Innerpeffray Library’s Borrowers’ Registers Pilot Project; or How the Whole Thing Started

When I took up my current post at the University of Stirling, after working at the Universities of Cambridge, St Andrews and London, I was lucky to return to the area not only where I was born (Strathearn), but where my family had lived for many generations. Successive ancestors had sat on the Board of Trustees of the Library of Innerpeffray (known as the Mortification). The Library was founded in 1680 as a free lending library under the will of David Drummond, third Lord Madertie, who bequeathed his own collection for the benefit of the surrounding people, and particularly ‘the young students’ of the area. Madertie’s visionary action thus started what may be Scotland’s first lending library.

My own involvement with the library began when I became interested in their manuscript borrowers’ registers, which cover the period 1747 to 1968, and are unusually rich in containing information about a number of the borrowers’ occupations, addresses and familial relationships, in addition to the bare minimum of information normally contained in such registers (as standard, these include the name of the borrower, date of borrowing, and book borrowed). As a historian of reading, with a particular interest in the reading of the labouring classes, I was delighted to discover this fascinating archival material, and to start integrating work on the registers into my own wider research.

Earlier library historians, such as Paul Kaufmann, had looked at the registers and drawn their own conclusions, and later scholars such as Mark Towsey had considered them in the context of specific periods of history and the borrowing of particular genres. This was excellent and valuable scholarship, but it rapidly became evident to me that digital technologies would allow us to do some much more extensive and systematic analysis of the borrowers, books and borrowing patterns, and that a key first step would be to photograph and then transcribe the registers, and enter the information within them into some form of database. I therefore began a series of applications to funding bodies to get this work done. The registers were photographed by the late Alistair Ross, with a small grant from the Carnegie Trust. The Delmas Foundation funded a research assistant, Kate Buchanan, to do the transcription. The transcription was no easy task – Kate was working with entries that were sometimes semi-illegible, crossed out, or unduly laconic (identifying what ‘a Small book on the unchangeableness of God’ might have been was a particularly challenging task)!

Register entry from Innerpeffray Library
12 Sept. 1747: Janet Cooper borrows ‘a Smal book on the unchangeableness of God’

But she persevered, mainly successfully. In 2015, the Scottish Graduate School for the Arts and Humanities funded a PhD studentship, which our scholarship committee awarded to Jill Dye, who completed a project on the borrowers’ registers in 2018. Jill and I spent those three years working together to interpret and analyse the research findings arising from the registers. In my next post, I’ll introduce readers briefly to some of these findings, although for those interested in seeing them in their entirety, Jill’s book on Innerpeffray Library will be published by Brill very soon, and in the meantime her excellent PhD thesis is available online.

Late in 2017, a serendipitous conversation over lunch at a mutual friend’s house with Matthew Sangster revealed that he, too, had been working on borrowers’ registers – namely those of St Andrews University Library and Glasgow University Library – and we began to think about how we might bring our work together. Once others learned that we were interested in historic borrowers’ registers, it was astonishing how many started to come to light – and so the current project, which brings together 14 registers from the period 1750-1830 was born.