Event Report: Books and Borrowing: Edinburgh’s 19th Century Readers

Detail of ‘East Side of St. Andrew’s Square, Edinburgh’, Modern Athens, displayed in a series of views; or, Edinburgh in the nineteenth century; exhibiting the whole of the new buildings, modern improvements, antiquities, & picturesque scenery of the Scottish metropolis & its environs, from original drawings by Mr. T. H. Shepherd (London: Jones and Co., 1829), detail from p. 82.

On Thursday 23rd June, members of the Books and Borrowing team were joined by an online audience for an event highlighting our work on Edinburgh’s historic libraries. This session was hosted by the National Library of Scotland as part of their regular webinar series, and we’re grateful to the library as a whole, and particularly to Kenny Redpath and Beth Cochrane for making it possible.

The event arose from our broader collaboration with the National Library of Scotland on the records of Robert Chambers’s Circulating Library, but it seemed like a great opportunity to discuss something we’re increasingly aware of as our dataset expands—namely the connections between our libraries that exist in the form of recurring works and borrowers. With that in mind, we programmed 45 minutes of short talks, each taking on a facet of library culture in our period, from the borrowing careers of individuals, to the parallel picture of library use beyond Edinburgh itself.

Rev. Archibal Alison (1757–1839), Scottish Enlightenment author and later borrower from Robert Chambers’s Library.

Katie Halsey started things off by welcoming everyone and summarising the Books and Borrowing Project as a whole. This set the scene for what followed with some vital background on why borrowing records are so important for our understanding of what books were actually popular in the past (as opposed to the ones considered important today), as well as answering the crucial question of why such records were originally created, and what forms they took.

I followed with a run-down on some of my recent work on Robert Chambers’s Library. I was keen to highlight the exceptional rarity of the ledger as a record of borrowings from a commercial circulating library in our period, and to give our audience a sense of the people who appear in its pages, including Archibald Alison, author of Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste (1790). This was also an opportunity to show off some of Brian Aitken’s recent progress on our map of Chambers’s borrowers, which will be ready for a public release very soon…

The many ‘Winters’ of Robert Chambers’s Library Catalogue.

Matthew Sangster came next, with an illuminating tour of the Chambers Library catalogue and its books. Matt drew attention to the very strong presence of Henry Colburn-published works that appear in the catalogue, as well as some of the quirks of its four categories: ‘Novels’, ‘Romances’, ‘Miscellaneous Books’, and ‘Recent Publications, Arranged Promiscuously’. I particularly enjoyed hearing about the phenomenon of what were known in the period as ‘taking titles’. This was when authors and publishers sought to capitalise on the popularity of a previous work by copying a key part of its title, as in the run of Winter in/at titles that appear in the Chambers catalogue.

John Hope, Solicitor General’s page in the Chambers Ledger. Detail , NLS Dep.341/413, f. 226.

Kit Baston delivered the first of two talks on our crossover borrowers, introducing us to William Dauney and Scotland’s Solicitor General John Hope, who appear in the records of both Chambers’s Library and the Advocates Library. I was fascinated to hear about Dauney’s interest in music, culminating in his publication of the Skene Manuscript of traditional songs and ballads. More broadly, Kit’s insights suggested how, with enough biographical information, we can usefully link changes in a person’s borrowing habits to events in their life course.

High School Yards, site of the Royal High School 1777-1829.

Following Kit, Maxine Branagh-Miscampbell talked about William Callender and Alexander Cleghorn, Royal High School borrowers who also appear  in the Chambers records. It was powerful to see borrowings from their school days alongside those from nearly five decades later recorded in the respective ledgers. Maxine also returned us to the recurring issue of genre, and the increasing popularity of periodicals among Royal High School Borrowers in the 1820s, a reminder that the ways in which our libraries were used shifted significantly over our period.

Gerard Mckeever brought the talks to a close by offering a regional perspective to offset the overall Edinburgh focus of the event, talking about a selection of circulating and subscription libraries from Scotland’s south west, including the Wigton Subscription Library and Dumfries Presbytery Library. One of the sociological details that stood out to me from Gerry’s talk was the presence of widows in subscription library records, who appointed men to represent them at all-male subscribers’ meetings. While we chose Edinburgh as our focus for this event, it was important to end with this broader scope, emphasising the ways in which library culture spread far beyond Scotland’s cities and universities in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Detail, James Kirkwood, ‘This Map of Scotland, Constructed and Engraved from the best Authorities’ (Edinburgh: J. Kirkwood & Sons; London: W. Faden, 1804), https://maps.nls.uk/view/74400666. Reproduced with permission of the NLS.

Our audience were active in the Q&A throughout, where they were met by the speakers and two of our doctoral researchers, Isla Macfarlane and Joshua Smith. Over eighty people tuned in to hear us talk about the project, and in many cases share their own thoughts about the topics raised – we’re immensely grateful to all of them for making this event a success. I’ll finish this report in the same way we wrapped things up on Thursday, with a note that we’ll be holding another collaborative event with the NLS on Wednesday 31st August, this time a creative writing workshop led by the author Linda Cracknell—more details very soon!