Book Owners Online: a new online resource for book historians

Approaching the history of books through their ownership and use has become standard thinking and we have seen a great increase in work on provenance, private libraries, the history of reading, the book as a material object – there are many ways of badging it. Library catalogues and other databases now contain huge quantities of data on former ownership of books. What we do not have is a directory of owners, where we can turn for up to date information on the size, contents and fate of people’s libraries, to help identify markings and to place particular books in a wider context.

Book Owners Online – has been created to fill that gap. Based on the software than runs Wikipedia, it is designed as an easy-to-use database built round a backbone of owners of all kinds, with details of their careers and libraries, and on where to look for more information. It includes images of characteristic markings, where these can be obtained, such as inscriptions, bookplates and armorials. It gathers evidence from a wide range of sources – surviving books, lists and inventories, sale catalogues, information from wills, use of bookplates, and more – rather than from any particular libraries. It is not a comprehensive provenance index for all the names to be found in books – which would be a different undertaking – but concentrates on people who we know owned enough books to justify a narrative.

The project is a collaboration between the Bibliographical Society and the Centre for Editing Lives & Letters at UCL, with support from the the Bodleian Library. It currently covers only seventeenth-century English book owners – people who died between 1610 and 1715 – but it is designed to be scalable and we hope to expand it chronologically and geographically.  This first phase is now ready to be used and we would like to encourage the book-historical community to discover it, engage with it, and give us feedback on improving it . We’d be very grateful if you could help to publicise it any way you can, through links on websites or social media,  by citing it or reviewing it, by telling your colleagues and students.

It’s not perfect and it never will be. It’s an online database, free to access, easy to edit. We hope it will be useful and become embedded in our book-historical reference landscape – do please have a look.

The Book Owners Online team

August 2020