Mapping Borrowers from Robert Chambers’ Edinburgh Circulating Library

Edinburgh’s George Street depicted in T.H. Shepherd, Modern Athens, displayed in a series of views; or, Edinburgh in the nineteenth century (London: 1829). The street was home to 29 Chambers Library borrowers.

Earlier in the year, I reported that the Books and Borrowing Project had begun the work of entering the records of Robert Chambers’ Edinburgh Circulating Library into our database. Here, I’d like to share some initial progress towards an additional project, which will use data from the Chambers records to create an online map of individual borrowers. This project is currently in development with the help of Books and Borrowing’s own Brian Aitken, and the National Library of Scotland’s Map Curator Chris Fleet. Among other projects, Brian has previously worked with Gerard McKeever to create an interactive map of Allan Cunningham’s 1826 novel Paul Jones. Chris Fleet has worked on numerous mapping projects, as well as making available the National Library’s formidable collection of digitised geo-referenced maps.

The main goal of the Chambers map is to visualise the geographic distribution of the library’s 192 borrowers, helping to reveal the social and spatial context of the library and its users. The completed map viewer will offer the opportunity to engage with individual borrowers, by highlighting basic biographical and membership information, and images from the Chambers’ Library Ledger—an exceptionally rare example of a surviving Romantic-period circulating library register.

The images presented in this post are little more than a proof of concept, but do, I hope, suggest the potential of visualising historical library use in geographical space. To avoid sullying their hard-earned reputations, I should also emphasise that Brian and Chris were not involved in creating the below, which will surely benefit from their considerable skill and expertise as this project progresses!

Mapping Borrowers in the Modern Athens

Place and literary culture have rarely been more closely intertwined than in nineteenth-century Edinburgh. In the late-eighteenth century, the city’s enterprising booksellers had formed half of what Richard Sher calls the Scottish Enlightenment’s ‘Edinburgh-London publishing axis’, which printed the works of David Hume, Hugh Blair, and Adam Smith.[1] In the early-nineteenth century, rival periodical publications the Edinburgh Review and Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine emerged as the aesthetic, political, and intellectual arbiters of Romantic literary culture. Edinburgh established itself as a hotbed of print, independent from London, and epitomised by the bookseller Archibald Constable, whose publishing house produced both the Edinburgh Review, and the hugely successful Waverley novels of Walter Scott.

Ian Duncan has called this phase of Edinburgh’s history  ‘the post-Enlightenment era of ‘The Modern Athens,” in which its professionals and elites left its medieval Old Town, for the neoclassical grandeur of a New Town initially constructed on James Craig’s plans of 1767, and expanded following the Napoleonic Wars.[2] For Duncan, nineteenth-century Edinburgh’s urban topography and architecture, with its contrasting vistas and styles, embodied Scottish Romantic literature’s own complex mediations of history and modernity.

As Duncan writes, the city was proclaimed a “Modern Athens” as early as 1762, although it probably wasn’t until the early nineteenth century that the moniker entered widespread use as a shorthand for the Scottish capital’s intellectual and cultural ascendance.[3] While the label was resisted by many, it was embraced by others, including T.H. Shepherd, whose 1829 Modern Athens, displayed in a series of views; or, Edinburgh in the nineteenth century, presents elegant plates of Edinburgh street scenes and architecture.

The relationship of Robert Chambers’ Edinburgh Circulating library and its borrowers to this fascinating urban setting is something I’ve been thinking about, then. The Chambers records are a rare surviving link to a particularly vibrant aspect of Edinburgh’s literary culture in the late-1820s. In a previous post, Kit Baston found twenty additional circulating libraries operating in Edinburgh at the same time as that of Robert Chambers, but so far none of their borrowing registers have come to light. Chambers’ library and its borrowers formed part of the fashionable panorama of the New Town. Luckily, the Chambers records provide unusually detailed addresses for the library subscribers, allowing us to link individuals not just to the city in general, but to specific street numbers.

Chambers’s New Town Borrowers

As a first step, I’ve used a free programme called QGIS to geo-reference borrower addresses using data given in the ledger. Unsurprisingly there are a small number of omitted addresses that the geoparser wasn’t able to find; other points may need manual adjustment at a later date. However the first results are promising as a simple illustration of the geographical distribution of the Chambers borrowers, whose numbers seem to have pervaded Edinburgh’s New Town.

Chambers borrowers within Edinburgh and surrounding area.

Viewing Edinburgh as a whole, the predominance of New Town borrowers is very clear, with only a smattering appearing in the Old Town and Leith. In fact, some borrowers lived further afield, paying to have books sent to their homes. The borrowings of Mr P. Hay of Newburgh in Fife, for example, are accompanied by instructions for the delivery of books, and details of charges for carriage.

‘To be given to the Newburgh Postboy at the Cross gates Glenfarg’. P. Hay Esq. of Newburgh’s borrowings in the Chambers Library Register (NLS, Dep. 341/413).

Maps also allow us to quickly visualise information about borrowers. In these images I’ve chosen to distinguish between male and female borrowers, to show the relatively high proportion of the latter appearing in the Chambers records.

Zooming in a bit further, it’s possible to see further clusters of borrowers in certain streets. 29 of them lived on the spinal thoroughfare of George Street, depicted above in Shepherd’s Modern Athens.

A closer look at the distribution of borrowers in the New Town.


The fact that many borrowers were neighbours perhaps isn’t surprising, but is suggestive of the social connections which may have existed between borrowers beyond the library. In some cases, borrowers can be seen living adjacent to one another or even in the same building. Mr and Miss McKerrel of 13 Hill Street were presumably related. Both paid extra to borrow from the library’s stock of new books, and while their tastes differed, both borrowed Elizabeth Caroline Grey’s 1828 novel De Lisle.

Detail from John Ainslie, Plan of Edinburgh and Leith, 1804. Courtesy of National Library of Scotland.

As a final point, I’ve used the freely available Open Street Maps as the map layer for these images. This is useful for illustrating where in Edinburgh our borrowers lived, but gives a misleading impression of the extent and character of the urban environment they inhabited. For this reason, the finished viewer will use John Ainslie’s 1804 plan of Edinburgh and Leith, already digitised and geo-referenced by the National Library of Scotland. I hope to keep everyone up to date with this project as it progresses, and more posts on the Chambers records themselves will appear in the coming months.

[1] See Richard Sher, The Enlightenment and the Book: Scottish Authors and their Publishers in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Ireland and America (Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2006).

[2] Ian Duncan, Scott’s Shadow: The Novel in Romantic Edinburgh (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), p.9.

[3] Ibid, p.14.