Michigan State University

Special Collections Provenance Project

“If every picture tells a story, as the saying goes, then it can be said that almost every book tells two stories.  One story is obvious, but many books have a second story to tell, and it is the work of the Special Collections Provenance Project to try to determine, from bits of evidence left in the book, the story of the book’s provenance or ownership.  Autographs, inscriptions, dates, library stamps, bookplates, book dealer’s notes, marginalia, binding waste, and similar clues can illuminate our path to discovery and shed light on the history of the books in Special Collections, many of which are centuries old and have been held by numerous owners throughout the world.”

Peter Berg, Interim Head of Special Collections, MSU Libraries

What is the Special Collections Provenance Project?

The Provenance Project at Special Collections, MSU Libraries is an effort to document marks of ownership and marks of use in the libraries' rare books.  We record and study copy-specific information about books in our collection – that is, features that make one particular copy of a work distinct from all other printed copies of that work.  These features can take many forms: bookplates, owner signatures, bookseller’s notes and prices, library marks, unique bindings, handwritten annotations, and more.  By systematically cataloging all of these pieces of evidence, we hope to build a robust online database that can be consulted by students and scholars the world over.

Why study provenance evidence?

By studying these copy-specific features, we hope to learn more about the “life stories” of our books: where they have been, who owned them, and when.  Documenting a volume’s provenance can also often tell us a great deal about the work’s production, distribution, and the ways in which it was read and used.  A detailed provenance record can shed light on historical periods and figures, giving us crucial insight into the habits of readers, the popularity of particular works and genres, as well as the history of the book and the book trade.  Provenance evidence can also help us determine a rare book’s authenticity, and often adds to the scholarly and monetary value of a book.

Where can I learn more?

Most of the work of the MSU Provenance Project is conducted by volunteers.  If you’d like to learn more about the project or volunteer your time, feel free to email project manager Andrew Lundeen (alundeen@msu.edu) with any questions or comments.  You can also follow the project on Twitter (@MSUProvenance) and Tumblr (msuprovenance.tumblr.com), where we highlight interesting finds and share other content related to rare books & special collections librarianship.