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Ex libris

I love books. Anyone who visits this blog can see that. But this is not about books. Rather, I would like to discuss book paraphernalia, namely two items that were created for the ease of book owners and readers: ex libris and bookmarks. Today it’s ex libris.

Ex libris is a Latin phrase meaning, literally from books, but over time it has become a fancy name for bookplates or book labels because it is a common inscription on bookplates, there used to mean from the library/books of.... When books were rare and expensive commodities, their owners would declare their ownership by pasting an ex libris on the inside of the cover. These early bookplates would be specially designed for that owner alone. Typically, the bookplate would include the owner’s name, plus a crest or even a full coat of arms and a motto, and sometimes an admonition to potential thieves, books being precious and valued property.

Bookplates developed over time and heraldic content became rarer and was often replaced by symbolic designs. Death’s heads are common on old bookplates, denoting the brevity of life and the inevitability of death, owls appear as symbols of wisdom and education, and so on. Sometimes the symbols would be personal and sometimes they would simply be small works of art with no special symbolic meaning. Some book owners would own several different designs of bookplates, perhaps changing the design periodically or using different designs for different genres of books.

Over time, ex libris design became quite an art form, and many famous artists and illustrators have designed bookplates, usually commissioned by book and art lovers.

In this age of cheap paperbacks, book plates have fallen out of fashion. It feels rather ridiculous to put a fancy label in a book that is not going to last long, and so the number of bookplate users is today only a small fraction of what it was when most books were hard-bound and long lasting. Many have come to see them as snobbish as they are now mostly used by people who buy and collect hardcovers, or as pretentious relics of another age. They are, however, avidly collected.

I think many ex libris are beautiful works of art and would not mind having them in my books, but I have also seen some that were not so beautiful, usually because they contained sexist, racist or just generally hateful designs.

I would like to have bookplates in my hardcovers, but I still have not found a design I like. I will probably end up designing one myself, something simple that I will not easily grow tired of.

Here are some links to websites that feature bookplates:

American Society of Bookplate Collectors & Designers. Has some short articles, links and samples of bookplates.

The Art of the Ex Libris. Has many examples of bookplates.

Some printable bookplates, courtesy of Nick Bantock.

Many bookplates for kids and teenagers, and a short article.

More bookplates for kids, plus a couple of links to even more.


Lew Jaffe said…
Thought this might also interest you.
Lew Jaffe

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