Guest Post – Institutional Borrowing: Inventories, Registers, Receipt Books

By Dr Dahlia Porter, University of Glasgow

[This post is based on a talk I gave at the Books and Borrowing event on 7 April 2022, which was unfortunately interrupted by a power outage!]

In this post, I am going to compare book borrowing registers like those being digitized by the Books and Borrowing project with borrowing registers for other kinds of materials — including archival documents, anatomical preparations and mineral samples. Before I dig into these documents, however, I want to say how I am approaching registers methodologically. Scholars have long mined registers, catalogues, and inventories for information about specific items in collections and their provenance. The Books and Borrowing project shifts this emphasis on individual items to allow for a more big picture analysis of book borrowing trends and patterns across many institutions. I’m interested in yet another approach: I want to understand how registers and catalogues work as a genre. What can their form and format tell us? And specifically, what can the formal characteristics of genres that list tell us about processes of institutional change and the consolidation of modern disciplines?

In an essay I wrote for the essay collection Institutions of Literature (Cambridge UP, 2022, co-edited by Matt Sangster and Jon Mee), I argued that catalogues and inventories are ‘institutionalizing genres’ – that is, they are one of the ways institutions consolidate their identity through collections of material objects. Catalogues and inventories identify and organize objects, inserting them into epistemic and bureaucratic systems. As the essays in James Delbourgo and Staffan Müller-Wille’s special issue of Isis (‘Listmania’) show, lists often do both things at once: they are ways of knowing and ordering the natural world (as when a mineral, shell or plant is catalogued taxonomically) but they also insert objects into administrative and bureaucratic systems. Borrowing registers are also about both the organization of knowledge and of things in space; as a specialized form of bureaucratic inventory, they allow us to understand the way objects circulate (or don’t circulate) within specific institutional communities.

While catalogues, inventories, and registers seem to be primarily utilitarian – they allow people to keep track of what and where things are, who has what – they also tell stories, both purposeful and through the accumulation of data over time. (See the essay on ‘Catalogues’ in Interacting with Print: Elements of Reading in the Era of Print Saturation, Chicago 2018, for an elaboration of this idea.) The digitization project that the Books and Borrowing team is undertaking will make it possible to tell a host of different kinds of stories about borrowers and readers. In addition, since these are records attached to specific institutions, they can also tell us things about those institutions individually and in relation to other institutions.

One way inventories do this is through their formal characteristics: how lists are structured, what kind of information they contain or lack, how it is entered, even what kind of book they are kept in – all of these elements are integral to the way lists function in an institution. For example, the borrowing register for William Hunter’s books (started in 1807, when his collection entered the Glasgow Hunterian Museum) is a very large, ruled ledger bearing a custom bookplate and lettered tabs for ease of opening (Images 1 and 2); the book itself indicates the presumed importance of the collection and how its use was imagined by the institution at the time of acquisition. This imposing volume is also largely blank, indicating that actual use did not correlate strongly with these projections. (By contrast, the Professors’ receipt book for the general collection in the same period is similarly formatted but its tabs and spine, which has fallen apart, attest to constant use).

Image 1: Register of books borrowed from the Hunterian Library, 1808-1852. GB 247 MR 25. With the permission of University of Glasgow Library Archives and Special Collections.
Image 2: Register of books borrowed from the Hunterian Library, 1808-1852. GB 247 MR 25. With the permission of University of Glasgow Library Archives and Special Collections.
Image 3: Professors’ receipt book. Glasgow University Library, June 1789 to February 1833. With the permission of University of Glasgow Library Archives and Special Collections.

Beyond what the physical attributes of registers can tell us about perceptions of a collection and how (and if) it was used, registers also have what Ian Bogost (in his book Persuasive Games) calls ‘procedural rhetoric’: that is, rather than making narrative arguments (as a public facing document like a mission statement would), catalogues and registers show us how things are done — which is itself a persuasive and powerful statement about institutional culture. As records of standard procedures and policies, registers reveal practices and habits that give an institution its particular character. If we analyse the form of registers – their interlineations, notes, strike-throughs, paste-ins, shorthand and technical language – we can see how they materialize the methods, techniques and logics of an institution’s bureaucratic systems. And sometimes we can see instabilities and points of contestation — places and times when habits are being challenged, when people or things are bucking the system.

I now want to give a couple examples of the procedural rhetoric of borrowing registers and to talk about what we can learn about an institution (in this case, the University of Glasgow) by looking at different kinds of registers together.

As those of you who have created or worked with the digitized borrowing registers know, the book borrowing registers for students and professors are largely standardized: they include the similar information and retain consistent patterns of organization (name of borrower, followed by location of volume, author/title, edition, date taken out and date returned). This is consistent over a long period, from the middle of the 18th to the middle of the 19th century. Professor’s registers are organized by borrower, while student registers are organized chronologically; student registers also include a column for ‘Professors warrant,’ indicating that students needed authorization to borrow books. Looking at registers across the 18th and 19th centuries, it is clear there are established, long-standing policies in place for book borrowing, and these procedures are directly related to how the books are organized in space (directly after the borrower’s name there are three columns for press, shelf and number).

The separate catalogues for William Hunter’s books are largely consistent with this establish format, but there are variations in the borrowing registers for other separate collections, such as that of Richard Simson, donated in 1768. This register has a less standardized format for entries at the very beginning (in 1771, left), but the register’s formatting shifts over time to resemble the general collection registers (certainly by 1797, right). This shows variation in initial practice being brought into alignment with established procedures, despite the separation of the collections.

Image 4: Rules &c Relating to Dr R Simsons Collection of Books 1768, 1768. GB 247 Ea5-b.1. With the permission of University of Glasgow Library Archives and Special Collections.
Image 5: Rules &c Relating to Dr R Simsons Collection of Books 1768, 1768. GB 247 Ea5-b.1. With the permission of University of Glasgow Library Archives and Special Collections.

I now want to step away from books to consider other sorts of material objects. University of Glasgow Archives and Special Collections also hold borrowing records of Hunterian Museum anatomical preparations and minerals, which were used extensively for both research and teaching in the first half of the 19th-century. These registers are visually striking because they are extremely bare bones (haha): they are organized by borrower and date but otherwise record only a category (Uterus, nerves, absorbants, intestines) and series of numbers separated by commas. These numbers correspond with the entries in MR 20, the Trustees Catalogue of Hunter’s Anatomical Preparations, prepared in 1783 and delivered to Glasgow along with the collection; this catalogue describes what each numbered preparation is intended to ‘show’, anatomically or pathologically. In the borrowing register, return is signalled, as in the Clerk’s Press document registers, with a strike-through, in this case heavy double lines that largely obscure the number. The register does not provide any information about how or where the preparations are stored, but it does begin, in 1816, to indicate where they were being taken to, e.g. the Anatomical Theatre. Further, in addition to the heavy double strike-throughs, the register also includes numerous dated notes initialled by James Couper, the museum keeper, indicating that ‘all the preparations returned that were taken out for the Anatomy class this session’.

Image 6: Register of anatomical preparations and minerals, 1808-1842. GB 247 MR 26. With the permission of University of Glasgow Library Archives and Special Collections.
Image 7: Register of anatomical preparations and minerals, 1808-1842. GB 247 MR 26. With the permission of University of Glasgow Library Archives and Special Collections.
Image 8: Register of anatomical preparations and minerals, 1808-1842. GB 247 MR 26. With the permission of University of Glasgow Library Archives and Special Collections.

Comparing this to the borrowing register for minerals in the same volume, is enlightening: while the forms of accounting persist, this operates alongside less regimented system represented by undated torn slips of paper stuck into the register and notes such as ‘Dr. Cleghorn will thank Dr. Couper for the ores of Lead’ or ‘Dr Cleghorn returns all the specimens but 2 – He will thank Dr Couper for some of same marbles & particularly the figured (dendritical) ones and those containing shells’. Material features of the two registers suggest a difference in the status of the objects – and the anxiety attendant on their borrowing – as well as a different relationship between the keeper of the object and the borrower.

Taking a look at the records of the Museum Committee confirms that access to Hunter’s anatomical preparations was hotly contested in a way that access to other items in his collections were not. After a decade of back and forth between professors and the museum keeper, in May 1822 the Trustees decided that ‘no person shall be entitled to have any of the presses opened, for the purpose of examining the anatomical preparations, unless they have procured an order signed by five of the Trustees, of which Trustees there must be one of the Medical Professors at least’. This prohibition spurred a response: in 1824 “a Petition from certain Students of Medicine was laid before the Meeting requesting the Trustees to take under their consideration what farther liberty could be granted to them to inspect the anatomical preparations.” In 1840, the Museum Committee decided that ‘the anatomical preparations in the Museum, should not on any account be removed from the room in which they are placed in the Museum’. Despite this, in 1841 Professors of Anatomy were again granted permission to take preparations from the Museum for teaching purposes. This allowance appears to have provoked a response from the Museum Keeper, now James Couper’s son William Couper, who submitted ‘that it would contribute to the security & usefulness of the anatomical preparations of Dr. Hunter as exhibited in the new room if they were protected by an Iron Trellice [sic], a pattern of which he presented to the meeting’.

My point here is that the anatomical preparations (and who could access them under what conditions) was an especially acute site of dispute in this period; this contest is reflected in the procedural rhetoric of the register – the process of double checking of returns, the careful accounting, and the heavy, double line strike-throughs all suggest a level of oversight absent from the other registers. This correlates directly to the disciplinary status of anatomy in this period: when Hunter’s collections arrived in Glasgow gross anatomy was still the ‘queen of medical sciences’ and it was fundamental to claim for the ‘scientific’ foundations of medicine. Access to and control of the anatomical preparations in the Hunterian Museum was thus a hot button issue. The borrowing registers convey this contest in their procedural rhetoric, in how they present, materially, the processes of borrowing.

I will end by stating the obvious: the things I’ve been talking about here — material features of books and paper records – are things that do not translate well into the digital format. However, I think there is real potential to combine the insights derived from studying the material attributes of records in conjunction with digitized data. For example, if all these different registers were digitized, correlating the borrowing register of anatomical preparations with entries in the Trustees catalogue would make it possible to reconstruct how anatomy and pathology were being taught at Glasgow in the early to mid-19th century. This data could be used to confirm or complicate conclusions drawn from student lecture notes or professor’s publications. Expanding out to include records from other institutions, it would also be possible to collate preparation borrowing records and book borrowings by faculty and students; this would enable research into the development and prevalence of research-led teaching and insights into what other kinds of learning students on the anatomy course were undertaking in addition to their medical studies. All this could provide a more fine-grained and nuanced view of medical education, and university education more generally, than is currently possible.

Other archival documents consulted:

‘Minutes of the Hunterian Museum Committee entitled “Hunterian Museum records’”, GUA 11510, Glasgow University Archives.

‘Minute book of the Committee of the Hunterian Museum, 2 Aug. 1820 – 31 Dec. 1842’, GUA 11563, Glasgow University Archives.