Tracing history through books

By Meaghan Scanlon

When you’re browsing in a used book store, you might not want to buy something if its pages are covered in marks left by previous readers. For researchers looking to learn more about where a book came from and how it was used, though, such traces are rich sources. Annotations, inscriptions, bookplates, and stamps are evidence of the history of a book’s ownership. This history, referred to as provenance, tells a story about the book and its owners.

Most of the items in the Rare Book Collection at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) passed through the hands of one or more owners before arriving here, and many of them bear physical signs of their former lives. LAC’s second copy of The Polar Regions, or, A Search after Sir John Franklin’s Expedition by Sherard Osborn is an interesting example. LAC acquired this book only a short time ago, in 2015, as a transfer from the department known at the time as Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. But the marks on the book’s pages indicate that it has actually been the property of the Government of Canada for about a century.

A colour photograph of two pages of an open book showing a stamp and a signature on the right-hand page.

Pages from copy 2 of The Polar Regions, or, A Search after Sir John Franklin’s Expedition by Sherard Osborn. A stamp at the top-right corner of the right-hand page reads “Commission on Conservation”; a handwritten signature in ink reads “W.A. Malcolm [?] / Jan’y [January] 1864 / Yokohama.” (AMICUS 6359969)

The book was printed in 1854. The oldest evidence of its provenance comes in the form of a signature on one of the pages that tells us the book spent some time in Yokohama, Japan, in 1864. Above the signature is an oval-shaped stamp reading “Commission on Conservation.” This likely means the book was part of the library of the Canadian Commission of Conservation. This commission was an advisory body established by the government to make recommendations on the stewardship of Canada’s national resources. It existed from 1909 to 1921; we can therefore guess that the book joined the public service during that period. In 1921, when the Senate was debating the Commission’s dissolution, one senator asked whether its “valuable library” would become part of the Library of Parliament’s collection. It seems that the books were instead distributed among the libraries of the various government departments that absorbed the Commission’s functions.

A colour photograph of the front endpapers of an open book showing a bookplate on the left-hand page and four stamps on the right-hand page.

Front endpapers of copy 2 of The Polar Regions, or, A Search after Sir John Franklin’s Expedition by Sherard Osborn, showing marks of past owners. Left: Bookplate from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. Right: Stamps from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (top right), the Lands, Parks and Forests Branch of the Department of Mines and Resources (blue stamps at middle and bottom left), and the Northwest Territories and Yukon Branch of the Department of the Interior (bottom right). (AMICUS 6359969)

This particular item’s Arctic subject matter made it a resource for the people responsible for the Canadian government’s administration of its northern territories. Over the years, this responsibility has landed with various federal bodies. The book apparently travelled with the staff who needed it, staying with them through several changes in bureaucratic structure. Much like the stamps on a passport, the jumbled departmental stamps on the book’s front free endpaper provide an illustration of its journey. After the closure of the Commission of Conservation in 1921, the book went to the Northwest Territories and Yukon Branch of the Department of the Interior (green stamp at bottom right), where it remained from 1922 to 1936. From 1937 to 1953, the Department of Mines and Resources took over northern administration, and got the book as part of the deal (blue stamps at middle and bottom left). Ownership marks from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (black stamp at top right, and bookplate on facing page) and the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources (stamp behind Indian and Northern Affairs Canada bookplate; not visible in photograph) depict the volume’s continuing odyssey through the government.

It is not always possible to glean so much from the traces of a book’s past. Still, next time you find a ratty old tome on a shelf, take a moment to look at what other readers have left behind. Maybe you’ll find more than you expect!

Additional resources

Meaghan Scanlon is a Special Collections Librarian in the Published Heritage Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

The William Redver Stark sketchbooks: the details

Over the next few months, the blog will feature a series of articles to uncover behind-the-scenes conservation work. This work ensures that the Library and Archives Canada collection is maintained, preserved and available for future generations to enjoy. We will be following along as the conservation team conserves the William Redver Stark sketchbooks. We had a preliminary overview of the restoration of the sketchbooks this year as well as a podcast about William Redver Stark. Now over the next months, the team will be conserving the sketchbooks and documenting the conservation process on the blog, Facebook and Twitter.

Examining the sketchbooks: the groundwork

The paper in the 14 sketchbooks is either wove watercolour or wove drawing paper. Wove paper is paper made on a closely woven wire roller or mold and having a faint mesh pattern. Unsurprisingly, the eight sketchbooks with drawing paper do not have watermarks. Watermarks are a design or symbol, such as the maker’s name, that is impressed on a piece of paper and can be seen when the paper is held up to the light. Three of the six watercolour paper sketchbooks have watermarks from different English papermakers.

Colour photograph showing a watercolour sketch of a horse. Along the bottom edge is the faint imprint of a watermark reading “1915 England”

Watermark reading “1915 England” on one of the sketchbooks.

The dimensions of the sketchbooks range from 84 x 126 mm to 145 x 240 mm which makes them roughly the size of a smart phone or a deck of cards. There is no pagination in any of the sketchbooks but a close examination reveals the sequence in which the artist used the sketchbooks—some were used from front to back, some back to front or in a completely random order.

Colour photograph of three stained sketchbooks on a white table with a smartphone beside them to show the relative sizes of the items.

Three sketchbooks laid out beside a smart phone for size comparison.

Further examination reveals other important nuggets of information. Some of the books have bookseller tickets, artists’ colourmen labels or ink stamps. These can provide further information on the composition of the paper, the format and provenance of the book. Some labels indicate the number of pages which is very useful in determining if pages are missing. The examination concluded that many pages were missing from these sketchbooks. The provenance information also reveals that the books came from a variety of book makers and booksellers in London and France and that some were marketed to English, French and German consumers.

Colour photograph of a yellow label with information on the maker of the sketchbook.

An example of an artists’ colourmen label showing the maker, the provenance of the sketchbook, the number of pages and quality of the paper.

The text blocks (the main book body) are composed of signatures of between four to eight folios. A signature is a group of folios. A folio is a single page, folded once. All but two of the sketchbooks were traditionally bound, one with two metal spine rings and another with a stapled binding. These two simple binding structures were hand produced and do not use the commercial industrial manufacturing commonly used in book production at the time. All the sketchbooks have hard board covers. The bindings are plain and utilitarian with no decoration on the covers or spines except for manuscript notations in ink or graphite possibly written by the artist. Two sketchbooks have leather spines with cloth on the boards. The others have beige canvas bindings with an elastic-wrap closure. Most of the sketchbooks have pencil holders.

The sketchbooks have not been previously repaired or conserved and all exhibit multiple minor or major stability issues as follows:

  • pages breaking off at the spine
  • paper tears and pieces of paper broken off
  • missing pages
  • pages out of their original order
  • broken sewing threads
  • weak or broken attachment of text blocks to covers
  • adhesive tape on covers
  • fragile areas on cloth covering and boards

The next article in the series, “The William Redver Stark sketchbooks: page mapping,” will look at how the conservation team determined the order of the pages in the sketchbooks.

Visit Flickr to view more images of the conservation examination.