PROVENIO, or to whom did they belong?

31.07.2016 | What did people in the middle Ages write in books? Or even our grandparents? In what way did they mark books as their property? What form did the interference of censorship and the inquisition take regarding suspicious and harmful books? Between 2012 and 2015 the staff of the Library of the National Museum attempted to answer all these questions within their work on the project “PROVENIO: Methods of researching book provenance”, which was supported by the funds of the NAKI programme (Applied research and development for national and cultural identity) of the Czech Ministry of Culture.

The term book provenance includes a rather wide spectrum of proprietary marks, stamps, bookplates, supralibros (proprietary signs printed on a book cover), handwritten dedications and chronicle records of important events in the lives of book owners, which help to map the journey each book has undergone during its “life”. Who were their owners, how often did they change and how did they come to own the books?

The research was not limited only to the historical books, manuscripts and old prints. It also included modern book collections, which come from the libraries of famous people and make up an important part of the Library of the National Museum. Among these are the libraries of important figures from the public, cultural and political life of the Czech lands, for example: Karel Havlíček Borovský, Julius Zeyer, Jan Neruda, Ema Destinnová, Karel Höger and others.

This project has resulted in two certified methods for the registration of property records in the books along with the owners themselves, and for the identification of stolen books using stamps, signature marks, dedications, written notes and other records in the online database of book owners, PROVENIO, supplemented with visualizations of the existing and former libraries on a Google Maps background. The database contains information about the libraries that survived to this day, and also about collections no-longer existing as a whole, attempting their virtual reconstruction from the extant fragments scattered across libraries all around the world.

The project culminated in the exhibition, “To whom did they belong? Books and their people – collectors and enemies”, which was on show in the Czech Museum of Music from November 2015 until March 2016, and which introduced the most interesting of the originally private libraries in the National Museum, accompanied by objects of everyday use and art from the estates of their owners.

The PROVENIO database, the basis of the entire exhibition, does not record only libraries, but also gives information about other collections of their owners (archives, natural science and art collections, etc.), which came into the Museum’s collections together with libraries, usually as one whole estate, only later being divided among the individual museum departments. This is why the database attempts to put together virtually what was divided in the past.

The provenance research is only at the beginning, and the Library of the National Museum plans to expand it in cooperation with the National Heritage Institute and the castle libraries in the Czech Republic, which in this sense represent a truly inexhaustible source of information.

P.S. Before you throw away or sell a library that you inherited from your parents or grand-parents, look through the books contained in it carefully. You might find in them a note written in their hand, which will make you laugh or cry. Maybe it will say when the children were sick, when their cow had a calf or when their parents died.

Written by Richard Šípek from the Department of manuscripts and old prints at the Library of the National Museum.

What next?

Top items – Head of a Celt

The Retro exhibition in National muzeum

A discovery of world importance!