A New Chapter

In October I started work on a new project, bringing my two years as a research fellow with Books and Borrowing to an end. It’s been an exceptionally rewarding period for me intellectually, and the project and team have often felt like an island of stability in uncertain times. I’m determined to stay in touch throughout the remainder of the Books and Borrowing project, not only because it will be fascinating to see what picture of historical library use emerges when our database goes live next year, but because the work we’ve done so far has introduced me to so much material that I’m only just beginning to think, talk, and write about. With my involvement in the project entering this new phase, I wanted to look back at some of the things I’ve most enjoyed over the past two years.

Westerkirk Parish Library’s purpose-built home in Bentpath, Dumfriesshire

Books and Borrowing has taken place entirely during the Covid-19 pandemic, and I started work on the project not long after the end of the first nationwide lockdown in 2020. In some ways, my trip to Westerkirk in July that year felt not just like my first big job on the project, but a first step back into the outside world after months of staying put. The library’s location and the friendliness of its trustees made for a beguiling welcome to the ‘new normal’. It was a real pleasure to spend a couple of days working in Westerkirk’s still-functioning nineteenth-century home, with books from the original miners’ library on the shelves, and green slopes outside. I left with a better sense of the remote community which has used the library as a source of knowledge and entertainment since its founding in the 1790s. That impression stayed with me as I got to grips with Westerkirk’s number system and borrowing rotas, reminding me that each record I entered into the system represented a moonlit journey across the hills.

Borrowings of Captain Peter Hay in the Chambers Register

Strikethroughs aside, I also felt very lucky to be handed Robert Chambers’s Edinburgh circulating library to work on at the start of 2022. While I recognised the Chambers name from the publishing firm founded by Robert and his brother William, the library was all new to me, as was the period of the late-1820 covered by its records. The commercial, urban character of Chambers’s library really couldn’t have been more different from that of Westerkirk, which made for an invigorating change of pace. The unusually detailed borrower data included in the register allowed Kit Baston and me to identify a veritable who’s who of nineteenth-century Edinburgh, as they eagerly lapped up the latest periodicals and novels. Those names, famous and obscure, can be found on our Map of Chambers’s borrowers, a side project which I had a great time working on alongside Brian Aitken.

During this project I’ve been constantly reminded of the power of hearing people’s different interests and perspectives on a topic. The amount of stuff to know about—from the histories of libraries, print, publishing, and institutions, to the identities of obscure works and individuals—has at times seemed intimidating. I’ve been amazed to see how much of this ground the team has managed to cover between everyone’s different backgrounds and specialisms, and it’s been a lesson to me on the value of collaboration and collegiality. I’ve learned so much, not just from the library records themselves, but from the rest of the team, and the people who generously gave their time and knowledge to events I helped to organise at Innerpeffray and the National Library of Scotland.

I’ve been interested in historical library use in Scotland since my PhD ten years ago, and it’s been wonderful to spend so much time in the company of people so knowledgeable about the topic. It has also, I think, helped me to improve my own approach to the history of reading and library use. As a literary scholar who has primarily turned to library records for evidence of how specific authors and titles might have circulated or reached particular readerships, I’ve sometimes found the results to be fragmentary and frustrating. Library records seem to have a habit of giving you answers you weren’t looking for, to questions you didn’t want to ask. I have no doubt that the Books and Borrowing database will make such queries vastly more authoritative, accessible, and rewarding. But I’ve also learned—perhaps belatedly—that the evidence contained in borrowers’ registers deserves to be taken on its own terms, and that I should allow myself to be led by, and attentive to them. At Westerkirk in the 1810s, farmers wanted to borrow David Brewster’s Edinburgh Encyclopaedia, John Scott’s multi-volume biblical exegesis, Jane Porter’s historical novel The Scottish Chiefs, and Charles Rollin’s Ancient History. It’s a mixture that doesn’t exactly fit any particular Enlightenment or Romantic cultural formation that is familiar to me from literary or intellectual history.

For someone interested (as I have been) in the reception of the Scottish Enlightenment, there is certainly compelling evidence to be found deeper in the records, and through a more nuanced interpretation of what such categories really mean. But the unexpected, unsought findings have equally important things to tell us about the role of libraries in the history of reading. As a PhD student who wanted to understand how books helped to spread new ideas, I remember being somewhat daunted by Willliam St Clair’s statement in The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (a hugely influential work within the Books and Borrowing team as well as in the field more broadly), that ‘the largest practical obstacle to writing histories of reading has been the absence, in readily accessible form, of the consolidated and comparative quantitative information that is indispensable to any analysis’.[1] Over a decade later, I feel immensely lucky to have been able to contribute to a project that is helping to address this very absence. As I move on, I’d like to leave the rest of the team with my heartfelt thanks, my wishes for a rewarding final year of the project, and the knowledge that, like Richardson’s History of Charles Grandison or Rollin’s Ancient History, I will continue to appear in their lives with troubling regularity.

[1] William St. Clair, The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p.9.