The bookplate or ex-libris, that personalized printed badge of ownership, is one of the most attractive hangovers from the great days of private libraries and book collections that sadly seems to be dying a slow death with the advent of mass publishing and ebooks – albeit enjoying an afterlife as highly prized collectibles. Paul Biba ran a short TeleRead article four years ago on the “Death of the bookplate.” However, it now appears that news of its demise may have been exaggerated.
A whole new realm of digital bookplates is arising, particularly in the context of academic and other libraries that use them to commemorate gifts and endowments by patrons. Canada’s Western Libraries‘ introduction to its digital bookplate service provides a nice example of the rationale: “A digital bookplate is an attractive digital crest, permanently linked to print and electronic book titles in Western Libraries online catalogue. Digital bookplates bear the name of the individual being honoured or remembered, as well as the name of the thoughtful donor who has chosen to pay tribute.” Western Libraries has been offering this service since at least 2009.
Brown University is just one other example of a fully operational and very well-supported digital bookplate service, placing “a permanent link to each bookplate in the online catalog record for titles acquired through the generosity of the Library’s donors.” Other universities and libraries offering the service include Harvard College Library, the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and even the Hang Seng Management College in Hong Kong.
The possibilities for digital bookplates outside the realm of donations are a little less clear. However, since the cover image seems to be every bit as important for ebooks as their printed predecessors, there seems to be no reason why ebook vendors shouldn’t work out a way to personalize ebooks this way too. And for those like me who like to homebrew their own ebooks by compiling public domain texts into EPUB or Mobi formats, the personalized cover image or bookplate seems a way to go.