A First Look at the Aberdeen Theological Library

In 1826, the first of a series of royal commissions was established that would report on the condition and management of the Scottish universities at intervals in the nineteenth century. The range of materials gathered by the commissioners today provide historians with an extraordinary insight into the evolution of Scottish education, including the operation of the various university libraries. At Aberdeen, for example, they discovered a body of resentment between the separate institutions of King’s College and Marischal College arising from a variety of factors including an unequal distribution of library holdings.[1] This resulted in detailed proposals for uniting the colleges into a single university.

Martyn Gorman / King’s College, Old Aberdeen / CC BY-SA 2.0

Our research into library borrowing registers is necessarily guided by those sources which happen to have survived to the present day (seventeen and counting) from the large number of libraries across Scotland in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. At the universities, specifically, this includes Glasgow, Edinburgh, St Andrews and Aberdeen. At Aberdeen, however, bearing in mind that Marsichal and King’s were not united as the University of Aberdeen until 1860 as an effect of the Universities (Scotland) Act 1858, there were a variety of different libraries active in the period of study.

Both King’s (founded 1495) and Marischal (founded 1593) had longstanding principal libraries. Under the terms of the 1710 Copyright Act, the Scottish universities became entitled to copies of new books registered at Stationers’ Hall. As a result of the anomalous situation with the two rival colleges in Aberdeen, the copyright deposit collection was assigned by the Court of Session to King’s, although the Principle and Professors at Marischal would have borrowing rights.[2] Iain Beaven uses this to account for the rapid expansion of King’s College library in the early decades of the nineteenth century, by which time Marischal’s primary collection was ‘regarded as obsolescent if not positively obsolete’.[3]

Ikiwaner, Marischal College (left) and Greyfriars Church (right), CC BY-SA 3.0

However, there were also other, class-specific collections at Aberdeen, including what appears to have been natural philosophy (the precursor of modern physics) libraries in both colleges.[4] At Marischal, there was also a theological library used by the divinity students of both colleges (UC 54). It is this last that primarily interests us on the project, since fairly extensive borrowing registers beginning in 1786 have happily survived the centuries.

Mariscal’s Professor of Natural Philosophy, William Knight, gave an account of the theological library to the New Statistical Account of Scotland in 1845,

A theological library was instituted in the year 1700 by the Synod of Aberdeen, who granted the sum of 1000 merks to the Professor of Divinity in Marischal College, out of the rents of an estate mortified to support the Professor of Divinity in King’s College; the books purchased ‘to be set up in a distinct library by themselves in the Marischal College, or some convenient room in New Aberdeen,’ ‘so as to be patent for all the students of Divinity in both colleges.’ In 1754, the books were placed in the Divinity Hall of the college, and the professor continued to select those to be purchased till 1785, when a committee of the students received the management. The contributors of a small sum annually for four years are constituted life-proprietors. There is a printed catalogue of the collection, and the regulations under which it is managed are sanctioned by the colleges, no alteration of them being valid unless made with the consent of both colleges, in order to avoid ‘the many evils arising from precipitation’.[5]

As this suggests, the surviving borrowing records date from a reorganisation of the collection into the form of a subscription library. This was something of a hybrid arrangement in the university context and was also used for the natural philosophy library instituted by Knight, ‘mostly at my own expense’.[6] It might be traced to the impoverished condition of Marischal which, per Beaven, was ‘chronically short of cash’.[7]

A set of 1819 regulations for the library confirms that students who had paid four annual contributions (at a rate of 9s. per annum) became ‘proprietors’ of the book stock ‘and as such, entitled to the use of books during the whole subsequent part of his life while in Scotland, without making any additional payments’. There were also stipulations for the rolling appointment of students to the management of the library in collaboration with its librarian.[8]

A page image from the Aberdeen Theological Library Readers’ books. University of Aberdeen Special Collections, MSM 227.

I am pleased to report, then, that I was able to photograph the main borrowing registers of the theological library on a recent trip to Aberdeen. Access to collections everywhere has been limited during the pandemic, so it was great to get these records added to our schedule of work. On an initial survey, these appear to contain roughly 14,000 borrowings covering the period between 1786 and 1823. Naturally the holdings skew heavily (though not exclusively) towards divinity, and many of the titles are familiar from work we have already completed on St Andrews, including authors such as John Leland, John Guyse, Hugh Blair, Ralph Cudworth, Johann Lorenz von Mosheim, David Hume, Samuel Shuckford, Francis Atterbury and Edward Stillingfleet.

Since I am expecting to photograph the records of the Dumfries Presbytery Library very soon, this new phase of work offers the exciting opportunity to begin comparing different theological borrowings across Scotland, as we begin to exploit the full potential of the large dataset we are acquiring.


[1] Evidence, Oral and Documentary, taken and received by The Commissioners appointed by his Majesty George IV., July 23d, 1826; and re-appointed by his majesty William IV., October 12th, 1830; for visiting the Universities of Scotland, Volume VI. University of Aberdeen (London: Clowes, 1837), 72, 79.

[2] Ibid., 305.

[3] Iain Beavan, ‘Marischal College Library, Aberdeen, in the Nineteenth Century: An Overview’, Library & Information History, 31.4 (November, 2015): 258-79, (258-59).

[4] The New Statistical Account of Scotland, Vol XII: Aberdeen (Edinburgh and London: Blackwood, 1845), 1160; Commissioners appointed by his Majesty, 101.

[5] NSA, 1185.

[6] Commissioners appointed by his Majesty, 101.

[7] Beavan, 259.

[8] Commissioners appointed by his Majesty, 181.