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Iron & Glass

Exploring Ex Libris

by Johanna Bauman on 2023-03-22T09:52:00-04:00 in Archives, Book Arts, Graphic Design, Pratt Institute Archives | 0 Comments

Post Contributed by Matt Garklavs, Electronic Resources Librarian, Assistant Professor

A few years ago I took an interest in the bookplates at Pratt. This topic had nothing to do with my daily work as the Electronic Resources Librarian, but I figured it would be fun to take a break from being on a computer all day and do some hands-on research with some old-timey stuff. I initially explored this topic to see how the one used in our collection had evolved over time. I assumed a school like Pratt would make for an interesting case study on this niche little part of library branding. Instead what I found was a series of unsuccessful, but admirable attempts to reinvent a small part of the Institute’s identity. Spoiler alert: nothing has changed! 


First Pratt Institute Library Bookplate with the Pratt Seal, 1890s. Bookplate Collection. Pratt Institute Libraries' Special Collections.


Library bookplates are widely used to document ownership of items in any given collection.  These are printed labels that are typically pasted on the front endpaper or the inside cover of a book. When the Pratt Institute Free Library opened in 1890, it adopted the Institute’s seal as its first bookplate. The origin of the seal was a collaboration between Charles Pratt, the founder of the school, and Walter Scott Perry, the first Director of Pratt Institute’s School of Fine and Applied Arts. In a draft of his reminiscences on the history of Pratt, Perry offers a grand vision to support this design decision:

"This seal was designed with circles holding symbols of art, literature, science, labor and skill and industry. The Brooklyn Bridge was included in the design as an illustration of one of the world’s great achievements in scientific and perfected technical and labor construction, and also for another reason.  It was believed that the time would come when the bridge might be symbolic of the far reaching influence of Pratt Institute, stretching out from Brooklyn to Manhattan, and beyond (as a connecting influence) to all parts of the country."


Various Sketches for the Pratt Institute Seal. Charles Millard Pratt Papers. Pratt Institute Archives.

The Pratt seal is a relic of the 19th century. It contains aesthetics, symbols, and design choices that all reflect the traditional values and vision that Mr. Pratt intended for the Institute. While much has changed at Pratt over the past 130 years, the seal he selected has remained frozen in time. In fact, it’s become an ubiquitous image at the Institute. You can find it on diplomas, stationery, and even merchandise. For the most part the seal serves its purpose. It reflects a deep history and a connection to the place. What’s not to like?

Enter Librarians. In its capacity as a bookplate in the library collection, the seal has faced some scrutiny from a few reputable sources. To better understand what constitutes a “good” library bookplate, consider the  advice offered in the introduction of Bookplates for Libraries by William Hollman: 

"A library by its very nature is a renaissance institution and the typefaces used in its publications should reflect this warm and human tradition…. A librarian should study and examine many varieties of tasteful bookplates in order to perceive design, color, and relationship as expressed by an artist's feeling for space, light, color, and warmth. One should become aware of what is appropriate. Then you will begin to see with a learned eye why certain types belong and others are completely out of character with the institution that one is trying to represent."

The aesthetics discussed in this passage are part of the tradition of Ex Libris.  Ex Libris refers to making bookplates with decorative and stylistic elements for private or public collections.  It’s a quirky little medium and Pratt Libraries are lucky to possess an extensive collection of these materials that are digitized and available to be seen in person.  When looking through this collection, you discover that bookplates are more than a trivial label on a blank page. The items here are deeply intricate and nuanced possessions. In this light, a bookmark can be appreciated as a work of art that is imbued with the essence of its owner.

The Library’s Ex Libris Collection played a part in the Pratt seal facing its first contender as a bookplate. There’s not a lot known about the collection’s origins, but the Report of the Pratt Institute Free Library from June 30, 1918 shows that it was started around 1917 during World War I. When looking through past annual reports, you find a stark contrast between references to the atrocities happening overseas and the humdrum updates about collecting bookplates. The disparity of this juxtaposition was not lost on the librarians who authored the report:

"It takes some courage to allude to bookplate collecting just now. Fads, hobbies, and the gentle penchants of leisurely lives, the arts of refined indulgences, seem to have passed into the lore of a bygone age. To make a beginning of ex-libris in 1918 might give the impression of bad taste or foolish optimism. The pursuit may be considered rather hackneyed, anyway, and, to initiate it at this time, strangely incongruous… So we are reminded that “ art is long,” and that beauty will survive the desecration of nature and of cathedrals."  

This passage actually resonates with me on a personal level. When I discovered it back in early 2020 during my initial research for this post, I was amused by the bloated language and heavy sentiments. Looking at it now after living through three years of COVID I see where they’re coming from. It’s worth noting that 1918 was the last time the world went through a global pandemic so in that respect I see my forerunners at Pratt as kindred spirits. Who would’ve thought that over 100 years later there would be another librarian doing research on bookplates as a form of escapism but here we are!  

Two years prior to the publication of the Ex Libris Collection report, the Libraries celebrated the 20th anniversary of its Brooklyn building. To commemorate this occasion, they commissioned Edmund Hort New, a prominent illustrator of his time and associate of William Morris, to sketch the library building. In the annual report for 1916, they explain the services of Mr. New were sought out given his reputation as a “pen draftsman of distinction whose exquisite architectural and landscape sketches adorn many books and editions” in the Pratt Institute Library. New was also known for creating bookplates for public and private libraries so this commission presented an opportunity to use his illustrations for that purpose as well. 



Edmund Hort New's Bookplate Designs.1925. Records of the Library. Pratt Institute Archives.

New’s illustrations are an exquisite display of his craftsmanship. You can see the same level of care, detail, and precision that is a hallmark of his other work. While the initial intent here was to have these illustrations serve as a “frontispiece” to the library's annual reports, later documents reveal that they also served as bargaining chips to expand the  Ex Libris collection. In the Annual Library Report from 1919,  they emphasize the value of New’s work  given  “the library’s handicap in not having hitherto a notable bookplate of its own to exchange.” While the bookplate containing the Pratt seal is not explicitly mentioned in this report, the fact that it was in use at the time and they saw this as a “handicap” suggests they didn't hold it in the highest estimation.   

So what happened to all these wonderful plates? Were they all bartered away to other libraries? Did any of them get put to use? Did Pratt sell them off to raise money for war munitions? My own sleuthing of our Historic Book Arts Collection found that some older items include New's work, but the illustrations he made of the building itself are limited to the library's annual reports from that period. It’s a shame these contributions weren't distributed more widely in the collection because he did really fine work. That said, It’s easy to imagine a project like this fading into obscurity given what was going on in the world at large back then.

Bookplate designed by E.H. New for the Book Arts Collection in 1929. The Latin inscription translates to "Like runners, they bear the lamp of life," referencing the way books allow information to be passed from one generation to another. Bookplate Collection. Pratt Institute Libraries' Special Collections.

The paper trail on this topic ends here so it’s unclear what transpired after the 1910s. What we do know is that two decades later there was a second attempt to redesign the Pratt seal, which was still in use as the Library’s bookplate. The year was 1936 and the Institute was celebrating its 50th anniversary. To commemorate this milestone, Edward Stevens, the Library Director at that time, solicited the services of William Addison Dwiggins to come up with a fresh look for the library's bookplate. Dwiggins was a legendary illustrator and calligrapher known for designing book jackets for classic novels. Even if you don’t know him by name, there’s a good chance you’ve seen or held something he worked on while browsing around an old bookstore. He’s also loosely attributed with coining the term “Graphic Design”, so there’s that. 

Dwiggins’ work for Pratt never made it past the draft phase, but it provides an amusing “what if..” scenario on how a virtuoso of the craft would’ve redesigned the Library’s bookplate. In his letter to the library director, Dwiggins doesn’t hold back in throwing shade on the Pratt seal. 

“The P 1 device [this code refers to the original seal] is such a terrible case that it tempted me to make some sketches to see what a doctor could do. They are not “on the job”, but exhibits in a graphic arts course!”

Letter from W. A. Dwiggins to Pratt Library Director Edward Stevens. January 28, 1936. Vertical Files Collection. Pratt Institute Archives.

There you have it. The Pratt seal was so abominable to the critical eye of an artistic authority like Dwiggins that it inspired him to work for free! His letter to Stevens included four sketches, each one slightly more nuanced than the last. Collectively they show Dwiggins deconstructing every element of the Pratt seal with surgical precision and sharp wit. Here are some snippets from those sketches I think you might enjoy: 

Sketch 1: “This…bookplate is pure 1890 with all the glories of that time: confused planes, confused idioms, confused ‘art’.” 

Sketch 2” Too much like a whiskey label” 

Sketch 3: “The workout of the ‘humanities’ and scene pleases me, and is as correct a translation into “graphic” of the Original Committee's written instruction to the seal (God help them) as the bookplate statement.”

Sketch 4: “Beehive label a “device” (Interesting?) on the book-plate bubbles. If it is “must” to have the labels, ART etc, dead against the symbols, some reworking of this might be tried— but beehive?”



Pratt Institute Seal Designs with Criticism by W. A. Dwiggins,1936. Charles Millard Pratt Papers. Pratt Institute Archives.

Ouch! This is certainly some provocative stuff! On a side note: The thought of a person in 1936 thumbing their nose to the design aesthetics of the 1890s is pretty hilarious. The fact that our seal seemed old-fashioned even back then also says a lot! 

This colorful correspondence seemed like the auspicious start to a wonderful collaboration, but sadly that never transpired and the story ends here. Given that Dwiggins was a prolific designer working at the height of his creative abilities in the 1930s I imagine he quickly moved on to the next project. Unfortunately, for Pratt, this was another missed opportunity and once again the Pratt seal rode off into the sunset leaving another artist with hat in hand.  

It doesn’t appear that the Libraries ever returned to the bookplate drawing board after this point.  I did, however, come across a master's thesis from an alumna named Sandra Brannon that focused on redesigning the Pratt seal. Using principles of design, Brannon makes a compelling argument of why the seal is obsolete: 

"The seal designed in the Victorian era has contradictory styles and aesthetic confusion–characteristics of that period. It is complicated, unfocused, hard to remember and difficult to reproduce or utilize conveniently… Visually speaking, the absence of a strong theme in Pratt’s seal is a problem. Without a central image of focus in the seal, the viewer gets the impression of a complex set of disparate elements."

Like Dwiggins, Brannon offers her own set of proposals to the Pratt seal using a variety of original motifs and designs. Overall, I think her work is worth some serious consideration. If the Institute does ever consider doing something about the seal again, Brannon’s thesis could be a blueprint.  

So what can we learn from all this? Does our bookplate or the Pratt seal deserve another do-over? It’s an interesting discussion to be had. Taking on special projects that fall outside routine business requires a ton of persistence and patience. As someone who has been working on this blog post for the past three years I can certainly attest to that!  What motivated me to write this piece is that I find failure very endearing when it comes from an earnest place. I’m sure there are many creative misfires buried in the archives that also deserve their day in the sun. And the stories preserved in the documents behind those unsung achievements are ripe for the picking. 

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