Introducing the Chambers’ Library Map of Borrowers, 1827-1830

The Books and Borrowing team are pleased to announce the release of the Chambers’ Library Map of Borrowers, 1827-1830. What began as a quick experiment in georeferencing the borrower addresses recorded in the ledger of Robert Chambers’ Edinburgh circulating library has developed significantly over the past few months, thanks to the hard work of Brian Aitken, and the generosity of our partners at the National Library of Scotland, particularly Chris Fleet, who provided invaluable expertise as well as a georeferenced version of John Ainslie’s ‘Old and New Town of Edinburgh and Leith with the proposed docks’ (1804).

New Books for the New Town

The Chambers Map shows the geographical distribution of approximately 250 borrowers from Robert Chambers’ library based on address data given in the ledger, as well as the location of the library itself at 48 Hanover Street. Kit Baston and I were in many cases able to confirm borrower addresses using historical post-office directories digitised by the NLS. In turn, the directories often provided further information about who borrowers were, such as additional names and titles, and in some cases occupations.

This type of personal information is relatively rare in the library records included in the Books and Borrowing project, so we’ve been to keen make as much use of it as possible in the case of Chambers. We hope that this map will aid interpretation of the broader Chambers dataset which will be made publicly available at a later date. But another motivating factor behind the creation of the Chambers map has been to convey a sense of the library as part of the fabric of its time and place: namely Edinburgh’s wealthy New Town at the end of the 1820s. The map shows that virtually every major street of the New Town was home to one—and in many cases several—of Chambers’ borrowers between 1827-1830. These neighbours, relatives, and strangers collectively made thousands of borrowings from Chambers’ library, and in doing so contributed to nineteenth-century Edinburgh’s urban identity as a ‘Modern Athens’ awash with books and print.

Ainslie’s Map

Dedication of Ainslie’s map. Courtesy of National Library of Scotland.

Borrower locations are shown on John Ainslie’s ‘Old and New Town of Edinburgh and Leith with the proposed docks’ (1804). Ainslie (1745-1828) was a prolific map maker and surveyor, and considered one of Scotland’s foremost cartographic authorities by many of his contemporaries.[1] Although later plans of Edinburgh depict the New Town in a state that more closely matched that inhabited by Robert Chambers’ borrowers in the late 1820s, Ainslie’s presents a good mixture of coverage and detail, yielding some street-level features while managing to include both the Old and New Towns and the city’s wider environs. Mapping Chambers’ borrowers reveals that the library attracted significantly more business from outside the city than it did from the Old Town only a few hundred yards away. For this reason, Ainslie’s plan is underlaid with a modern map to catch borrowers with addresses further afield. Both layers can be freely panned and zoomed to explore particular features or borrower locations.

A Look at Filters and Categories

The Chambers’ Library Map provides various filters to help us explore who our borrowers were and how they used the library. These filters have been chosen to highlight some of the distinctive features of the Chambers library and its borrowers. For example, a relatively high proportion of Chambers borrowers are female, which can be instantly visualised by selecting the Gender categorisation on the map.

The map filtered to only show female borrowers.


Another option allows us to categorise borrowers by Subscription Type. Borrowers from Chambers’ library could choose to pay a range of subscription fees, with access to the newest publications commanding the more expensive rates. Selecting the Subscription Type categorisation on the map shows that the vast majority of borrowers paid extra for what the 1829 Catalogue calls ‘the Privilege of getting an Early Reading of Every New Publication’. We can also categorise borrowers by their Number of Borrowings, revealing which borrowers most exploited their ‘Privilege’ by taking out large numbers of books.

Filtered to show only borrowers with more than fifty borrowings recorded.

By default, the map displays every available borrower location for the entire three-year span covered by the ledger. However this gives a slightly misleading impression of the number of people borrowing concurrently at any one time. For this reason, the Subscription Period slider allows us to narrow the display of borrowers to those who were active within a given time range, with a minimum interval of one month. This is useful for getting a sense of how much business the library attracted on a monthly basis, rather than over the entire three years, but also for checking which borrowers were active at the same time.

Total borrowers (above) versus borrowers active in January 1829 (below).

Clicking on an individual borrower’s pin will open a pop-up display of their name and available personal information, as well as images of the ledger pages on which they appear. As well as offering a glimpse into how borrowings were actually recorded, the ledger itself returns us to the thousands of acts of borrowing which underlie the map display. I think there’s a nice symmetry here, in that both library ledgers and maps are social documents—reflections of how people saw themselves and the things they thought of as important­—rather than simple repositories of information. The struck-through titles given on the ledger pages represent potential acts of reading, but also journeys through space and time by books and people, each entailing a myriad of choices and encounters. These experiences have certainly been on my mind while working on this map of Robert Chambers’ borrowers.

Ledger page of Anne Grant of Laggan, author of Letters from the Mountains (1813).

[1] See Charles W. J. Withers. “The Social Nature of Map Making in the Scottish Enlightenment, c. 1682-c. 1832.” Imago Mundi, vol. 54, 2002, pp. 46–66.