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Provenance research in the Conscience Library

Some books contain traces of earlier owners or users. These provenance marks can be used to research the way a book or text functioned in society, or to reconstruct the reading behaviour or book ownership of a person or a group of people.

The ‘provenances search environment’ of our online catalogue allows you to search for persons or institutions (abbeys, museums, …) that have left their mark in books now kept in the Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library. The single search field searches all marks of provenance and returns a list of results that can be narrowed down with facets.

For example, searching for ‘Ortelius’ results in a list of books from the library of Antwerp renaissance cartographer Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598), now in the Conscience library. This way you can discover that Ortelius owned Pandolfo Collenuccio’s Compendio delle historie del regno di Napoli (1548), a work on this history of Napels. Later, the book became part of the library of the Antwerp convent of the Discalced Carmelites.

It is also possible to discover previous owners of a book through the online library catalogue. In the case of this collection of childrens stories by Rudyard Kipling, for example, you get the information that the book is part of the library of the Flemish author Maurice Gilliams, which was acquired by the Conscience library in 2006. Clicking on the catalogue number ‘664458’ brings up a more detailed screen, revealing that the book also carries a dedication to another Flemish author, Willem Elsschot.

Next to provenance marks in books, we are also recording the acquisition of (parts of) library collections of important figures or institutions. The library of Maurice Gilliams, cited above, is an example, where we recorded not only the physical copies from Gilliams’ collection but also added (separate) marks indicating books owned by Gilliams but not added to the collection of the Conscience Library. Like with provenance marks, you can find a separate search engine marked ‘Collections’ in the header of the online catalogue. In this case, you can not only search but also browse the collections. They are arranged either thematically, including collections that are based on genre or subject (e.g. Flemish private presses, youth literature, or incunables, or by collector (e.g. Jules Baetes, Michel Seuphor, or Hugo Verriest) or institution (e.g. the Antwerp Bar Association, the Buschmann printing firm, or the Flemish Esperanto League). Collection descriptions are only available in Dutch.

We have only recently begun adding provenance marks and collection descriptions to the catalogue, and a lot of work remains to be done. Nevertheless, we have already recorded over 15 000 provenance marks and 164 collections. Those numbers will continue to grow over the coming years. If you are interested in doing provenance research, please contact us for additional indexes on ownership marks.