Introducing Books and Borrowing, 1750-1830

Books and Borrowing, 1750-1830: An Analysis of Scottish Borrowers’ Registers brings together researchers from the universities of Stirling and Glasgow and fourteen partner organisations across Scotland. The project is led by Principal Investigator Dr Katie Halsey (Stirling) and Co-Investigator Dr Matthew Sangster (Glasgow) who will work with a team of three post-doctoral research fellows: Karen ‘Kit’ Baston (Glasgow), Alex Deans (Stirling), and Gerald McKeever (Stirling). Each post-doc will be responsible for a set of libraries related to their particular research interests.  Our Digital Humanities Research Officer is Brian Aitken (Glasgow).

The project will uncover and reinterpret the history of reading in Scotland from 1750 to 1830. Scotland’s high literacy rate in the period means that it is unusually rich in surviving borrowing registers from a variety of diverse libraries. The project builds on previous work by Halsey and Sangster which has already shown that previous narratives need to be reassessed.

The period 1750 to 1830 enables investigation of two movements of particular historical and literary interest: the Scottish Enlightenment and Romanticism. Our working hypothesis is that the material collected in our database will significantly challenge prevailing ideas about which texts were most influential during our period.

Our key research question is:

How can the untapped potential of Scottish borrowers’ registers be employed to enrich our knowledge of the histories of books and reading?

To find out we will collect and aggregate data from manuscript borrowers’ registers from the mid-eighteenth and early nineteenth-centuries from libraries across Scotland. We are committed to entering at least 150,000 borrowing records to our database. We will use qualitative methods to identify patterns and trends in borrowing and then employ qualitative methods to interpret these patterns by testing them against other kinds of evidence, such as primary sources from the period as well as new databases and recent scholarship.

The three-year AHRC-funded project will run from June 2020 until May 2023.

COVID19 Contingencies

The closure of libraries and institutions means that we have had to start the project a little differently than originally planned. Interviews and induction meetings have happened via Zoom and our weekly team meetings are already timetabled for the rest of the year in that way. We have met some of our partners in virtual meetings rather than in person.

We are fortunate to have some registers already digitised and data from the pilot projects to work with and our content management system is in action. We have sets of data to standardise and registers to transcribe so, for the first few months anyway, our project timetable has not been changed very much from the original plans. We will concentrate on populating and analysing our database as it grows.

We are considering the best and safest ways to deliver our outreach activities such as workshops and conferences. Many of these were not to happen until 2021 to give us time to collect and analyse our data and we will work with our partners to find alternatives if the need arises.

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