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  • Provenance Research in Book History: A Handbook by David Pearson
  • David McKitterick (bio)
Provenance Research in Book History: A Handbook. By David Pearson. New and revised edition. Oxford: The Bodleian Library; New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press. 2019. xi + 436 pp. £55. isbn 978 1 85124 510 9 (UK); 978 1 58456 364 8 (USA).

The first edition of this book was published a quarter of a century ago, and much has happened since. This new one has been thoroughly revised, and in part rewritten. It is now illustrated in colour, with many fresh examples. Not least remarkably, it costs only ten pounds more than the old one: inflation has affected many other things more dramatically. [End Page 402]

The book began as a guide to libraries’ provenance indexes, and this remains at the core. It responded to a growing interest in copy-specific information, where ownership has a key role. The related topics remain the same: evidence from bindings, from inscriptions, from bookplates and book labels, from other catalogues whether printed or manuscript, contemporary or later, private or institutional. Sections on wills, heraldry and palaeography, and a summary (much reduced in this new edition) of some of the principal biographical resources, add further to the book’s value. The immense quantity of work that has appeared since 1994 represents a challenge: how is so much to be gathered together so as to make a handbook that will be sufficiently comprehensive, and yet not overwhelming? Most obviously, a wealth of databases and digital resources has transformed matters. Most of them are very much in progress. Pearson has had to make compromises. Thus, several useful references to printed resources in British libraries have been dropped. There are fewer references to the extensive literature on bookplates (here he is more international than in most parts of his volume), while the entries on members of the trade have been both expanded and occasionally curtailed. In accordance with his primary focus on Britain, information on American libraries is much reduced. Some of the notes about miscellaneous exhibitions in libraries have been dropped. On the other hand, he has added a few pages about the main relevant libraries in Australia and New Zealand.

As the book trade, reading, and ownership have long been international, help on overseas resources is always welcome, and Pearson provides some. Only so much can be fitted in between two covers, and he can hardly be seriously chastized for drawing the line where he has. If Roger Stoddard’s Marks in Books has some claim to be the inspiration for ways of looking that we now take for granted, Pearson’s work has proved hardly less crucial. But it is focused mostly on the English language. In Italy, Marielisa Rossi followed both men’s footsteps when she offered an essay in her Provenienze, cataloghi, esemplari in 2001. This was followed in 2009 by an illustrated handbook from Trento edited by Katia Cestelli and Anna Onzo, Provenienze: metodologia di relevamento, descrizione e indicazzazione per il materiale bibliografico. For help in identifying Italian ownership, where so many examples are to be found in British libraries, Carlo Frati’s Dizionario biobibliografico dei bibliotecari e bibliofili italiani, ed. Albano Sorbelli (1933; supplement by Mario Parenti, 3 vols, 1952–60) is a good place to start. To the brief references for collectors in countries other than Britain might also be added the volumes by Piet Buijnsters on the Netherlands (2010) and Belgium (2013). In the Netherlands, the work of Bert van Selm on early auction catalogues was cut short by his tragically early death. In France, attention has largely focused on the Bibliothèque nationale de France, where the printed catalogue of incunabula contains much provenance information, to be indexed in a final volume. In Germany, Austria, and other German collections, the immense Handbuch der historischen Buchbestände edited by Bernhard Fabian (now also online) has in this respect yet to be mined as it deserves. As for the United States, the printed catalogues of the Elizabethan Club at Yale (2011) and the Ahmanson-Murphy collection of Aldines in Los Angeles (2001), both admittedly limited, are often worth a look. Somehow...


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