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The Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project

Kyle Roberts, Loyola University Chicago

The Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project (JLPP) was launched in March 2014 to create a visual archive of provenance marks from historic Jesuit college, seminary, and university library collections and to foster a participatory community interested in the history of these books.

[caption id="attachment_1286" align="alignleft" width="300"]Nineteenth-century Jesuits never met a book that they didn't like to stamp their name on. This stamp is found on books from Loyola's original library collection (c.1870). Nineteenth-century Jesuits never met a book that they didn't like to stamp their name on. This stamp is found on books from Loyola's original library collection (c.1870).[/caption]

Founded by students, faculty, and library professionals at Loyola University Chicago, the Provenance Project is an outgrowth of an earlier project [] to reconstruct the holdings listed in Loyola’s original (c.1878) library catalog in an innovative virtual library system. That project, which was the subject of a graduate seminar at Loyola in Fall 2013 and will launch later this year, brought together graduate students in Digital Humanities, History, and Public History to recreate the nineteenth-century library catalog in a twenty-first century open source Integrated Library System (ILS). In the course of researching the approximately 5100 titles listed in the original catalog, students discovered that upwards of 1750 might still be held in the collections of Loyola’s Cudahy Library, the Library Storage Facility, and University Archives and Special Collections. A handful of undergraduate and graduate students formed the Provenance Project the following semester to see how many of these books actually survived. As they pulled books off the shelves and opened them up, they discovered a range of provenance marks – bookplates, inscriptions, stamps, shelf-marks, and other notations – littering the inside covers, flyleaves, and title pages of these books. Students soon realized that if the original library catalog could tell them what books the Jesuits collected, provenance marks could reveal from where the books came.


[caption id="attachment_1287" align="alignright" width="411"]The inside covers of books collected by Jesuit can have bookplates, stamps, and sometimes surprising marginalia. From The Spirit of Popery (n.d.) The inside covers of books collected by Jesuit can have bookplates, stamps, and sometimes surprising marginalia. From The Spirit of Popery (n.d.)[/caption]

By utilizing the freely accessible online social media image-sharing platform Flickr, the Provenance Project seeks to create a participatory community of students, bibliographers, academics, private collectors, alumni, and others interested in the origin and history of Jesuit-collected books. A photostream within the Provenance Project Flickr site allows visitors to scroll through all of the pictures that have been uploaded while commenting and tagging functions provide the opportunity to share their own knowledge about specific images. For example, visitors can contribute transcriptions of inscriptions (especially ones written in messy or illegible hands), translations of words and passages in foreign languages, and identifications of former individual and institution owners. Not only does the Flickr site provide a visual index of the rich variety of works held by a late nineteenth-century Jesuit college library, but it also inspires reflection and scholarship on the importance of print to Catholic intellectual, literary, and spiritual life.

The Provenance Project also encourages undergraduate and graduate students to undertake mentored primary-source research on the history of individual books as well as broader themes in Catholic and book history. Their findings are shared with the public in a variety of ways. One of the rooms in the Summer 2014 exhibition, Crossings and Dwellings: Restored Jesuits, Women Religious, American Experience 1814-2014 at the Loyola University Museum of Art (LUMA) featured original library books selected by graduate students and accompanied by interpretative labels they wrote. Student interns regularly contribute original scholarship to the Provenance Project’s website as well as to the June 2015 issue of the Catholic Library World on the "Digital Future of Jesuit Studies." [Citation: “The Digital Future of Jesuit Studies,” Catholic Library World 85:4 (June 2015): 240-259.] They have also given talks on their research at conferences, such as the annual meeting of the American Catholic Historical Association. The 2014 commemoration of the bicentennial of the restoration of the Society of Jesus has brought renewed scholarly to nineteenth-century Jesuits. The work of Provenance Project interns is actively contributing to that resurgence of interest.

[caption id="attachment_1288" align="aligncenter" width="840"]The Flickr photostream for the Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project. The Flickr photostream for the Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project.[/caption]

As of February 2016, students have tracked down all of the surviving books from the list of 1750 titles and are in the process of discerning how many of these titles are actual matches for those in the original catalog. (The answer appears to be the vast majority, making for a much higher survival rate than initially expected.) The team recently posted its 5000th image to the Flickr archive and still has many more images to upload over the coming months. Images on Flickr have also been usefully organized into albums either by nature of provenance mark (stamp, bookplate), part of book (illustrations, endpapers, binding), or division of the catalog (Pantology, Theology, Legislation, Philosophy, History, Literature). For those who would like to contribute to the Project, there are still many passages in need of translation and ownership marks in need of identification (helpfully gathered into the albums “Unidentified Inscriptions”, “Unidentified Stamps”, “Unidentified Embossed Stamps”, and “Unidentified Bookplates”).

Please follow the JLPP on Flickr (@JLPProject), Facebook and on Twitter (@JesuitProject). We try to post new books everyday and scholarship on the blog every week or so during the semester, so check back often!

A final note: the Provenance Project is beginning conversations about expanding the site to include provenance images from the collections of other historic Jesuit college, seminary, and university libraries. If you are interested in learning more about participating, or want information about how to start a project for your own institution, don't hesitate to contact Kyle Roberts.

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