Guest post: Book inscriptions and family history research

Following on from the success of the recent Family History Show at UWE Exhibition and Conference Centre, Dr Lauren O’Hagan shares some of her top tips for using book inscriptions as an entry point into family history research.


Most of us have dusty, old books tucked away in our attics, cupboards or garages that once belonged to our parents, grandparents or distant relatives. These books are an unexpected and useful resource for carrying out genealogical research. Inscriptions provide us with the names and addresses of unknown ancestors, or they can also offer personal information not found elsewhere about their daily lives and hobbies.

Here’s a guide on how you can use book inscriptions in your family history research:

1. Family Bibles
Considered the ‘life blood’ of Christian families, Bibles were once used to record births, deaths, marriages, and significant life events, such as a child’s illness or a son going off to war. Civil registration was not introduced until 1837 (in England and Wales) and was made compulsory in 1874: Bibles are therefore a useful way to trace your family roots without having to trawl through parish records.

2. Birthday Books and Daily Scripture Books
Popularised in the mid-nineteenth century, these gift books contained printed content and blank spaces to record birthdays. Many owners also used them to document deaths, marriages, funerals, christenings, new jobs, moving house and world events. They are an important way to explore a family member’s social networks.

3. Autograph Books and Confession Books
These books shed light on ancestors’ wit, humour and irony because they required owners, and their family and friends, to answer pre-written questions on their personality, tastes and interests, such as: What is your idea of happiness? What are your favourite qualities in a man/woman? Who is your favourite author?

4. Ownership Inscriptions
This is the most basic form of inscription, consisting of the owner’s name, and may also be accompanied by their address and date of inscription. This information can be essential when starting out on the journey into your family history. Sketches, poems, newspaper clippings, comments and even curses to protect books from theft can also appear alongside an ownership inscription, all of which can help make your ancestor come to life as a person.

5. Gift Inscriptions
Books inscribed as presents from one person to another can show links and relationships between people that may be harder to discern from more official records.

6. Author Inscriptions
These inscriptions are often written by the author to the recipient at a book signing or event, and can give an insight into your ancestors’ reading tastes and interests.

7. Prize Inscriptions and Prize Stickers
Awarding books as prizes for attendance and good behaviour was common across schools, Sunday schools and clubs in Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Books containing prize stickers are a real treasure trove because they contain comprehensive details of the awardee, their address and the specific institution that they attended. This can supply information on their religious denomination, and help focus local archive searches of school and Sunday school records.

8. Bookplates
Bookplates are small, decorative labels used to denote book ownership. Traditionally, bookplates were used only by the upper classes who commissioned artists to custom-design ciphers, rebuses or armorials with heraldic symbols relating to their lineage. These symbols can be identified fairly easily using resources such as the College of Arms database. By the early twentieth century, most bookplates were pictorial and showcased images that reflected anything from an owner’s favourite sport or literary character to their religious or political beliefs. These bookplates offer a whimsical way of discovering the person behind your ancestor’s name.

9. Marginalia
These marks or comments made in the margins of books can give us a sense of our ancestors’ thought process and how they engaged with their books.

10. Booksellers’ and Binders’ Labels
Many books from the Victorian and Edwardian eras feature booksellers’ or binders’ labels, which tell us the specific location that a book was purchased or bound. These labels can often be cross-referenced with the ownership inscription to aid initial census searches.

Hopefully, these handy tips will encourage you to search your house for old books and get starting on your family history research! Enjoy!

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