Early Reflections on Robert Chambers’ Edinburgh Circulating Library

Back in July 2021, Kit Baston announced the exciting news that we’d be adding the records of Robert Chambers’ Edinburgh Circulating Library to the Books and Borrowing project. Our partners at the National Library of Scotland have now completed conservation and digitisation work on the register, and we’ve begun to enter records into our system. Kit’s piece gives a great introduction to Chambers’ Library and its significance, so here I’d like to share some of my initial thoughts as I start to get to grips with its records, and the books and people that make them.

As Kit wrote in her piece, the Chambers register is a fascinating and particularly rare document, recording thousands of borrowings from a Scottish commercial circulating library in the years 1828-1829. It lists entries for just under 200 individual borrowers, along with details of subscription fees and addresses. The format of the records is relatively simple: the names of individual borrowers appear above a list of their borrowings, with their subscription payments recorded in the left-hand margin.

Miss Wright’s borrowings in the Chambers Library Register (NLS, Dep. 341/413).

Miss Wright’s borrowings above are fairly typical of what I’ve encountered so far, showing a strong preference for contemporary novels by authors such as Benjamin Disraeli (1808-1881), Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849), and Thomas Henry Lister (1800-1842).

While the basic structure of the borrowing records is fairly consistent throughout the ledger, the appearance of individual folios varies massively according to the borrowing habits of the individual in question. Compare Miss Wright’s borrowings above to those of one Mrs Hutchins of 7 Heriot Row.

A page of Mrs Hutchins borrowings in the Chambers Library Register (NLS, Dep. 341/413).

As the density of the manuscript suggests, Hutchins was an especially prolific borrower. Here, book titles are not only crammed into the left-hand margin, but actually spill into a subsequent sheet. It’s interesting that the Chambers’ records have so far borne out certain stereotypes of circulating libraries in this period, aptly illustrated by our own site banner, a detail from Isaac Cruikshank’s ‘The Lending Library’. Chambers’ Library seems to have attracted a relatively high proportion of women readers, with a preference for novels, tales, and romances.

A more nuanced picture of borrowings from Chambers’ Library may well emerge as our data set grows. However the distinctly commercial feel of the collection (in contrast to some of the institutional, associational, and endowed libraries included in the project) is also evidenced by the 1829 Catalogue of Robert Chambers Circulating Library. I’m indebted to Kirsty McHugh of the National Library of Scotland, for providing the project with images of the Catalogue, which have been enormously helpful when it comes to identifying the works named in borrowing records.

MISCELLANEOUS BOOKS and RECENT PUBLICATIONS in Chambers’ 1829 Catalogue. Courtesy of National Library of Scotland. L.C.3344(15)

For me, the Catalogue is also fascinating as a document which to some extent may have shaped our borrowers’ engagement with the library and its collection. The Catalogue lays out four tiers of borrowing privilege, each priced accordingly to allow access to newer books, or the ability to withdraw more volumes at a time. It also presents the library’s holdings under the four, increasingly non-specific categories of ‘NOVELS’, ‘ROMANCES’, ‘MISCELLANEOUS BOOKS’, and ‘RECENT PUBLICATIONS, ARRANGED PROMISCUOUSLY’.

The latter heading seems to account for the majority of the borrowings I’ve come across so far, suggesting that many were willing to pay an additional premium to access the latest works. I’ve already come across a handful of works which have been borrowed and which do not to appear in the 1829 Catalogue, suggesting that Robert Chambers was constantly updating the collection as new works were published.

Thomas Henry Lister, 1800-1842. Novelist, 1836, multiple artists. National Galleries of Scotland.

Matthew Sangster has pointed out to me the preponderance of novels from the London publishing house of Henry Colburn. More broadly, there seems to be a heavy presence of so-called ‘silver-fork’ novels, depicting the lives of the fashionable and well-to-do, such as Thomas Henry Lister’s Granby (1826) and Herbert Lacy (1828). The Chambers’ Library borrowers, hailing predominantly from Edinburgh’s wealthy New Town may have seen themselves as people of fashion too, and some of their stories will be explored in a future post.