An exlibris (bookplate) is a mark of ownership which the owner of a book sticks into the inside of the cover. It is made by an artist who is commissioned by the owner to create according to his wishes and ideas a small graphic that bears the owner's name and the word Exlibris.
Seen from the history of culture, bookplates are part of applied graphics like newyear's cards, book illustrations, announcements of marriages or births, posters etc. They have existed since Gutenberg's invention of movable letters around 1500. Among the first artists of this time were Jost Amman, Barthel Beham, Hans Burgkmair, Lucas Cranach and Albrecht Dürer.
Germany can be seen as the country of their origin, and a first dated bookplate is a woodcut by Hildebrand Brandenburg (1470). The first English exlibris was created in 1520 for Cardinal Wolsey. The first French one dates from 1597, followed by Italy in 1622 and the USA in 1674.
The first bookplates were woodcuts and copper engravings. In the course of centuries a variety of others techniques have been added such as steel engraving, etching (in various forms), lithography, serigraphy and, most recently, above all computer techniques.
The word Ex libris is Latin and, together with the owner's name, means "From among the books of N.N." In order not to lessen the value of the book by writing one's name directly into it, one marks one's ownership by sticking the bookplate on the inside of the cover.
The exlibris should clearly state the owner's name and can allude to the personality by using motifs that illustrate the profession, hobbies or place of living.
While flourishing during the time of Rococo, interest in bookplates dwindled and only during the second half of the 19th century was there a new rise, reaching its climax in the art nouveau period.
Today there are worldwide about 40 exlibris societies under the patronage of F.I.S.A.E. whose members meet every second year at an international congress.