Bookplates Complement Collector's Literary Life


Nina Allen, who teaches American Literature in the English Department, is a collector who has amassed about 1,000 bookplates.

“When you think of it, you can have these lovely works of art, and the investment is minimal,” said Allen, who has discovered some of her bookplates in her own book collection.

While mass-produced bookplates offer a space for a bibliophile to sign his or her name, the more interesting collectibles have a name imprinted on them, and the design usually reveals something about the owner.

“Personal bookplates are a collaboration between the artist and the client,” said Allen, who has worked with artists to create her own distinctive designs.

Depicting a literary life

A black-and-white bookplate she uses to identify her personal volumes, incorporates the words “All goes onward and outward” from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”

The image on the wood-engraved bookplate depicts Whitman's departure at the end of the poem, and Allen asked the designer to incorporate Whitman's slouch hat, left behind as a remembrance of the departed poet.

Allen trades her bookplate based on One Thousand and One Nights. The image is a copper engraving depicting Scheherazade as creator, her story “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” and Scheherazade and the sultan after she has told him the story.

Researching owners

One of Allen’s finds – discovered in a $2 book with the cover torn off – is a bookplate depicting a sailing ship and imprinted with the name Samuel Eliot Morison. This Harvard nautical historian retraced Christopher Columbus’s voyages and won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Columbus.

“I like to research the people who once owned the bookplate,” said Allen, who is particularly interested in bookplates designed by and for women.

A German bookplate created for two women academics in the early part of the 20th century tells an interesting story of achievement at a time when there were not many opportunities for women in academia.

“They were deported to a concentration camp and never came back,” said Allen. “You're holding not only a piece of art, but a piece of history, and I feel a connection to the owners. Something may have happened, but you still hold something of them in your hand.”


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Greg Gatlin

Mariellen Norris