The ex libris - a special form of graphic art combining the function of indicating the name of the owner of a book with a decorative aspect - appeared back in the Middle Ages as book owners began applying distinctive labels to what were extremely valuable possessions. Gradually such bookplates came to feature designs with figurative and heraldic elements alluding in some way to the character of a particular library or the personality of its owner.
Bookplates were produced from woodcuts or copper engravings. The printed sheet would be pasted to the inside front cover. Common use was once also made of super ex libris - a coat-of-arms worked in gold tooling on the leather cover or spine of a book. But this method greatly reduced the possibilities for design. Leading artists of the Renaissance period turned their hands to the creation of ex libris, among them Dürer, Lucas Cranach and Hans Holbein the Younger.
By the early twentieth century, however, bookplates were rarely used for their original intended purpose and had become collector's items with a value in their own right among bibliophiles, artists and art historians. Apart from the traditional engraving methods, ex libris designers began to use a wide variety of graphic techniques and print-runs were greatly increased through the application of zincography and other methods of reproduction.
For some of the twentieth century's finest artists the ex libris became a field of activity as serious as book illustration or pure graphic art. Because of this, as well as being of indisputable historical and cultural significance, collections of such labels contain no small number of splendid examples of graphic art and the occasional genuine miniature masterpiece.
The National Library's stock of bookplates was formed primarily from several large collections belonging to members of the Leningrad Society of Ex-Librists which existed between 1921 and 1930.
Closely linked to the ex libris collection is the library's stock of Russian publishers' colophons, a related form of graphic art that was extremely popular in the 1900s-1920s. The Prints Department's bookplate collection continues to grow through the regular influx of examples by contemporary artists, especially those based in St Petersburg. In recent years a fair number of interesting items have been acquired - works by both those loyal to traditional ideas of the ex libris and former "underground" artists who boldly experiment with forms and techniques. At times such creations demonstrate better than anything else the distinctive traits present in graphic art today. The Prints Department's bookplate holdings consist of a number of named collections: