All that Glitters is Gold: Stamping at the Great Library

Have you ever pulled a book off the shelf in the Great Library and noticed a gold stamp on the front cover? The next time you see one, take a closer look – the stamp might be real gold leaf.

1842 Version of Gold Stamp

The practice of stamping library books can be traced all the way back to 1853 when a motion was made in Convocation to have all books and pamphlets owned by the library “marked with a stamp of the Society on the first and sixty-fourth page.”[1] The reason for the stamping is given in 1883, when the library committee suggested that all books “ought to be stamped and marked so as to prevent the destruction of their identity as the property of the Society.”[2]

While it is not indicated whether the initial stamping was with gold-leaf, we do have several examples of the stamps and their evolution through the years. The first version can be found in our rare book collection, on a collection of Egerton Ryerson Pamphlets from 1842.

1895 Version of Gold Stamp

The second version can be found on The Great Dominion Studies of Canada from 1895 and differs from the original stamp with some minor details, including the ribbon wrapping around the pillar (representing the Magna Charta) and the border.

The last version of the gold stamp can be seen on the Ontario Legislative Digest Service from 1998. This is a more stylized version of the Law Society crest, which also uses a lot less gold-leaf as the figures are only outlined in gold, rather than filled in.

1998 Version of Gold Stamp

So how exactly were the stamps placed on the books? This process was done in the library itself with a special gold-stamping machine. The library would receive rolls of gold-leaf from a company (unfortunately its name has been lost to time) whose only customer was the Great Library. The gold-leaf stamp would be used on all books received by the Great Library, new and donated, including softcover books (though this practice was stopped in 1992). Real gold-leaf foil was only used until the 1980s, when it was replaced by a gold coloured stamping foil instead. In the “golden age” of stamping, the library would gold-stamp an average of 2,000 volumes annually!

Unfortunately, this practice was stopped at the end of 2008. The machine used in stamping was unsafe and pieces would occasionally fall off. Additionally, there was no one around that could actually fix the gold-stamping machine, so the practice was discontinued. Lehmann’s Bookbinding, a company that still binds some of our library books to this day, continued this practice for a time afterwards however the stamp was not gold-leaf (or even gold coloured) but just plain black. Once it was no longer needed, the gold-stamping machine was discarded.

We still stamp books today, but only on the front page and top edge of the book with a regular “The Property of the Law Society” stamp. Definitely not as exciting as gold-leaf, but they still serve the purpose of identifying the books as library books.

[1] Minutes of Convocation, Saturday September 10, 1853, pg. 374-375, Law Society of Ontario Archives.

[2] Minutes of Convocation, February 6, 1883, pg. 125, Law Society of Ontario Archives.