latin in school, Andrea, but I had no idea what a marvelous history book plates have! One could go wild in that “arts of the book” corner of the Yale library. Love that you have your grandfather’s bookplate. Of the ones you showed, naturally I liked the one of the cat eyeing the book.

  2. Thanks for the terrific post. I do not have bookplates. I donate many of my books that having my bookplate would just be something that someone else would not need. But, I just realized that nearly 100% of the pictures which are on my computer are of women reading. All types of art, all types of women and all with a book in their hand. The rotation brings me pictures of women enjoying what I enjoy. And those pictures remind me of who I am.

    • Your computer art sounds wonderful, Annette. I’m the same way. I’ve collected a number of various images–usually vintage paintings—of women reading, and they always make me feel very happy when I look at them.

  3. Thank you for this post, Andrea. The bookplates are intriguing and beautiful. If I created one for myself, it would be something in nature, maybe a forest scene or a bird in flight.

  4. Thanks for another interesting post, Andrea! I discovered bookplates in , of all places, my local boostore when i was a teenager. They displayed a collection of tiny boxes with bookplates in them, all different designs. I chose two, one with a child holding an open book and looking through an open window at a viking ship riding the waves and the other with open books, a quill pen and an inkwell. I like the ship bookplate you had i your piece. Makes me think of the poem “a book js like a frigate….” I also had one years ago that had a unicorn rampant which i also loved. If i designed a bookplate fkr myself, i am nkt sure what it would look like, i like so many ideas….but it would definitely have some sort of reading or book theme to it!

    • What a fun story story, Jane. Both those designs sound wonderful. I really love book plates, and like you, if I designed one for myself it would have a reading theme.

  5. I love bookplates & I know some of their history. I just learned some more! Through my life as a reader I’ve received some freebies that were pretty enough to use in my keeper books. If I ever designed one, it would probably have a fairy with a harp on a crescent moon.

    • Glad you enjoyed the post, Jeanne. Your design sounds really lovely. That’s the beauty of bookplates. They are so personal and offer an infinite range of wonderfil ideas.

  6. What an enjoyable post, Andrea, and what great pictures of all those bookplates…thank you!

    I have had bookplates in the past and have also given some as gifts. Hmm, if I were to design a bookplate for me it might have books and mah jongg tiles to reflect two current pleasures.

    • There were SO many lovely ones from which to choose, Kareni. I could have filled pages! The books and mah jongg tiles sound fun! I’d like to see that one!

  7. I love the idea of bookplates, and have some on various books, especially older books, like the prizes my mum and dad won at school, etc.
    I even designed one of my own to give away to people when they came to book signings.
    It’s sad that there seems to be no way to do that on e-books. I wish someone could come up with a way to do that.

    • Anne, how nice that you have bookplates that commemorate your Mum and Dad.
      And know your wonderful skills with crafts, I’m sure your personal one for readers signing are fabulous!

      I agree that it’s a shame there is no way (as far as I know) to personalize an e-book for a reader. That would be a BIG plus if someone could figure out the technology.

    • I’ve also thought it sad that there is no way to include an inscription with an ebook (beyond the emailed message, say from Amazon, that accompanies a gifted Kindle book). I am a frugal person, but I’d happily spend a dollar more per ebook for the reader to see an included note. (And now it occurs to me that my expectation is that my ebook gifts go to re-readers like me!)

  8. My favourite of your examples is “beauty can be perceived but not explained”.

    Like Anne we have a lot of School prizes with bookplates. I would also like to personalise e-books. For myself I would like a picture related to astronomy, perhaps an apple falling on my head!

    For e-books if one can get a PDF copy without DRM then PDF editors would enable insertion of a personal design …. there may be legal issues though!

    Thanks for a Very interesting post Andrea.

    • Quantum, I was actually thinking of you when I chose the scientific bookplate! It just shows the wonderful range of creative thinking and appreciation of knowledge as “beautiful” in people who value books.

      The tradition of bookplates for school prizes is a lovely one. It’s a great way to celebrate.

      And I agree with you and Kareni about how nice it would be if e-books could have some sort of mechanism for a adding personalized digital bookplate.

  9. My husband is a generous soul and always wants to share books that he’s found particularly interesting – but he was often frustrated that so many people neglected to return them! Several years ago, I had a friend design a bookplate as a Christmas gift for him. Because he is very interested in both old sports cars and WWII airplanes, the design is in silhouette and has a man leaning against the fender of a sports car looking up at a Spitfire flying overhead. She did such a wonderful job on the design and I’m happy to report that he hasn’t lost another book since!


Leave a Comment