Guest Post – Event Horizons: Books and Borrowing in Eighteenth Century Glasgow

by Christina Devlin, Professor of English and Reading, Montgomery College, Maryland

In April, I was a guest at Books and Borrowing’s workshop at Archives and Special Collections at the University of Glasgow. The twelfth-floor view of the Campsie Hills, new to me as a recent transplant to Glasgow, epitomized how the project expands studies of history, reading, and culture through and beyond academia. Each speaker connected records with books and lives to create a thoughtful picture of both our knowledge of the past and the record keepers’ own ways of knowing. Then, the librarians invited us to view a representative collection of borrowing registers and popular checkouts. Through the day, I saw how the Books and Borrowing database parallels the work of the eighteenth-century library guardians in preserving book culture for future students and readers, opening access and spurring curiosity about books and reading beyond academic pursuits.  The project itself acknowledges that access to materials helps under-represented users ask new questions and create new histories. I noticed right away that the names in the student borrowing register of 1767, all male, contrasted with the equal representation of men and women scholars in 2022.  At the same time, the delightful granularity of the student borrowing registers suggests how nuggets of information spur questions for any interested reader, writer, or thinker. [1]

The student borrowing registers attracted my attention because my professional career focuses on teaching. The register on display at the workshop was register 6: worn, with ink fading from black through brown and into beige–its pages loose. When I scanned the open page 19r, I hunted for religious texts–the focus of my own academic work. I easily located a set of borrowings that made sense to me: one Andrew Thomson, a person with a controlled and precise signature, borrowed a Hebrew Bible and ‘Buxtorfs Hebrew Grammar’ on 27 August 1766.

Detail from Glasgow University Borrowing Register 6, f. 19r, showing borrowings by Andrew Thomson on 17 August 1766

Just like my students, to understand a text, he needed a handbook. In fact, Andrew Thomson appears to have needed more help, for the same register page records that he returned on 3 September to check out another grammatical text, ‘Bellarmins Hebræw Grammar’.

Detail from Glasgow Borrowing Register 6, f. 19r, showing Andrew Thomson’s borrowing on 3 September 1766

So far went the paper register page I could see: like any new researcher, I had basic questions. What other books did Andrew Thomson borrow? Did he graduate? What did the library record mean by Biblica Hebraica? Instead of spending weeks trying to align information from paper records over days of in-person research, the database told me quickly about Andrew Thomson’s use of the library. Compared to other students, he checked out a middling number of books, 29, not enough to put him in the top fifty frequency list but more than many students. He renewed all three Hebrew books for his study at various points in September 1766, then returned the books on 18 October and moved on to the study of Euclid’s Elements. His class was written down as Logic when he borrowed the Bible volumes and so his need for the local Euclid textbook makes sense. Andrew Thomson borrowed Euclid starting in September and renewed the text continuously–only finally returning it on 7 April 1767. My teaching experience and the number of renewals led me to think that he might have been what modern professors call an ‘underprepared student’, so I was glad to learn that he graduated in 1770.

What I could learn about Andrew Thomson’s borrowing was as precise as his signature. With the database, any interested explorer can investigate further. For example, it appeared at first that Andrew Thomson had checked out more than his rules-allotted three books! However, the database showed that ‘Hebrew Lexicon’ meant he renewed what was previously noted as ‘Buxdorfs Grammar’–the names were used interchangeably. The database linked to the library catalogue, so I could learn Biblia Hebraica meant Andrew Thomson was borrowing a polyglot Bible, published in Antwerp, a book which I can still find on the University’s Special Colllections shelves. I discovered (in seconds, rather than days of on-site study) that most students borrowed the first two volumes, to study the Books of Moses across its columns of parallel translation. This Bible was an oft-borrowed work, already more than 100 years old in 1766 and in ranking fiftieth in the list of most borrowed books. While this is preliminary and factual research, the database expands access to support researchers new to the eighteenth-century, library records, or to the study of history without requiring those researchers to have the economic and social privilege that allows me to visit in person.

Biblia sacra Hebraice, Chaldaice, Graece, & Latine - Christoffel Plantijn - clvd-644354
‘Genesis’ from the Plantin Polyglot. Museum Plantin-Moretus, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

For my own part, this snippet of research also changed how I think about the relationship between academic religion study and the popular religious texts by women authors that form the basis of my own study. The completed Books and Borrowing database will reconfigure how people can read and use not just these university records, but the records of many kinds of borrowers and libraries. A future enquirer will surely link other lending libraries’ records with university records to challenge current ideas about the relationship of formal and informal study. Just below the horizon, but now accessible, is the fifty-first most-borrowed book from the University of Glasgow Library: it too has a story, one which can be written by newcomers to the study of the eighteenth century.


[1] My understanding of the organization and eighteenth-century use of the borrowing registers, as well as the twenty-first century use of the database relies on the wonderful workshop presentations I heard on 7 April, as well as the detailed summaries numerous insights in Matthew Sangster, Karen Baston, Brian Aitken, ‘Reconstructing Student Reading Habits in Eighteenth-Century Glasgow: Enlightenment Systems and Digital Reconfigurations’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 54.4 (2021): 935-955. doi:10.1353/ecs.2021.0098