Provenance Research From a Distance

Locked out of your library? Interested in manuscript history? There’s much can be learned just from perusing the library’s online catalogue.

Whereas Trinity Library’s manuscripts are out of our reach for now, one way of understanding them better is through their provenance. What if I tell you that you can look into this from right where you are, in front of your computer, phone or tablet? That is, at least for that part of its history a manuscript spent in Trinity Library. Provenance research helps situate the information a book contains, not only in the time of its creation or our current time, but acknowledges that the book (or any other object) has experienced its own historical trajectories in the intervening time, as well.

Trinity Library’s manuscript catalogues are a wonderful resource for this purpose. And the online MARLOC catalogue can serve as your gateway. The main reason is that the entries often mention older shelf marks in addition to the now authoritative manuscript reference numbers from the Abbott catalogue.1 To a certain extent, this information is based on Abbott’s own efforts in providing a concordance with other catalogues in Trinity Library and beyond.

Here I will consider four catalogues: the Abbott catalogue from 1900, the Lyons Catalogue from 1745 (MUN LIB 1/53), the Foley Catalogue from 1688 (MS 7/1), and Trinity Library’s first accession catalogue from 1670 (MS 7/2). This post will provide an overview of the respective shelf marks each catalogue used, thus providing a framework to read the shelf marks provided in the MARLOC catalogue. Each of the historical catalogues will eventually be the subject of its own blog post which will go into more details about their respective organizing systems. I should add that my interest is in the Arabic manuscripts but the lessons do apply as well to Irish, English, French or Spanish manuscripts in the Library.

The current manuscript reference number you will find in the MARLOC catalogue for any given manuscript is based on the progressive numerals by which Abbott ordered the collection (from 1 up to 1691 initially: further manuscripts have been added ever since). As for instance the entry for MS 1514 exemplifies, several other shelf marks could be ascribed to the same item over the centuries.

Not only does the section SCOPE AND CONTENT give us valuable information as to when the manuscript might have been created, the section FORMER SHELF MARKS informs us how different cataloguers and librarians placed the manuscript within the Library. Thereby, it provides hints as to when an item entered Trinity Library because the different catalogues mentioned above employed different shelving systems (see the list below).


As a whole: B. 5. 11;

B. 5. 11; R. 73; I. 13; B. 5. 11; [S.10]; [F. 79]; B. 5. 11; A. 1. 31; A. 7; : B. 5. 11; A. 1. 30; A. 9; B. 5. 11; A. 1. 21; A. 10

First, we can clearly distinguish between two systems: one that uses one letter and two numerals and another which uses a letter followed by one numeral. The former system was employed both by the 1670 accession catalogue and the Lyons Catalogue; the latter was used by the Foley Catalogue. Thus, the shelf marks R. 73, [S. 10], [F. 79], A. 7, A. 9, and A. 10 tell us that MS 1514 was definitely at Trinity Library by 1688.

However, as the shelf marks A. 1. 21., A. 1. 30, and A. 1. 31. refer to the 1670 accession catalogue, this manuscript had been part of the Library even earlier. In contrast, it was ascribed the shelf mark B. 5. 11 in the Lyons Catalogue in 1745. This will become clearer once we will look at the individual catalogues. For now it suffices to say that with one exception Lyons placed all the Arabic manuscripts under ‘B (bay B in the Long Room).

Finally, the multitude of earlier shelf marks indicates that this specific manuscript underwent several recompilations and, in fact, consisted of several separate items by 1670 and 1688 respectively. It probably was only bound into the manuscript it is today under Lyons’ supervision in the 1740s.

Dr. Torsten Wollina

Marie Skłodowska-Curie Cofund Fellow

Trinity Long Room Hub Arts & Humanities Research Institute 

1  T.K. Abbott, Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Library of Trinity College Dublin (Dublin and London, 1900)