Libraries, Lives and Legacies Research Festival: Event Report – Part Two (Stirling)

Following on from last week’s blog, in which I reported on the first part of our Libraries Lives and Legacies Research Festival, held in Liverpool and online, this week’s blog will focus on the second of our events, the conference on Reading and Book Circulation 1650-1850, held at the Iris Murdoch Building of the University of Stirling on 17th and 18th April 2023, followed by an excursion to Innerpeffray Library on 19th April. The full conference programme is available to view here.

Stirling University

We were delighted to welcome just over 60 delegates to Stirling’s beautiful campus for two days of papers that ranged very widely over all aspects of reading and print culture. The conference began with a welcome from Professor Nina Parish, Head of the Division of Literature and Languages at the University of Stirling, which was followed by an introduction to the Books and Borrowing project by myself (Katie Halsey), and a demonstration of the Books and Borrowing online interface by Brian Aitken and Matt Sangster. We were very pleased that Brian, who designed and built our system, was able to demonstrate it at the conference, and thus to take the credit he deserves. We were also very excited to launch our new online exhibition Library Lives, Hidden Histories of Reading in Georgian Edinburgh, created in conjunction with Edinburgh University Library, and to demonstrate our lovely visual resource, the interactive map of Chambers Circulating Library, which regular readers of this blog will already know.

Next on the programme were two parallel panels, the first on Reading Practices in Non-Institutional Spaces, and the second on Institutional Libraries. Both were packed with excellent and informative papers. These were followed by lunch and a superb session in the University Archives, where Dr Kelsey Jackson Williams introduced delegates to rare and unusual books from the collections of the Leighton Library and Jacqueline Kennard to her exhibition on the Leighton’s Water Drinker borrowers (this exhibition is reprised from one Jacqueline created during her Carnegie Trust Undergraduate Scholarship internship with Books and Borrowing and is described in detail here. Refreshed in both mind and body, delegates returned to the Iris Murdoch Building for the afternoon’s panels on Circulation and on Private and Religious Libraries. Again, these were truly excellent sessions, from which I learned a great deal.

Léon-Augustin l’Hermite, The Gleaners (1898). This image was not shown by Deidre.

Our next session was the keynote lecture given by Professor Deidre Lynch, Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature at Harvard University. Deidre’s lecture was entitled The Social Lives of Scraps: Shearing, Sharing, Scavenging and Gleaning. This was an enjoyable, entertaining and erudite lecture which advocated convincingly for the importance of ephemeral materials in understanding the print culture of our period. The metaphorical importance of the terms in her title – shearing, sharing, scavenging and gleaning – as terms for creating and understanding literary works of different sorts in the period and beyond was also made clear, and we were treated to some very appealing images during the course of the lecture. The Q&A session afterwards was very lively and engaging.

Crail Gin, one of the artisanal gins available at our Gin Tasting Reception

Deidre’s keynote brought the formal parts of the first day to a close, and we then enjoyed a Gin Tasting Reception, at which three gins from Scotland: Crail Gin, Edinburgh Rhubarb and Ginger Gin, and Highland Seven Crofts Gin were available for tasting, in addition to Blooms London Gin, Inverroche South African Gin, Brecon Botanicals Gin from Wales, and the Lakes Distillery Elderflower Gin from the Lake District. Non-drinkers enjoyed Gordons Non-Alcoholic Gin. The conference dinner then took place in the Windows on the Wallace room at the Stirling Court Hotel where many of the delegates were also staying.

Our second day began with a round table on Borrowers Registers across Scotland, comprised of librarians and archivists from our partner libraries: Elizabeth Quarmby Lawrence (Edinburgh University Library), Lara Haggerty (The Library of Innerpeffray), Bob Maclean (Glasgow University Library), Robert Betteridge (National Library of Scotland) and Rachel Hart (St Andrews University Library). They all spoke brilliantly about the borrowers’ records held at each of these libraries, discussing the ways in which the Books and Borrowing project was opening out different kinds of research, and outlining future ways in which we can make the project still more useful. We are very grateful to them all for their support of the project, and were very happy to hear that they felt our online interface would make access to their rare manuscript resources more accessible.

Two more super parallel panels – entitled Readers, Libraries and Loss, and Books on the Move – followed, after which we regaled ourselves with the Scottish sandwich selection from the University of Stirling’s caterers. The final panels of the conference took place in the afternoon. These were Annotation, Transcription and Reading, and Education respectively. Once again the papers were all very interesting. We collected together again for the last session – Professor Andrew Pettegree (Bishop Wardlaw Professor at the University of St Andrews) gave his keynote lecture on The Universal Short Title Catalogue: Big Data and its Perils. Andrew’s paper was both incisive and provocative, demonstrating the extent to which we have historically underestimated the quantity of print produced in the period covered by the USTC (1450-1650) and the reasons why this should matter to book historians. Andrew emphasised the importance of ephemeral print as a percentage of all printed matter, and gave a fascinating case study based on figures from the Dutch Republic. Andrew’s lecture provided a wonderful end to the conference, which finished with some very brief closing remarks by me.

Innerpeffray Library

On the final day, some delegates took part in the conference excursion to Innerpeffray Library where the Keeper of Books, Lara Haggerty, and her volunteers very kindly gave us a tour of the library and its collections, and allowed us to browse to our hearts’ content. Highlights for me were seeing again two of the library’s most borrowed books – the Comte de Buffon’s Natural History (1749-88), and William Robertson’s History of Charles V (1769), in the latter of which we found some previously un-noticed marginalia. Other delegates were interested in the library’s copies of Sir William Temple’s works, Hester Chapone’s Letters to a Young Lady on the Improvement of the Mind (1778), Robert Burns’s poems in the Kilmarnock edition of 1786, the Bible originally owned by the Marquis of Montrose (which he carried around his neck) and various others, in addition, of course, to Innerpeffray’s Borrowers’ Registers. It was a delightful trip, and we are very grateful to Lara and her volunteers for their hospitality.