Creating Our (Fabulous!) Online Exhibition with the University of Edinburgh

The best laid plans…

It’s there, listed in our ‘Pathways to Impact’ statement: exhibitions. Back then, before the pandemic, that meant in-person displays of materials relating to the Books and Borrowing project. Borrowing registers or receipt books, selected books from partners’ collections, and featured library users from each library perhaps. We were going to create a special kit for our partners with advice on how to use our data to encourage interactions with audiences, run events, write captions, and all the things that go with traditional exhibitions. We’re still going to create that resource but it’ll be very different from the original concept.

Plan B

We were lucky. We already had enough material to launch the project as planned in spring 2020. We had generous donations of spreadsheets to process into our system, digitised pages to work with, a website to develop, and an eagerness to start. We had no idea if or when buildings would be accessible again or what future exhibitions would be like post-pandemic. But we knew we still wanted to engage with audiences using an exhibition format.

Our partners at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Research Collections (CRC) had a proposal. Would we be willing to try something different? Elizabeth Quarmby Lawrence (Rare Books and Literary Collections Curator) and Bianca Packham (Engagement Officer (Exhibitions)) met with us via Zoom (or was it Teams?) to introduce us to their new online exhibitions platform. We agreed that this would be a great way to showcase Books and Borrowing and that it could be even better than a traditional exhibition.

The process

As a team, we had plenty of traditional exhibitions experience. Finding a space in the calendar, selecting items, writing captions, setting up displays, inviting speakers, ordering refreshments, and hosting were all things that we knew how to do. Some of these crossed over such as strict word limits and timetabling, but others were very different. As curators, we were also aware that we needed to work with our hosts to create something that would reflect both the CRC and Books and Borrowing.

Our first attempt at a draft presentation was along the traditional lines that we knew. Lots of information, plenty of choices, and a structure akin to a walk-through exhibition. We made assumptions that people would already know that a borrowing register or receipt book is, that they would understand our notions of the Scottish Enlightenment, Romanticism, or ‘print culture’, and that people like Francis Jeffrey and Henry Brougham were surely household names. It was going to be the best and biggest online exhibition ever with masses of pages all connecting together. Visitors would swoop through our multiple points of access and spend many happy hours reading our extensive explanatory text and lavish captions.

Elizabeth and Bianca politely fed back that we’d have to do some extensive revising. Could we explain things more simply without losing credibility? How could we guide people through the online space? What did we really need to say and how could we say it best?

Ideally in 80 words or less per element.

Too many notes… But how to get the right amount?

A few more drafts gave us a better structure. We’d introduce the four Georgian libraries of Edinburgh included in Books and Borrowing, describe borrowing records and why they are so important, and provide tour guides or avatars to take people through the exhibition. We chose three borrowers for this role. Principal William Robertson offered a chance to explore the history of the university library. Sir Walter Scott was both one of the most popular authors of his age and a user of our libraries. Mrs Anne Grant of Laggan gave us a chance to consider how women interacted with books. We’d end with a brief discussion of the literary world of our Georgian Edinburgh guides. All three were authors as well as readers so presented a glimpse at the ‘library lives’ we wanted to describe. Our ‘Edinburgh’s Reading Lives‘ section looks at periodicals, some of the most-borrowed works from Scottish libraries from 1750 to 1830.

For illustrations, we focussed on the University of Edinburgh’s fantastic digital resources, pages of borrowings related to our chosen guides from our database, and the National Galleries of Scotland’s generous Creative Commons access. We also turned to The Abbotsford Trust and the WS Society who graciously gave us permission to use images in their care.

We cannot thank Bianca and Elizabeth enough for their expertise and patience in helping us create an online exhibition that we are proud of and delighted to share. We hope you enjoy visiting it.

Library Lives | Hidden Histories of Reading in Georgian Edinburgh