When you see a bookplate pasted inside the front cover of book, do you ever stop to think about the story behind it? If not, we hope our "Rare Book of the Month" post for June will give you food for thought.
The Mexican Bookplate Collection in UNM’s Center for Southwest Research & Special Collections contains rare examples of bookplates dating back to the 1700s, plus many others from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, totaling nearly 200 in all. Though it is easy to admire bookplates as art, few of us ever take the time to unearth the stories behind them—stories that often help us understand the context in which books were consumed and the functions they served.
Here are a few ideas we’ve come up with about why bookplates are worth studying. If you can think of others, please leave a comment below. We’d love to hear your thoughts!
One thing that bookplates help us do is trace the movement of books over time and fit them into larger historical frameworks. For example, in the eighteenth century, the monastery of Saint Francis in Mexico City placed ownership labels inside the books in its library, which was dispersed after the dissolution of Mexican religious orders in the mid-nineteenth century. What books did the collection once contain? Where did they come from? Where are they today? How did they end up in their current location and what impact have they subsequently had? Bookplates are a starting point for answering these questions.
Bookplates can also raise and/or answer questions such as: How did books travel? Does our perception or appreciation of a text or author change based on where or when a book was read? How did knowledge and culture circulate? Nineteenth-century Mexican libraries, for example, typically contained many French books, mirroring the cultural aspirations of Mexico’s elite at that time. Although French in origin, the influence of these books clearly extended beyond the borders of France. If for no other reason, bookplates are important as reminders that books are unruly objects that can rarely be pinned down to a single place and time.
Changing tastes in art and design, the rise of the reading public, and books’ symbolic significance are other topics that bookplates can shed light on. Eighteenth-century bookplates were usually armorial or allegorical, reflecting that era’s preoccupation with ancestry, social status, and visual didacticism. In the nineteenth century, designs took on a more whimsical and individualistic tone and almost always give us a glimpse of a book owner’s personality, providing material for studying how people have used book collecting to create their personal "brand," identity, and in some cases legacy.
Several items in UNM’s Mexican Bookplate Collection belonged to important Mexican bibliophiles, such as José Maria Andrade and Joaquín García Icazbalceta. Their bookplates, as well as others with national motifs such as Aztec or Maya imagery, tell the story of the nineteenth-century origins of the large-scale collecting of rare books, manuscripts, and other cultural objects related to Mexico. Bookplates can help ensure that historical collections remain together, or, if they have already been integrated into other collections, that their significance is not overlooked or forgotten with the passing of time. The great story, after all, is not always the one told by a book's author. Sometimes it is in the journey a book has taken or the people, places, and events it has shaped.