Reading and Documenting the Physical History of Sixteenth-Century English Texts

On March 20, 1939, Henry J.B. Clements (d.1940) addressed the Bibliographic Society on the value of armorial book-stamps. He noted that:

It should be of interest to any one who is the owner or custodian of old books to know something of their former history, and perhaps to trace them back into the hands of their original possessors. Very many books have unfortunately been rebound in modern times, and all signs of pervious ownership that might have been found on the old bindings, or on the fly-leaves, have been destroyed. Some of the great collectors of the early part of the nineteenth century were grievous offenders in this respect, and when we see a fifteenth- or a sixteenth-century volume which has been rebound by Lewis or by Clarke for Grenville or Theodore Williams, we cannot tell what interesting early work may have been destroyed. Far better would it be to have on an old book a rubbed or tattered binding which had been made for Thomas Wotton or for Grolier than the best work of the nineteenth or twentieth century. If, however, we are lucky enough to have an old book in a contemporary binding, then we have a chance to learn something of its history. A signature on the fly-leaf or on the title-page may tell us the name of the original owner, but if he has stamped his arms on the binding, we can often learn from them very much more about him.[1]

Increasingly, scholars turn towards this bibliographic information to enhance their scholarly research. Studying the materiality of the book provides a closer look at book trade, production, readership, etc. While short title catalogs and digital facsimiles facilitate this comparative work, often catalog records only reflect holding information and lack crucial provenance background and physical descriptions. For the past year, I have worked to update our catalog to include the physical history of our sixteenth-century English printed books all the while reporting our holdings to the English Short Title Catalog. Navigating how to incorporate physical descriptions into a record while maintaining RDA, DCRM (b), and MARC standards can be challenging. However, by adding these access points, we enable faculty here at the University of Iowa and outside scholars to more directly facilitate their bibliographic research. These books exemplify some of the updates I have made to the catalog. In the description field of each item I include the binding, provenance, and general notes that I added. The five books printed in 1598 or 1599, they provide a snapshot of English culture, printing, and binding at the end of the century. The other groupings highlight the three descriptions I aim to include in each record: binding, provenance, and unique features. The collection of limp vellum bindings represent a typical sixteenth-century binding style. The various bookplates show one way to determine ownership history. The baptism records in the Bibles provide us with evidence of readership and use. Enhanced catalog records allow us to document not only what we read printed on the page, but also what we can read from the physical object.

[1] Clements, H. J. B. “Armorial Book-Stamps and Their Owners,” The Library XX, no. 2 (1939):121.


Jillian Sparks