A First Look at the University of Edinburgh Library Borrowers’ Receipt Books

We were delighted to report on a milestone on Twitter for our project last month:

We now have 9,992 digitised pages from 35 of the University of Edinburgh’s eighteenth and early nineteenth century borrowing receipt books and registers. This is thanks to Susan Pettigrew the incredible team at Edinburgh’s Digital Imaging Unit who carried out a huge task in the midst of a global pandemic. We also wish to thank Elizabeth Quarmby Lawrence, Rare Books Librarian at Edinburgh’s Centre for Research Collections for her support during these unusual times. Our Digital Humanities Research Officer, Brian Aitken, has also been amazing and thanks to him the pages are safely stored and ready for processing in our content management system.

All we need to do now is transcribe the thousands of pages and analyse them….

The best place to start is, of course, the beginning. This, however, proved to be a big task. The earliest student borrowing receipt books for 1769 are in manuscript, but by February 1771 these had been replaced with printed pro forma pages to record loans and deposits for student borrowers. By starting with the first of the pro forma books (Da.2.9), I was able to populate our database with books and borrowers that should (and do) appear in the earlier volume (Da.2.8). At time of writing, I have completed transcribing Da.2.9 have gone back to the earlier volume.

Image showing book loan entries from May 1769 from Edinburgh University Libary
Student Borrowing Register, EUL Da.2.8, ff. 54-55 – book loans from May 1769

The Edinburgh borrowing registers are true receipt books. The students had to deposit an amount equal to the value of the book or books they were borrowing. This would be returned to them upon the return of the books. Books were usually loaned for a fortnight, but could also be lent for a week or designated as ‘return on demand’ as they were in the professors’ registers – at least in the earliest manuscript register. The entry would then be scored out when the books were returned with varying degrees of vigour as can be seen in the images above. An efficient system, but one that does not make for ease of transcription!

EUL Da.2.9, f. 60 - pro forma register from May 1771
Student Borrowing Register, EUL Da.2.9, f. 60 – pro forma register page from May 1771. Although there space for seven entries per page, there are often more. The average is 8.5 entries per page in this receipt book.

What is striking even at this early stage of transcription is how different the books borrowed at Edinburgh were to those at Glasgow. (We will also be able to compare and contrast students at St Andrews for the same period.) At Glasgow, as detailed at the Glasgow Borrowing Registers project, the most-borrowed books from 1757 to 1771 were works of history, moral philosophy, sermons, and belles lettres. At Edinburgh, from 1769 to 1771, students were far more likely to borrow medical books on scurvy, fevers, and venereal diseases.

The university was growing and gaining an international reputation as an ‘enlightened’ university under the guidance of its inspirational principal, Dr William Robertson. Robertson was in post from 1762 until his death in 1793. He had been a student of divinity at Edinburgh from 1733 to 1741. As principal, he oversaw the appointment of leading scholars to the university’s extant chairs and created new professorships in pharmacology (1768), surgery (1777), natural history (1790), astronomy (1790), and agriculture (1790).[1]

portrait of Principal William Robertson of the University of Edinburgh

Robertson saw the potential of the Edinburgh’s medical school and developed it. By mid-1760s, half of Edinburgh’s nearly 600 students were studying medicine. By 1793, there were 751 matriculated students and 427 of them medical students.[2] Not all students matriculated. Many did not want or need to take a degree. Medical students from abroad might take degrees in London or Paris, divinity students only matriculated if they wanted to teach, and law students did not matriculate or graduate from the university at all.[3]

This aspect of the University of Edinburgh’s student life makes our study even more valuable. We will be able to trace non-matriculated students via their library borrowing in a way that has not been possible before. Using the University of Edinburgh’s Historical Alumni database, as a starting point as it is incomplete, means that we can find out more about some of the students who did matriculate. Did the medical students go on to become physicians or surgeons? If so, we’ll be able to find them in other databases related to their professions and the same goes for students of other subjects.

In addition to developing the medical school, Robertson’s other developmental interest was in the library itself. He was a keen user of it. We have the professorial records from Edinburgh as well as those of the students to transcribe. Robertson is known to have borrowed more than 3500 volumes from the university library for himself and for the use of friends and family.[4] His works were popular with the students of Edinburgh: his History of Scotland (1759) and his History of Charles V (1769) circulated alongside the medical books they favoured.


Digitised Edinburgh Borrowers’ Receipt Books
University of Edinburgh Centre for Research Collections

[1] Nicholas Phillipson, ‘The Making of an Enlightened University’, in Robert D. Anderson, Michael Lynch and Nicholas Phillipson, The University of Edinburgh: An Illustrated History (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003), pp. 51-102, at 79.
[2] Ibid., pp. 82-83.
[3] Ibid., p. 83.
[4] C. P. Finlayson and S. M. Simpson, ‘The History of the Library, 1710-1837’, in Jean R. Guild and Alexander Law (eds.), Edinburgh University Library, 1580-1980: A Collection of Historical Essays (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Library, 1982), pp. 55-66, at 58.