Political Readers and the Associational Reading Space: Starting a PhD on Library Records

by Josh Smith

Recovering evidence of historical reading can often be a fraught endeavour for the historical researcher as the purpose and act of reading remains intrinsically personal to the individual reader. Yet library borrowing records are one of the clearest sources available to those assessing which printed publications historical audiences engaged with. Of course, as remains the case today, a book borrowed is not necessarily a book read. Nevertheless, library borrowing records can not only reveal a library’s holdings, practice or users but also allow us to re-examine existing historical and literary canons. This is why the Books and Borrowing project and its ambition to create a database of borrowing data from the records of fifteen (or possibly more) partner libraries represents an exciting forward step in library, reading, and information history. I am excited to have joined the team after beginning my PhD at the University of Stirling this month.

My own project will examine political readers and political reading in Britain between the years 1800 and 1832, with a particular focus on the library records of two subscription libraries, the Bristol Library Society and one of the partner libraries of the Books and Borrowing project, the Leighton Library in Dunblane. The first three decades of the nineteenth century saw a period of immense social and political upheaval that included global conflict with France, economic hardship, political radicalism, violent repression and eventual parliamentary reform with the first Reform Act in 1832. Analysing what readers read and how they did so provides a direct link from cultural and intellectual texts to political action in a period that witnessed unprecedented participation in parliamentary and extra-parliamentary affairs. This includes reactions to overtly political works as well as other genres of text which took on a political significance or were read in a partisan manner by readers (such as ‘Jacobin’ and anti-Jacobin novels). Readers reacted to books in a number of ways, in letters to others, in their own diaries and commonplace journals or directly in the texts they were reading, approving, challenging, or correcting the authorial written word. In the context of a private subscription library, members could collectively decide whether to exclude certain genres or works from their stock, or social groups from their membership. At Bristol this meant the rejection of novels, especially those of ‘ambiguous character and ephemeral reputation’, and the barring of inn, tavern and coffee-house owners from membership in the society. There were no similar restrictions at the Leighton Library, membership requiring only the consent of two existing members and the yearly payment of five shillings.

interior of an inn
An early nineteenth-century print of the interior of an inn. In barring inn owners from its membership, the Bristol Library Society may also have been trying to assert itself as an institution of sobriety and enlightenment. Credit: The British Museum (1896,0511.88).

By 1800 the Leighton Library had existed as a lending institution for over a century and had readily extended its collection of texts beyond the 1400 or so works bequeathed to it in the will of Robert Leighton, including an acquisition of Scottish Enlightenment texts described by Mark Towsey as ‘exceptional’. From Leighton’s borrowing registers we can begin to rebuild some aspects of historical reading. For example, we see that on 20th September 1813, Mr Smith of Deanston borrowed both volumes of Robert Bisset’s Life of Burke alongside Edmund Burke’s Vindication of Natural Society, perhaps using Bisset’s biography to provide context for and enlighten his own reading of Burke’s text.

Leighton MS 27, p. 227
The borrowing records of Mr Smith of Deanston. (Leighton MS 27, p.227.)

Evidently, nothing in this entry proves that Smith actually read either Bisset or Burke, yet the repeated borrowing of subsequent volumes of the same text does at least allow us to infer that some amount of reading did take place. For example, on 17th February 1813, Mr Gordon of Dunblane borrowed the first volume of Bisset’s Life of Burke before returning to the library a week later to borrow its second volume.

The borrowing records of Mr Gordon of Dunblane. (Leighton MS 27, p.245.)

Bisset’s Life of Burke is described as an ‘Impartial Account of his Literary and Political Efforts’ although Bisset’s own political views were anything but impartial. A committed reactionary and opponent to democracy, Bisset was a frequent contributor to the ultra-Tory periodical the Anti-Jacobin Review, in his view defending church and state from malevolent radical threats. To this end, Bisset was also the author of two anti-Jacobin novels, using the fictional format to castigate writers such as Thomas Paine, William Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecraft for misleading and infecting the morals of the literary public. Yet none of Bisset’s stridently political work seems to have been included in the Leighton’s collection. Moreover, for those who did borrow Bisset’s work the motivation for doing so may have been more practical, for pleasure and learning, than political. Further study of the Leighton Library’s borrowing records may reveal further insights in this regard.