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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.

A stamp on a light beige background. The stamp is black and is rectangular (horizontally,) with the top edge flowing into a downward facing triangle which has the initials 'CMC'. The lettering inside the main rectangle reads 'Museum Britannicum' in capitals, the 'U's in Roman style appearing as 'Vs'.
A library stamp specially cut to include the initials of the previous owner, Revd C.M. Cacherode.


A stamp in the top right hand corner of a document. The document is medium brown, with the stamp being black in colour, in a polygon shape. The stamped lettering within reads 'Museum Britannicum' with the U in roman style, appearing as a V. The lower part of the image is filled with a flowing script that overlaps each other and is difficult to see.
Stamps were often placed near areas of interest such as this inscription on IB 49437

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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).

An annotated stamp, much faded, but red in colour on a white or off-white background. the letters 10, 18 and 144 appear above it in handwriting likely as part of a text. The stamp's internal structure is faded and hard to see, but appeas to be a Lion and Unicorn surrounded a coat of arms topped with a crown. The writing above within the stamp says 'British Museum'.
Annotated library stamp in volume at shelfmark 1462.h.4 [Vitterhets Arbeten by G.F. Creutz and G.F. Gyllenborg (1812)]. 
A much faded stamp, appearing yellowish in colour but likely originally red, on a white paper background. The stamp is ovoid, with 'British Museum' on the (inner) top and bottom, and the date 'SE (for Sept) 1 1905' in the middle.On the page itself is printed 'Vol IV' on the top of the image and at the bottom under two lines of differing thickness, is the date '1903'.
Oval stamp issued on 1 September 1905


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A Type 2 Patent Office stamp, in blue on a pale background. The stamp bears the Lion and Unicorn surrounding the coat of arms and around the top inside the stamp is 'Patent Office' in capitals, and separated by two stars on either side of the sigil, of which underneath is 'Library'.
As seen in the journal The Lancet on 20 February 1915.


A Type 2 British Museum stamp. The ovoid stamp is blue on the pale background of the paper. The stamp bears a large crown in the centre, with four dots on the top and bottom, and two starts at the sides. Above within the stamp. is 'British Museum' in capitals, and the date underneath (also within the stamp) which is 25 October 1920.
British Museum stamp dating 25 October 1920 showing a variation of the crown in an oval

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Type 2 oval stamp. The Stamp is ovoid and is coloured blue, with 'British Museum' under the top edge. The heraldry of the Lion and Unicorn supporting the coat of arms with a crown atop. They in turn are supported by a flowing scroll with unreadable writing.   Type 2 oval stamp. The Stamp is ovoid and is coloured red, with 'British Museum' under the top edge. The heraldry of the Lion and Unicorn supporting the coat of arms with a crown atop. They in turn are supported by a flowing scroll with unreadable writing.

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. This image is a close up of the circular stamp, slightly unusual in that the stamp itself is solidly red, instead of only red lines. The central image is the coat of arms,bound in a circle with latin writing. At the centre edges on the left is '15' and on the right is '44'. underneath (still within the stamp) is 'Feb' in capitals, and above the coat of arms and the five-pointed crown is a banner emblazoned 'British Museum' again in capitals.
Round British Museum stamp with abbreviated date of 15 February 1944.


Type 3 round stamp. This image in close up, is of the red-coloured stamp. This stamp has no bounding lines and is open, though it is still circular. The image is of a large crown, with four dots at the top and bottom corners. Above the crown is 'British' and below it is 'Museum' all in capitals.
British Museum hand stamp used in small books and delicate or rare items


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Type 3 British Museum stamp, as stamped in the bottom left corner on this item. It has the same stamp as the previous image, that which is red and has no bounding lines, with the central large crown and 'British Museum' above and below it in capitals in a circular direction. The surface of the item appears slightly dirty with age at the corner, with possibly old creases or repaired tears. The framing of the image can be seen slightly in the top right corner.
British Museum stamp below an illumination on f.46v of Add MS 36928.


Type 3 British Museum stamp, the same stamp as the previous image, also in red. It lies underneath a portion of text in gothic script of four lines, in dark black font. The text underlines in possibly gold.
British Museum stamp below writing on Cotton Tiberius B8

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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. The stamp is blue and is rectangular in shape. There is no sigil, it is simply, in three lines, 'India Office' '03 Aug 1955' and 'Library' all capitalised. The 'Library and part of 'Office' are only partially visible.
India Office stamp dated 3 August 1955.


Type 4 Document Supply Centre stamp. This stamp is again rectangular, and blue in colour. Within the bounding lines in the top left corner is a logo in the shape of an open book, with 'B' and 'L' on the left and right of the open pages. Next to the logo is 'The British Library' in capitals. Underneath in centre is the date, '18 Jun 1980' capitalised and in a larger font. Underneath above the bottom bounding line is 'Official Publications Library' with 'Official' sitting above.
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

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Type 4 stamp. This stamp is similar to the British Museum solid red circular stamps, but this one is solid Black. The coat of arms surmounted by the Crown is central, surrounded by the latin text. Outside the text on the left and right centre, is two clear circles, the left empty and the right with '81' inside. Above the crown is 'British Library' and belowon top of the bottom boundary is MAY all capitalised.
The words BRITISH MUSEUM were replaced with BRITISH LIBRARY, but retained a similar style to earlier stamps

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

Type 4 stamps. A series of three red stamps on one background. The first is simplistic, boasting a simple crown with 'B' and 'L' on either side at the centre, just over half the size of the crown in size. The middle crown appears much more detailed, with three tiers to the crowns base, and 'B.L' underneath. The third stamp is large than the other two. The Crown is the same simple depiction from the first image, but it has the text 'British library' above and below it, in capitals in a circular manner.
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. The first of these three images of stamps is green, small and faded. It consists of a crown with a slightly curved line through it. There is no text. The second stamp is red and large. It is a three tiered based crown, with 'British Library' above and below in a circular shape. Two dots are either side of the crown in the centre edge. The last stamp is green, roughly the same size as the red, with a crown with four maltese crosses on its base. It has 'I.O.R.' underneath.

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, a series of three. The first stamp is ovoid in shape, and is red, with the Lion and Unicorn supporting the coat of arms and crown in the centre. Above underneath the bounding line is 'British Library' capitalised. The second image is green, and is a slightly flatter ovid shape, like a rugby ball. The same sigil appears, but is smaller and less easy to discern. Above it underneath the bounding lines is 'India Office' and underneath is 'Records' all capitalised. The last image is also green, square and solidly coloured. Inside the square there are two '0's at the left hand corners, and on the right hand corners there is an 'I' and at bottom, a 'C'. In the centre stretching to the bounding lines is a circle, with the coat of arms and small text around the coat of arms, where 'British Library' can be made out. Underneath the coat of arms within the circle is another small circle, with 'Aug' within that.
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


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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