Numbers, Focus and Prioritisation

Over the last few weeks, the Books and Borrowing team have been working on a problem of which we were aware at the outset of the project, but one that has grown in prominence as we’ve discovered more library records and added further institutions to our list while conducting our research.  Our target is to reach 150,000 records in the Books and Borrowing system by the end of the project, and this seems at the moment to be a reasonable goal.  After sixteen of our thirty-six months, we have about 60,000 largely complete borrowing act records in the system, along with 30,000 further imported records that need some further refinements to connect up properly in the context of the database and one further large batch of about 19,000 records from the Royal High School that Maxine is currently preparing for upload.  We’re presently focusing our attention on the records already uploaded that need further work; this should get us to the halfway point in terms of complete records entered well before the midway point of the project itself.  If anything, therefore, we may be able modestly to exceed our target by the time we reach May 2023.

However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that while the records we’ll be able to enter will represent by some distance the largest sample for the period yet assembled, we will not be able to create digital records for every register entry we’ve located.  Our rough estimate is that there are around 400,000 entries in the ledgers the project will digitise.  This is a good problem to have in many respects, revealing the riches the archive yields once you start looking.  However, it does mean that we now need to think carefully about the data we are entering to try and create a resource that will answer our research questions and those of our users in the best possible manner while also making clear the parameters and limitations of the data entered and providing guidance on where to look for further resources.

This decision speaks to larger questions regarding weighting and representation within our system.  Not all our libraries were equally heavily used, with the number of records varying from 61 for the Inverness Kirk Sessions Library to well over 100,000 each for the universities of Edinburgh and St Andrews.  We are also only able to enter data from records that survive, so in analysing this data, we must do our best to consider the sorts of libraries that did not leave records (particularly commercial circulating libraries) and think about how we might need to read our data carefully to account for their absences.  This is why we are particularly glad to know about the surviving Chambers borrowing register, which can be read along with data on circulating libraries in England (such as the materials examined by Jan Fergus) to give some sense of how different borrowings from such collections were to those from the institutional and subscription libraries that provide the lion’s share of our data.

Deciding which records to prioritise has thus required us to return to our initial questions.  When we set up the project, the key aim was to try and get a better sense of which texts, authors, genres and forms wider readerships were engaging with between 1750 and 1830.  We have good accounts of the interests of a decent number of elite readers already from their publications and surviving archival records such as reading diaries and commonplace books.  We wanted to try and get closer to shadowier figures who are less well documented in surviving sources.  We were also keen to take advantage of the broad geographical range of the records we’d located.  Did the subscribers in Kirkwall and Wigtown read similar books despite the 400 miles separating them, or were their interests very different?  To what extent was reading in Scotland a regional concern in this period, and did rural reading differ from reading in the urban centres?  Finally, we were keen to test established or inherited narratives of Enlightenment and Romanticism.  Did the Scottish Enlightenment described by intellectual historians cut through to a wide readership, or was it a relatively elite concern?  When A.E. Housman claimed of the publication of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads that ‘1798 is in the literature of England what 1789 is in the polity of France’ (314), was he accurately describing a detectable revolution in reading habits, or reflecting a historical consensus that emerged considerably later and which fails to represent what readers were genuinely engaging with around 1800?

Looking back to these questions – along with useful advice from our advisory board – has helped us come up with an initial plan of action regarding which records to prioritise.  Our first concern will be to construct a data set that is as diverse as possible in terms of readers, library types and geographical reach.  To achieve this, we will focus on complete transcriptions of the records of the smaller and more widely distributed libraries the project examines.  In this area, Gerry has already completed a full transcription of the Wigtown records, and Alex has made substantial inroads into the complicated records from Westerkirk.  To complement these, we will be working over the next few months on aligning existing data from libraries including Innerpeffray (prepared as part of one of our pilot projects), the John Gray Library at Haddington (kindly offered to the project by Viv Dunstan) and Craigston Castle (kindly provided by Sandra Cumming).  We will also be working on further transcriptions from the records of the Leighton Library and on the new records we’ve been able to obtain as lockdown restrictions have eased, such as the records from Kirkwall that Katie has photographed and the records from Aberdeen that Gerry has recently gathered.  We will pay particular attention to types of library for which we only have a single example, such as the Hunterian Museum Library (work on which Kit has already completed) and Robert Chambers’ circulating library.

St Andrews University Library, depicted by John Oliphant (1769)












This leaves the question of what to do with the really big sets of records: those of the Advocates Library, the University of Edinburgh and the University of St Andrews.  In approaching these, we will take two approaches.  The first in the case of the university records is to focus on student and town borrowings, rather than the considerable runs of professorial data.  This reflects our concern with broad readerships.  While it would be fascinating to see exactly which texts men like Joseph Black and Hugh Blair were borrowing from the university collection in Edinburgh, we already know a good deal about their interests from their extensive publications and from the existing academic literature examining them.  Professorial borrowings are often very extensive (see for example Kit’s estimate that William Robertson is responsible for around 3500 borrowings from Edinburgh).  It is also harder than with some other forms of borrowing to equate professorial loans with reading – there is evidence from both Edinburgh and St Andrews that certain professors effectively borrowed whole sub-libraries during their tenures, keeping these shelved in their own quarters.  We will include some professorial borrowings in the database (Kit has already completed work on forty years of records from Glasgow (1751-1790)) and we will conduct qualitative work using professorial ledgers.  However, we will not be prioritising entering professorial data as part of this project, as this does not seem to us to be best suited to answer the particular questions we want to frame or to address the gaps in knowledge we believe need most urgently to be filled.  We will also admit to a pragmatic reason for leaving professorial borrowings aside for now, which is that they constitute a coherent core around which an expansion of this project might be pitched that frames some different kinds of enquiry (for example, regarding pedagogy, scholarly research practices, disciplinary emergence within institutions, academic networks and nascent professionalisation).

Our second approach with the large runs will be to prioritise particular decades that will let us answer our key questions.  Very few of our libraries possess records that run right through our eighty-year span, which means that there are certain areas we might target to produce good comparisons and to fill gaps.

There are fewer records from the 1750s and the 1760s than from later decades, and we are already committed to entering many of these as part of processing full runs from smaller libraries.  This coincides with the period that the Glasgow student records we have already entered cover (1757-1771) and with an early combined register of students and professors from St Andrews that Gerry has already added to the system.  In the first year of the project, we have also entered extensive data regarding St Andrews and Edinburgh students during the 1770s.  This means that we are pretty well equipped to answer our questions about the Scottish Enlightenment, and we will be even better position when we add in some data from the Advocates Library.

At the moment, though, we are less well situated for answering our questions about Enlightenment legacies and about Romantic-period reading.  To answer these, we plan to target transcriptions from the big runs in the 1790s and the 1820s.  Examining the former decade will let us see the extent to which the Revolution controversy appeared as a major issue for wide readerships, and will also let us check in and see which popular texts from the 1770s dropped out of fashion and what replaced them (we expect, for example, to see Charles Rollin replaced by Hugh Blair as the first port of call for studying Rhetoric and Belles Lettres).  For the 1820s, we have a particular wealth of diverse material, including the second tranche of Wigtown records, parts of the Westerkirk run, the Chambers ledger and the Leighton water drinkers’ registers.  This is also an apposite decade to address the question of whether the writers we now think of as representing the Romantic period had much traction within it.  Our current database shows a lot of Walter Scott, and some Lord Byron, but little evidence that readers were poring seriously over the poetry of Wordsworth, Coleridge and John Keats in individual collections.  However, we need more data to be able to make this assertion confidently, and we also need to consider how readers might have encountered these poets in other ways.  Our current data indicates that Scottish readers in numerous locations were obsessed with Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine.  If, as David Higgins has argued, Blackwood’s played a crucial role in creating the ideologies underpinning Romantic notions of genius, it is possible that even if Scottish libraries were not circulating Wordsworth’s works directly, they were nevertheless providing materials that would help to pave the ground for his Victorian ascendancy.


Works Cited

Fergus, Jan, Provincial Readers in Eighteenth-Century England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)

Housman, A.E., Collected Poems and Selected Prose, ed. by Christopher Ricks (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988)

Higgins, David, Romantic Genius and the Literary Magazine: Biography, Celebrity, Politics (London: Routledge, 2005)