Books and Borrowing 1750-1830

Romantic Period Book Circulation: Our BARS Salon, 18 August 2021

Which books were really circulating in the Romantic Period?

We will be hosting a salon at Romantic Disconnections/Reconnections, BARS’ International Digital Conference which is taking place from 12-20 August 2021.

Our salon on ‘Romantic Period Book Circulation’ will take place on 18 August 2021 from 11:30-13:00 (BST) and is limited to 20 participants. Registrants will receive information about how to join the salon directly from BARS. We will hope to have some exciting and stimulating discussions about the books that were circulating in our period.

In advance of our salon, we invite attendees to look at the four images below. Each of these constitutes a page of borrowings from a different Scottish library in the Romantic period, and we hope that looking at the books that were actually being borrowed will spark some interesting and provocative discussions about how we conceive of Romanticism itself.

We hope that discussions during the salon might then focus on what how what we are seeing might differ from (or indeed confirm) what we might have expected to see, although we also very much hope that this will also lead us into some much broader issues.

Edinburgh University Library – August 1789

Edinburgh University Library Receipt Book, MS Da.2.22, f. 222 showing borrowings from 11-13 August 1789

The University of Edinburgh’s Library dates from the 1580s. In the eighteenth century, its book loans were recorded in receipt books. Students borrowed books for a fortnight and were required to leave deposits against the return of the books. Although many of the books loaned at this time in the library’s history were on medical topics, this page has loans of books relating to history, law, and mineralogy. Do these topics have Romantic connections? Might these borrowings reflect a response to contemporary events? News of the French Revolution was reported in the Edinburgh newspapers in July and August 1789. Or are these borrowings an indication of summer reading away from the demands of the curriculum? Or something else?

Orkney Library – May 1817

Orkney Library Borrowing Register, Kirkwall Archives, MS C0/100/3

This image is of a page of one of the borrowers’ registers from the Orkney Library, founded as a subscription library in 1815 in Kirkwall. This register, held at the Kirkwall Archives, MS C0/100/3, contains borrowings from 20 April 1816 to 20 November 1817, and the page shown deals mainly with borrowings from May of 1817. Note that the first entry – for Hannah More’s Coelebs in Search of a Wife – includes the note ‘brought over’, denoting that the book had been borrowed earlier but not yet returned by the time the record-keeper needed to start a new page of borrowings.

The 1844 catalogue of the Orkney Library (including its Rules) is available at

Leighton Library – August 1818

Leighton Library, ‘Water Drinkers’ Register, Miss Walker’s borrowings from August 1818

This page of borrowings, featuring those of Miss Walker in August 1818, is from the Water Drinkers’ Register of the Leighton Library, one of Scotland’s first subscription libraries, in Dunblane. The Water Drinkers’ Register contains the book loans of tourists to Dunblane between 1815 and 1833, after mineral springs were discovered at the Cromlix estate, a few miles north of the town. The Water Drinkers would pay 2s, and 6d. per fortnight (as Miss Walker exemplifies) to borrow books from the library.

This page was chosen for a few reasons. Firstly, this is one of the fuller pages in the ledger, with many water drinkers only borrowing a handful of books during their stay. The books borrowed by Miss Walker are also fairly representative of the borrowings of the water drinkers as a collective. However the most discussion-worthy reason for the selection of this page is that it features a female reader who is not reading female novelists. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is published in the same year as these borrowings, as are Jane Austen’s posthumously published novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, the fifth and sixth of her books to be published in the 1810s. What does this tell us, then, about the contemporaneous popularity of today’s canonical female novelists of the Romantic period?

Wigton Subscription Library – 1832

Wigtown Library Borrowings, Mrs Murray (or McMurray), 1832

The Wigtown Subscription Library was founded in 1795 in the town of Wigtown in southwest Scotland. Mark Towsey has worked on surviving borrowing records covering the first five years of the library’s existence, and he identifies Wigtown as a prototypical provincial subscription library acting to enlist its members in the republic of letters and demonstrating the provincial spread of Enlightenment culture. Our project is adding to this with research on a later, much larger batch of borrowing records covering 1828-1836. The library’s membership reflected what we might think of as the upper three-quarters of the social strata in the town and surrounding agricultural landscape, ranging from reputable tradesmen such as a miller and a tailor to major landowners, with a particular emphasis on the professional classes and a consistent presence of female readers. The image selected here is a sample of borrowings by a Mrs Murray/McMurray, whose location is given elsewhere as ‘Lion Inn Wigtown’. The borrowings themselves are fairly typical of the library at this period, with a strong emphasis on fiction and periodicals that sits interestingly with the ‘improving’ ambition of the subscription library as an institution.