The description of ownership book provenance has an important informative value both in terms of the history and formation of particular book collections and units and in terms of the history of book culture in general.
The study of book history is based on the knowledge of the content of the libraries and book collections of both individuals and institutions: that is why in the first phase we place so much emphasis on the information-saturated cataloguing of book collections and the description of individual book copies in view of provenance, that is the reason that we study archival sources (book inventories, lists of bequeathed books, books of accounts etc.) when book collections have not been preserved.
Our knowledge of the history of book culture, history, literature and culture in general cannot be complete unless we have the corresponding knowledge from the area of reading history, unless we know what our ancestors read, why they read it (and if they read at all), what readers’ taste they had, what their reading habits were, determined by the time and society, how they manifested their interest in books and reading both externally and covertly. Not only is the study of the reading mentality of our ancestors a historical theme, but it mainly has great social-cultural importance for us now, because it makes it possible for us to learn more about ourselves by looking in the mirror of history, it is one of the ways of learning about our cultural past and of realising (and not losing) our cultural identity, a phenomenon that deserves our attention in view of not only history, literature, but also sociology and psychology.
In many cases, however, individual book copies identifiable in terms of their owners (about whom we often know only that they owned interesting books and were remarkable readers) tend to be scattered in diverse collections, so that the physical as well as bibliographical reconstruction of the original book wholes is either entirely impossible or very difficult. In other cases, it may be the other way round. Coincidentally, with the circumstances sometimes being even unfortunate, it has been possible to preserve some bibliophilically noteworthy book collections in their relative integrity.
The investigation of book provenance may often be an almost detective enterprise, because books, just like people, ‘travelled’ in space and time and their ‘fates’ were frequently affected by various unfavourable external influences (censorship, fires, floods, moving and division, both natural and forced, thefts, physical liquidation etc.), so we are not always lucky enough to be able to study a whole that is compact and intact in terms of provenance. The former owners sometimes did not leave any specific ‘trace’ behind and that a particular book once belonged to them is more or less only a speculation (on the basis of a printed dedication or based on its being part of a greater whole whose provenance is known etc.), or they left evidence that they had not read the book at all (uncut copies, often in libraries of some famous bibliophiles etc.). Some books reveal also the professions (the medical and botanical literature in the libraries of physicians and surgeons, books with a military theme in the libraries of warriors, the literature on art and architecture in the libraries of painters or architects etc.) and interests (e.g. a collection of plays by some author or from some period, travelogues) of their owners. In many cases, the selection of the titles as well as of the language of the works may indicate the reader’s nationality, characterise the owner in terms of his/her religion, his/her contacts with a certain milieu etc.
Concerning the informative value, many provenance records may at least briefly characterise both direct and indirect expressions of the readers’ interests in books and reading.
In the first place, these include direct traces, left by the owners in the books. They comprise textual information inside the book and the information provided by the book binding. The textual information may appear as manuscript ex libris, dedications to a particular person or institution, in the form of other accompanying material added by the author, the reader’s notes on the content, on the author of the work, bibliographic references, translations of individual words or parts of the text, underlined text, manicules, notes on the price of the book, the binding, the place and the date of the book’s purchase (at the margin, or on flyleaves, pastedowns or on separate slips of paper inserted in the book), textual and illustrative additions not related to the text (short verses, testaments, simple pictures, illustration colouring etc.) as well as in the form of artistically conceived printed ex libris pasted in the books or simple stamps containing the owner’s full name or only initials or coat-of-arms. According to his/her financial situation and taste, the author could select the book binding, material, commission its execution (if we leave aside books that have remained unbound or that had already been bound when the owner received them). The costliness of the binding, the material used, the decoration in the form of heraldic, emblematic and monogrammatic super ex provide telling testimony of the owner. Also the selection of the works and their ordering in terms of content in the case of binder’s volumes often contain valuable information. Various traces of the manipulation with the books, the method of their storage and deposition as well as their handling also characterise the owner. The books may be damaged by frequent usage (they are thumbed, worn, their pages are dog-eared) or by bad handling (they are dirty, stained with colour, ink, food, they are torn, their pages are wrinkled, some of them may have had their pages or illustrative supplements cut out, earlier manuscript ex libris scratched out or cut away, show traces of censorship etc.). They may show signs of the reader’s lack of interest (perfectly preserved copies, often with uncut leaves), or on the other hand signs of the fact that they were popular with the readers (besides the already-mentioned manifestations of textual character and besides the worn-out condition of the books, these include also various bookmarks and inserted pressed dried flowers). However, they may on the other hand testify to the careful handling on the part of the owner (for instance they have the missing folia bound into them, added in handwriting, they have been restored, although not always appropriately etc.). They may bear traces of improper storage (they have been damaged by dust, moisture, woodworm or rodents, have been attacked by mould and mildew, or they on the contrary have cracked parchment binding as a result of too low humidity, have the book cover and book block singed if they have suffered in fire etc.). Information is provided also by the system of the shelf marks and placement of the books in the library, specifically not only the selected type of shelf marks but also the outer finish of the books in connection with their placement on book shelves (painted book spines, the method and type of writing on the book spine or edges etc.). The condition of the books may also testify to their having ‘travelled’ – this may be indicated not only by their size (the pocket editions of dictionaries, travel guides or prayer books) but also by their bearing traces of having been tied with a twine, of having been folded, or even by providing evidence that they have been sent as correspondence (for example in the case of topical leaflet messages) – apart from the traces of having been folded in the shape of a letter, they may also contain the name of the addressee of the parcel etc.
Secondly, these include indirect traces and indirect evidence, which provides information on the reading preferences and taste of individual owners. They comprise mainly documents of archival and documentation character (personal correspondence, dairies, books of accounts, testaments and library inventories, preserved book catalogues), and in the case of owners active in literature and science also their own literary production or scientific work.
The electronic cataloguing of library collections in the form of mutually shared databases making it possible to search data effectively may accelerate the complicated process of the provenance reconstruction of book collections. The form of structured electronic databases provides a tool that may significantly help to create a comprehensive picture of book collections limited by their provenance and that may provide information on their journey in space and time, on their owners and their reading preferences.
Determining book origin, the book–reader connection, is immensely important in terms of the whole history of book culture. It is indisputable that the main factor naturally but substantially affecting both the quantity and quality of book production, book trade and book market as well as the method of literary and reading reception, is precisely this primary connection of book–reader. Books did not travel in a limited geographical area but in the entire area of the known world; and frequently it was not a single movement in one direction. It was a series of journeys, in various directions and various waves; it was a movement of wholes as well as individual items, a movement that was both logical and illogical, controllable and uncontrollable. In any case, it was a journey of books from one reader to another, and that even in the case of forced transportation (e.g. taking books away during wars), which was immediately motivated by financial interests. It is however correct to speak of the journeys of the books as a completed process of the past: in a certain sense it is an ongoing process that has not been completed or a process whose consequences affect the present.
The creation of a historical European or world map of the journeys of books is therefore justly one of the main tasks of today’s book science. It will allow us to know ourselves in relation to the book, book culture.