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What is a bookplate?

Woodcut bookplate by Albrecht Dürer for Willibald Pirckheimer, c. 1501

The bookplate, or ex libris, is a label giving the owner’s name pasted into a book, or on occasion used to record donation ofthe book to a library. In the western tradition, the bookplate arose in Germany not long after the invention by Johann Gutenberg of printing from moveable type around 1440-1450; the earliest known examples are woodcuts from the late fifteenth century. Since that time, bookplates have been created using the entire range of printmaking and typographic techniques available including, in the modern era, photography and computer aided design.

Early bookplate collecting in England

The first recorded bookplate British collector was Miss Sarah Banks (1744-1818), sister of Sir Joseph Banks. Her collection of approximately 180 bookplates formed but a minute part of her ephemera collection which was presented to the British Museum after her death. The first collectors on a larger scale were a Miss Jenkins of Bath, active in 1820, whose collection is now in the British Museum, and the Rev. Daniel Parsons (c. 1811-1887).  The latter wrote the first recorded article on bookplates, published in 1837 in the Oxford Genealogical and Heraldic Society’s Third Annual Report. Examination of the Banks and Parsons collections suggest that collecting bookplates evolved from the pastime of collecting or preserving coats of arms.

Bookplate societies – then and nowBookplate by Jan Rerberg for the AELS, 1923

As bookplate collecting gathered momentum in the late nineteenth century, the Ex Libris Society was formed in London in 1891, and this interest was trans-planted to Australia by a small number of passionate collectors of bookplates largely in armorial form. Around this time, Sydney solicitor John Lane Mullins commissioned the first Australian pictorial design, and in 1923 he became the founding president of the Australian Ex Libris Society which lasted until 1939, when Lane Mullins’ death and the outbreak of World War II led to the Society’s demise. A brief revival in interest occurred in 1941-4  in Melbourne with the Australian Bookplate Club, but organised collecting had to wait another half century until the formation of the Australian Bookplate Society, which at the present time focuses on an Australian Bookplate Design Award through the Keith Wingrove Memorial Trust.

More information on the history of Australian bookplate societies can be found on this page.

The Society's bookplate by Mary Keep

The New Australian Bookplate Society

The New Australian Bookplate Society was informally launched at a bookplate exhibition held at Blackheath's Stop Laughing This is Serious Gallery in October 2005, attended by artists and other lovers of bookplates.  A year later on 22 October 2006, a meeting to officially form the Society was held in Sydney at the Royal Australasian College of Physicians.

The purpose of the Society is to raise awareness of the art of bookplates among printmakers, collectors and the general public. At present there are approximately 80 personal and institutional members distributed in almost all Australian states as well as New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Members of the Society include artists, collectors and other people who just love the idea of bookplates, old or new. We hold meetings - subject to COVID-life - either virtually or really, and all have an informal atmosphere. A number of members design bookplates, so if you would like your own you might have one made by another member or by someone else in the bookplate world. Many members will pass on or swap their spares with those who are just starting up. The Society has a webpage (of course, you're reading it!) as well as a presence on Facebook and Instagram.

Newsletter and printed materials

The flagship of the Society is its quarterly, full-colour Newsletter, which publishes a range of illustrated articles, letter and notes on historical and contemporary aspects of bookplates. Whilst much content reflects the Australian or New Zealand scene, articles also cover what is happening with bookplates in other parts of the world.

Contributions - or ideas for contributions - are invited from members and non-members; any enquiries should be directed to the Editor, Dr Mark Ferson on +61 401 141 890 or by email at m.fersonATunsw.edu.au More information is available on the Newsletter page.

For information on joining the Society, please go to this page.