bookplate ex libris inside book

What is a bookplate? A quick history

Jessica Le

A bookplate (or 'ex libris' - Latin for 'from the library of') is a name label, often illustrated, that's affixed to the inside front cover of a book to denote who the owner is. If you're lending out books to friends, it's helpful to have a bookplate with your name so they know who to give it back to! Bookplates are little pieces of art, history, paper ephemera and book provenance all in one -- you can customise and make your own entirely to your liking. Bookplate art can cover a wide range of interests from birds, ships, mermaids etc

A quick history

Armorial Bookplate of William Overend Priestley, c 1880-1900

The modern bookplate has been around since the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. However the earliest bookplate dates back to Egypt 1353BC. Early modern bookplates often had armorial designs -- as books were expensive to produce and own back then, only the nobility could afford them. These armorial designs included the owner's coat of arms, crest or motto. 

As books became more easily produced and widespread, so did the ownership of bookplates. England in the 19th century had a boom of bookplate collectors and artists. Technological developments in the early 20th century allowed bookplates to be easily reproduced and made way for pictorial bookplates. Here, it was the chief interest to have a bookplate designed reflecting your particular interest.

Bookplates as a collectible object started in the 1800s. Nowadays, a dedicated bookplate collector could have 1000s of bookplate examples collected while major libraries can hold collections of 250,000+. All over the world there are bookplate societies reviving the art of bookplates. 

In using bookplates, know that you have 500 years of art, history, book provenance and paper ephemera all in a tiny little package!

Pictorial bookplate designed by Margaret Ely Webb, 1925.


Jessica Le is the founder of Fleur & Fable. She writes about bookplates and is a member of The New Australian Bookplate Society.

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