Libraries, Lives and Legacies Research Festival: Event Report – Part One (Liverpool and Online)

Regular readers of this blog will know that over the past few months we had been gearing up for our Research Festival on the theme of Libraries, Lives and Legacies, run in partnership with the C18th Libraries Online project at the University of Liverpool. From 13th to 19th April, therefore, we enjoyed an intense week of all things libraries, beginning with two days in Liverpool, and ending with a trip to the wonderful Innerpeffray Library.

The Liverpool leg of the event took place both in person and via Zoom, as part of Liverpool’s University Sustainability initiative to reduce carbon emissions and time spent travelling, and was hosted by Professor Mark Towsey, Principal Investigator of C18th Libraries online, and Professor of Book History at the University of Liverpool.

Membership Medallion of the Liverpool Library, founded 1758 (Engraving 1801). From the Research Festival programme.

The programme for the first day was on the theme of Old Books, New Media: Digital Humanities Showcase, and the Books and Borrowing team were very excited to be demonstrating our new online interface for the very first time! Brian Aitken has designed a wonderfully complex and yet intuitive interface to allow searching and browsing of our (very extensive) dataset, and we were very proud to show it off in Liverpool.

Matt and Katie take questions about the Books and Borrowing database

Although this is still in development (and thus not yet completely available to the public), we felt it was at a sufficiently advanced stage to show to the audience in Liverpool, and it was lovely to see how positively people responded to it. Matt and I demonstrated the wider features, showing the browse and search functions, and then Kit, Maxine and Josh all drilled down into specific research findings. We will be continuing to develop and refine the resource over the next few months, with the help of people who have agreed to beta-test for us, and we hope it will go fully live by the end of the summer. Watch this space for further news!

C18th Online then demonstrated their own database, and it was enormously helpful for us to think about both commonalities and differences between our two projects, and it was a real pleasure to see Mark and Sophie demonstrating the many exciting things their database can do, including showing us information about individual members of the libraries, matching up library collections against the books actually borrowed from them, and much more! Our databases were from the outset designed to be inter-operable, which will eventually allow comparison between the extant borrowing records of English, American and Scottish libraries.

This excellent demonstration was followed by a round-table chaired by Books and Borrowing’s own Matt Sangster, and featuring Dr Sophie Coulombeau (University of York), Dr Alexander Huber (Romantic Period Poetry Archive), and Dr Kandice Sharren (University of Galway), each of whom described their experiences working on different digital humanities projects, and highlighted their top tips for working on such projects. Lively discussion followed on a variety of topics before we all retired to the beautiful and historic Philharmonic pub to continue our conversations.

The Philharmonic Pub and Dining Rooms, Liverpool

The second day at Liverpool featured research papers from those involved in the C18th Libraries Online project, under the title of Subscription Libraries in North America and the British Isles, 1731-1801 – Books, Concepts, People, Communities. It was an absolutely wonderful programme. We first heard from Professor Norbert Schurer from the University of California at Long Beach, and Matt Sangster, about subscription libraries as institutions. Matt and Norbert helped us to think about the ways in which institutional practice shaped libraries, and libraries shaped institutional practice more broadly. This session was followed by two papers from colleagues who were Zooming in from the University of Western Sydney, Professor Simon Burrows and Professor Robert Mailhammer, who discussed the ways in which data collected from borrowing registers and catalogues and gathered by the C18th Online project could be linked to works in Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) and how such data could be used for weighted historical corpus linguistics. They are engaged in this fascinating and ambitious project at the moment. Many thanks to Simon and Robert for joining us  – it was a very late hour of the day indeed in Sydney!

After a brief break, Dr Kyle Roberts (Congregational Library and Archive) and Dr Laura Miller (University of West Georgia) presented papers on (respectively) the reading of sermons in library collections, and the intersections between libraries and public health. These excellent papers were followed by talks from Brittani Ivan (Western Sydney University) and Dr Rita Dashwood (University of Liverpool). Brittani spoke to us about Australia’s oldest library, in Sydney, the Australian Public Library (also discussed by Brittani on our blog here and Rita considered the borrowing of conduct literature at the Bristol Subscription Library. Dr Lynda Yankaskas (Muhlenberg College) then joined us on Zoom to give a fascinating talk on women readers in early American subscription libraries, and Dr Sophie Jones (University of Liverpool) discussed two further early American subscription libraries (the Library Company of Burlington in New Jersey, and the Union Library of Hatboro in Pennsylvania). We ended the day with a session entitled ‘Libraries and Empire’, in which Lucy Moynihan (University of Liverpool) and Professor Mark Towsey spoke on the links between historical libraries and Britain’s imperial expansion. These were thought-provoking talks, which asked us to think carefully and sensitively about the connections between the two.

Emblem of the Society for Effecting the End of the Slave Trade, by Josiah Wedgwood, 1787

Overall, the Liverpool days were deeply useful to us in thinking through conceptual and methodological questions, talking to our friends in the C18th Libraries Online project about future directions for both projects, and deepening our understanding of the historical contexts within which all our libraries existed. We are very grateful indeed to Mark and his team for all their organisational efforts, which resulted in a wonderful two days. Next week, I will report on the Stirling conference, which was Part Two of our Libraries Lives and Legacies Research Festival.