Book Owners Online – https://bookowners.online – is a new, freely available online database aiming to build a directory of historic book owners, to help answer questions like “whose is this inscription or bookplate in front of me?”, or “how do I find out if someone owned books, what kind, how many, where they might be today?”
By putting together information about many owners, it also provides opportunities to develop better understandings of any particular private library within a broader contemporary context. It’s an electronic publication of the Bibliographical Society, in partnership with the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters at University College London (where the database has been developed, and is being hosted); getting it to its current state has been funded by the Society, and the Lyell Electors at the Bodleian Library.
It may be observed that we already have online quarries for provenance research. It’s true that this is indeed a growing field – we now have a huge quantity of data in library and book dealers’ catalogues, but cross-searching it is not easy. We have a whole host of resources under the banner of CERL, most obviously MEI and its satellite database Owners of Incunabula, and also other national and international projects listed on the CERL website. A unifying theme of most of these is that they start from books: here is a comprehensive survey of the ownership evidence from this library, or group of books, here is a showcase from this collection.
BOO starts from the other end, creating a framework within which data about provenance, private libraries and ownership history can be entered and searched, based around a backbone of owners’ names. It uses evidence of many kinds, including sale catalogues, wills, inventories, images, the existence of bookplates or armorial stamps, as well as surviving books, to assemble a list of people who we know to have owned private libraries. There are complementary projects built on transcripts of lists and inventories, such as Private Libraries in Renaissance England (PLRE), which have so far focused a lot on the earlier part of the handpress period. For American owners (and selectively, more widely) LibraryThing’s Legacy libraries is steadily building a bigger picture.The first phase of BOO, now online, covers 17th-century England, defined as people who died between 1610 and 1715.
Its philosophy clearly begs many questions. How big does a library have to be, to merit inclusion? How do we know where to draw the lines? What it isn’t, and never can be, is a comprehensive list of all the names found inscribed in all our books; that would be too huge. It does aim to cover all kinds of people, schoolmasters as well as college heads, curates as well as archbishops; it’s deliberately called Book Owners, not Book Collectors, because the C-word may not be right for the mindset of earlier centuries. Each entry has a standard structure, built around what we know about their libraries, together with brief biographical details; it may include images and information about characteristic ways of marking books, if available, and the location of surviving examples. This should help users to identify further books from particular libraries.
It aspires to become a first place to look, but definitely not the last word; references provide signposts to further sources. Some of these owners are people about whose libraries whole books have been written, others are much less documented. It does not encompass, or transcribe, the contents of entire libraries; that too would make for an unmanageably large task, with a different rationale, but anyone embarking on those kinds of projects should find it relevant for ideas or context. The database is built using the software that underpins Wikipedia, which is user- and editor-friendly; it’s quick and easy to correct or augment entries, and to add new ones. The introductory pages on the website give more information about the content and the way it works.
Where do we go from here? The database currently has a little under 1400 entries in it, which is hardly a complete list of historic British book owners. It needs to be expanded, most obviously chronologically, but also geographically. Its design is intended to be scalable, and also to permit its opening up to a wider pool of editorial input. Its current small team, and seedcorn funding, will not readily get us to a database that covers the early modern period, and the British Isles, comprehensively (which might be thought to be a minimal ambition to make it really useful), but we hope that we have at least created a proof of concept, a model to show what can be done. Some element of crowdsourcing looks like an obvious direction of travel, though we would need to handle the equally obvious issues of quality control and moderation. The 16th century is better covered by PLRE and other resources than the later period, and extending the timeline into the 18th century would surely be more useful to more people, though the number of names that need to be added then grows hugely.
What we need right now is engagement. If BOO has a value, it will lie in becoming a community resource, having developed enough of a critical mass of information to be regularly checked not only by by academic book historians and librarians, but also by dealers, collectors, and anyone who works with early books. We would like to encourage all those audiences to have a look, and let us know how it could be made more useful, or what our priorities should be going forward. Many entries can be improved by those who know more about particular libraries. We would also ask you to help spread the word of its existence, by citing it where relevant, by mentioning it in tweets and social media posts, and by adding links to it from other websites and projects. BOO has a Contact Us page and we will be glad to hear from you.
David Pearson, Hon Senior Research Associate, UCL