Books and Borrowing 1750-1830

Books and Borrowing: A Retrospective

At this time of year, I normally write a blog based on Christmas borrowings from one of more of the libraries represented in the Books and Borrowing dataset. This year, however, I need to write something different. Astonishingly, we are now in the last few weeks of our funded period, and inching ever closer to fully revealing our new digital resource to the public. More of this in January when, although our AHRC funding will be finished, we’ll be gratefully accepting money from Stirling’s Faculty of Arts and Humanities to work on final tweaks to the website to make it as user-friendly as possible. This will, however, be the last blog of the year 2023, as well as our official AHRC end point, so I wanted to look back on some of the highs and lows of the past three and a half years.

When Matt and I received the news that, to our great astonishment and delight, we had been granted the million-pound grant from the AHRC to allow us to begin the Books and Borrowing project, it was just before Christmas of 2019. It was a truly splendid Christmas present, and we are enormously grateful to the AHRC for funding us. The real work began, of course, in January of 2020, when we started advertising for postdoctoral research fellows, and setting up the infrastructure to carry out the project, ably aided by Brian Aitken, the project’s wonderful Digital Humanities Research Officer. We held interviews for the postdocs in early March of 2020, just as the world changed, and the UK moved into its first extended period of lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic. My first experience of using Microsoft Teams was, in fact, the postdoc interviews, and at the time it was an exciting, if nerve-wracking novelty to me, enjoyable despite having a small daughter curled up literally underfoot as I conducted the interviews. We were to become all too familiar with online meetings in the months and, indeed, years, that followed.

Libraries and Archives closed just as the Books and Borrowing project began

Having delightedly hired the brilliant Gerry McKeever and Alex Deans to join the equally brilliant Kit Baston and Maxine Branagh-Miscampbell, who had been written into the original project application, we were then faced with the somewhat daunting project of working out how to carry out a heavily archival project at a time when all archives, libraries and digitisation facilities were closed for the foreseeable future. The plan had originally been for the postdocs to spend the first six months of the project going to some of our partner libraries to photograph the borrowers’ registers, while others were professionally digitised for us by the digitisation units at other libraries.

The Covid-19 virus, which changed our plans in unexpected ways

That clearly wasn’t going to happen. Time for a speedily formulated Plan B.

We were fortunate to have some material already digitised from prior pilot projects, and were also overwhelmed by the generosity of Sandra Cumming, Viv Dunstan, Jill Dye, and Mark Towsey, who kindly donated us their existing transcriptions and spreadsheets of the Haddington, Selkirk, Innerpeffray and Craigston Castle Libraries so that we could get started and Brian could build our Content Management System (CMS). We instituted weekly Zoom meetings, at which we were joined by our PhD students Josh Smith and Isla Macfarlane, and later Cleo O’Callaghan Yeoman, Rachael Tarrant and Jacqueline Kennard, and we started work.

Alex’s trip to Westerkirk was one of the first of our archival trips after Covid-19 restrictions lifted

As Covid-19 restrictions gradually loosened, then tightened again, then loosened again, we took every opportunity in periods of liberty to visit the archives to get the photography done. And our partner libraries were magnificently helpful in facilitating our access, and in getting their digitisation units going on our behalf. We are grateful to every one of the archivists, librarians, and digitisers with whom we worked. This project would not exist without your generous help and tremendous professionalism.

As the material was being digitised, the team got to work on transcribing the borrowers’ registers and entering other relevant data into the Content Management System, and so began the long process of data entry. Alongside the day-to-day transcription and data entry work, the project team wrote blogs (we’ve generated a whopping 180,000 words on this blog since the beginning of this project), conference papers and articles, attended conferences and workshops, first online and then across the UK, planned and carried out public engagement events, and made some fascinating discoveries along the way. Babies were born, books and articles were published (renewed congratulations to Gerry on winning the BARS first book prize for his monograph Dialectics of Improvement: Scottish Romanticism, 1786-1831 (EUP, 2020)), and it began to feel as if we might perhaps get there after all, despite the worst that a global pandemic could do.

Incredibly challenging transcriptions were all in a day’s work. Edinburgh University Library, EUA IN1/ADS/LIB/3/Da.2.2, ff 26-7

We began with 13 libraries, and we’ve ended with 18. Highlights of the past three and a half years have definitely included finding out about new borrowers’ registers that we wanted to include, and being offered help with those that we knew about but initially thought we wouldn’t be able to include (these were the Royal High School Library, Craigston Castle Library, the Hunterian Library, Chambers Circulating Library and Westerkirk).

Image from the Craigston Castle Library Loans Book, a late addition to the project

Running our various public engagement workshops at Innnerpeffray Library, Orkney Library and Archives, Glasgow University Library, the National Library of Scotland and online has also been enormously rewarding; seeing members of the public responding to our research positively has been a delight. The entries to our Creative Writing Competition, which asked people to write a short story or poem based on the borrowers’ registers, were a real joy to read. Putting together our Online Exhibition in partnership with Edinburgh University Library taught the whole team a valuable new set of skills. Particular thanks to Kit for leading on the exhibition. Creating our Interactive Digital Map based on the Chambers Circulating Library in partnership with the NLS and funded by Glasgow University was another highlight. Thanks to Alex and Brian for leading on this aspect of the project. And our own project conference, held at the University of Stirling in April of this year, as part of a joint Festival of Research with our friends from the C18th Libraries Online project at the University of Liverpool, was a wonderful culmination of three years’ work. It felt like hosting a party for sixty, but better! Thanks are due to our excellent helpers Gema, Olympia, Laura and Julia, who did a wonderful job of running the registration desk and more importantly serving the gin!

Over the course of the project’s three and a half years, the team has entered a vast quantity of data into our digital resource. It includes details of 28,484 book holding records, 12,515 authors, and 10,979 borrowers. Our system displays 144,063 transcribed borrowing events, and includes more than quarter of a million more untranscribed borrowing events in 158 digitised borrowing registers. I’m incredibly proud of our digital resource, elegantly designed by Brian, which contains this vast quantity of complex data, but is nonetheless easy and intuitive to use. Readers of this blog won’t have to wait long to experience it themselves; we will be launching it (finally!) in January of 2024.

There are many, many books in the Books and Borrowing dataset! Image courtesy of the National Trust for Scotland

And now for the most important thing of all. Alex, Brian, Cleo, Gerry, Isla, Jacqueline, Josh, Kit, Matt, Maxine and Rachael, it has been an honour and a privilege to work with such brilliantly talented, intelligent and collegial people, and I’m grateful to each and every one of you for your many and various contributions to this project. There couldn’t be a better project team. Thank you.

And thanks to you, reader of this blog, for sticking with us! It won’t be our last – from January we won’t be blogging weekly, instead moving to blogging only when we have news to report – but it will be the last for this year. Wishing you a very happy holiday season, and the very best for 2024.