Ex Libris

By: Matthew Battles
August 25, 2010

Prospecting on Flickr, I stumbled across the bookplate collection of the Pratt Institute Libraries.

[Bookplate of the War Service Library]

The bookplate is one of the great legacy technologies of the bibliosphere. I call it a legacy technology because its essential purpose, for most of us, is passé; various reading revolutions rendered books cheap and libraries less dear. And yet the glamor remains; many still are tempted to treat mass-market paperbacks with the reverence due a Gutenberg Bible. A bookplate is at its base a somewhat venal, even paranoid kind of brand, a mark of personal property. It can be bookservative and paleobibliophilic —

[Bookplate of Henrik Goth]

And yet it’s also a tiny sovereignty of invention, a patch of graphic possibility that has enticed designers and bibliophiles to marvelous creative feats — as in this elegant juxtaposition of jagged industrialism and reading’s repose:

[Bookplate of Elsa Preuschl von Haldenburg]

Bookplates offer scope for gentle, unsettling gender criticism —

[Bookplate of Hazel Mills Prescott]

— as well as rather more biting social commentary:

[Bookplate of John D. Rockefeller]

For a certain kind of professional bibliophile, the bookplate functions as an advertisement:

[Bookplate of Walter Romeyn Benjamin]

Walter Romeyn Benjamin’s ex libris isn’t only a statement of ownership; it’s also a Facebook page.

This is only a quick and fickle assortment of plates in the Pratt Libraries collection; 1265 images are available in their photostream.


Read-outs, Spectacles