Today rather unknown (or unnoticed), ex-libris is a bookplate, in the form of a small print, rubber stamp or label which used (and sometimes still is) to be pasted on the inside front cover of a book.
Examples of ex-libris pasted in different books. Some book lovers still use them, as they feel deeply fond of their books.
The Latin expression "ex-libris" means "from among the books of...". This text appears clearly in the bookplate, or is sometimes replaced with other similar expressions: "ex-bibliotheca" (from someone's library) and "e-libris". Even sometimes is is translated into modern languages, using "Property of…", "I'm [the book] property of…", "from the books of…", "from the library of…". Thus, these marks have been an important source to know the provenance of books in historical research.
According to Wikipedia, the earliest known marks of ownership of books have been found in the Egyptian archaeological remains from the reign of Amenophis III (1391-1353 BCE).
An ancient Egyptian plate.
The European form that was used during the Middle Ages was simpler, consisting in inscriptions along with some kind of illustration. At the beginning only monasteries and palaces used ex-libris, as they were the only owners of books. Coats of arms were probably the most common image. When printed books (as opposed to hand-copied ones) became common and consequently the production of books and the number of book owners (middle-class) dramatically raised, the variety of illustrations also widened. Apart from undoubtedly stating the owner's name, the illustration typically depicts his/her profession, hobbies or place of living.
They were popular in Europe since the 17th century. Walter Crane's ex-libris are amongst the most remarkable ones in the United Kingdom. The production of ex-libris was very prolific during the period of Art Nouveau. In the United States, bookplates replaced book rhymes since the 19th century.
Ex-libris denoting the property of Joan Amades, popular Catalan folklorist (early 20th century).
… AND ITS RELATION TO THE ARTS
Techniques and motifs are rich. First bookplates were woodblocks and engravings (mainly copper). As time went by, a variety of other techniques have been used in their production: steel engraving, etching, lithography, silk-screen, serigraphy and, in the most recent times, computer techniques applied to rubber stamps and plastic self-adhesive labels. Working at a small scale plays an important role in the execution of these works.
Short video (2:12) about the making of a wooden ex-libris
Until the beginning of the 20th century, the making of ex-libris was not considered amongst the arts, and was almost always left to the heraldic salesman. From the 1900's, as it became fashionable, it was recognised as a minor branch of a higher art (usually engraving or similar techniques). Despite of that, major artists crafted bookplates: Albrecht Dürer, Marc Chagall and M.C. Escher, to name but a few.
If you are interested in more examples of ex-libris, have a look at this online museum: [link]