Collection Care blog

23 September 2013

A Guide to British Library Book Stamps

Did you know that ownership stamps are applied to items accepted into our collections?

Ownership marking is the application of the official British Library ownership stamp. The ownership stamp is used for security purposes and in tracing the provenance of the collections. Examination of the book itself is quite often the best place to start when trying to establish the history of an antiquarian book, and library stamps (acquisition stamps and book stamps) might indicate how and when it was acquired. Ownership of an item was routinely shown by the British Museum, and subsequently the British Library, by using inked stamps. These stamps give a fairly precise date of receipt for the volume leading to entries in acquisitions registers or invoices. A series of stamps was compiled by René Payne in 2007 from which many of the examples in this post have been taken.

Our Library stamps are generally divided into four types according to when they were in use ranging from 1753 up to the present day. 

TYPE 1: 1753–1836

From 1753 to around 1836 stamps containing the words MVSEVM BRITANNICVM or MUSEUM BRITANNICUM were in use. The shape and arrangement of the stamp varied over the years and sometimes contained the initials of the previous owner.

Type 1  Type 1 on IB 49437

 CC by Figure 1: Left: A library stamp specially cut to include the initials of the previous owner, Revd C.M. Cacherode. Right: Stamps were often placed near areas of interest such as this inscription on IB 49437

TYPE 2: 1837–1929

Type 2 stamps covered the period 1837-1929 and were oval in shape. They contained the royal arms flanked by a lion and unicorn beside the words BRITISH MUSEUM. Between 1837 and 1849 stamps were annotated with a pencil to indicate the exact date of entry in the acquisitions records. They occur in the shape of a diamond giving the date of acquisition and a reference line in the Acquisitions Register. In the example shown below from the Help for Researchers webpage, moving clockwise from the left the numbers represent  the month of acquisition (10 = October), the year of acquisition (44 = 1844), the day of acquisition (18 = 18th), and the entry line in the Acquisitions Register for that day (line 144).

Type 2 annotated stampType 2 oval stamp      

CC by Figure 2: Left: Annotated library stamp in volume at shelfmark 1462.h.4 [Vitterhets Arbeten by G.F. Creutz and G.F. Gyllenborg (1812)]. Right: Oval stamp issued on 1 September 1905

Type 2 Patent Office stamp  Type 2 British Museum stamp

CC by Figure 3:  Left: As seen in the journal The Lancet on 20 February 1915. Right: British Museum stamp dating 25 October 1920 showing a variation of the crown in an oval

Type 2 oval stamp  Type 2 oval stamp

CC by Figure 4: Oval stamps containing the royal arms flanked by a lion and unicorn with the words BRITISH MUSEUM; used 1837-1929. An abbreviated date of acquisition may be added, either with another inked stamp or in pencil. Note the variation in design. After 1929, the stamp was changed to Figure 5 (left)

TYPE 3: 1929–1973

Type 3 stamps were used from 1929 to 1973. They consist of round stamps containing the royal arms but no lion or unicorn, and the words BRITISH MUSEUM. Earlier stamps included an abbreviated date of acquisition e.g. in Figure 5 (left) the date is 15 February 1944.

Type 3 round stamp  Type 3 round stamp 

CC by Figure 5: Left: Round British Museum stamp with abbreviated date of 15 February 1944. Right: British Museum hand stamp used in small books and delicate or rare items

Type 3 British Museum stamp on Add MS 36928  Type 3 British Museum stamp on Cotton Tiberius B8
CC by Figure 6: Left: British Museum stamp below an illumination on f.46v of Add MS 36928. Right: British Museum stamp below writing on Cotton Tiberius B8

TYPE 4: 1973–present day

Type 4 stamps reflect the time when items were stamped with the words BRITISH LIBRARY rather than BRITISH MUSEUM - a key turning point in the History of the British Library. The British Library Act was passed by Parliament in 1972 which brought the Library into operation from 1 July 1973.

Type 4 India Office stamp   Type 4 Document Supply Centre stamp

CC by Figure 7: Left: India Office stamp dated 3 August 1955. Right: Document Supply Centre's official publication stamp dated 18 June 1980. It has been suggested that it differs from the round stamp because of where the item was received i.e. received in Yorkshire rather than London

Type 4 stamp

 CC by Figure 8: The words BRITISH MUSEUM were replaced with BRITISH LIBRARY, but retained a similar style to earlier stamps

These round stamps have been applied to early printed books acquired since 1973.

Type 4 stamps
CC by Figure 9: Left: Hand stamp for a delicate or rare item. Centre: Crown hand stamp for Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections material. Right: Hand stamp for antiquarian material


Type 4 stamps

CC by Figure 10: Left: hand stamp for a delicate or rare item. Centre: Hand stamp for manuscripts. Right: India Office hand stamp for small 'claim material' items. Treated as BL collection

The stamp in Figure 11 shows the initials OIOC (Oriental and India Office Collections) which now reside within the Library's Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections.

Type 4 stamps
CC by Figure 11: Left: Oval hand stamp for manuscripts with the words BRITISH LIBRARY. Centre: India Office hand stamp for non-small 'claim material' items. These items were treated as part of the British Library collection. Right: Library stamp from previous Oriental and India Office Collections. Use of this stamp ceased on 1 September 2005

Significance of the ink colour

Different colour ink was used for library stamps depending on the purpose. All inks have been tested to ensure they comply with conservation standards.

  • Blue ink represents legal copyright deposit material of British, Irish or colonial origin including material from the Old Royal Library 
  • Red ink typically indicates a purchased item, but a square red stamp may indicate that a book was donated as part of the Edwards Bequest 
  • Black ink was used on a wide range of early acquisitions, including books from the library of Sir Hans Sloane; on purchases made in 1781–1798 and 1804-1813; and on copyright deposit materials received 1813–1816. It was re-introduced for much of the 20th century to indicate materials acquired through international exchange. Black ink was discontinued on 1 September 2005
  • Green ink represents a donation made since 1944, or an exchange item
  • Yellow/orange ink represents donations made between 1768–1944 
  • Brown ink represents a donation made before 1768

While library stamps are a useful aid in determining the history of a collection item, it has been noted that many items were stamped much later than their acquisition date and mistakes are known to have occurred. Library stamps should provide just one piece of a greater body of evidence for determining both the circumstance and date of acquisition. Clues may also be found on bindings, bookplates or inscriptions. 

Ownership marking is carried out at St Pancras and Boston Spa in secure areas with restricted access. Our colleagues in the Operations Division are responsible for stamping any new material that comes into the library. A new system is being introduced very soon which we will cover in a future post. Thanks to Graeme Bentley, Goods Inward/Finishing Team Manager, for input on this topic.

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)

Imaging Scientist


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A message from Edmund MB King (formerly worked at the BL 1975-2012):

"For those who want to know more about the identification of printed books, using their stamps, in the early years of the British Museum, the detailed article by P.R. Harris entitled: "Identification of printed books acquired by the British Museum, 1753-1836, is Appendix I of 'Libraries within the Library; the origin of the British Library's Printed Collections', London: British Library, 2009, pp. 387-428."

Though obviously unlikely in the Library's current collections, I've seen a variety of colorful discard stamps over the years such as this 1889 "duplicate" stamp: Now at Penn:

A good reference for provenance research using library stamps can be found in Provenance research in book history: a handbook, by D Pearson (London, 1994. repr. 1998). [RAR090.16], with specific mention of BM and BL stamps.

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