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

Flavia Bruni

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2 Citations (Scopus)


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?
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)51-60
Number of pages10
JournalThe International Journal of the Book
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2011


  • Signs on Books
  • Book history
  • Provenance studies
  • Early Printed Books


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