Scottish Libraries and the Associational World

by Josh Smith

Ours is the age of societies. For the redress of every oppression that is done under the sun, there is a public meeting. For the cure of every sorrow by which our land or our race can be visited, there are patrons, vice-presidents, and secretaries. For the diffusion of every blessing of which mankind can partake in common, there is a committee’.

James Stephen, ‘The Clapham Sect’, Essays in Ecclesiastical Biography (London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1849), II, p.382.

Writing in the 1840s, Sir James Stephen recognised that his was an age filled with associational involvement. Here Stephen is more particularly concerned with the evangelical missionary and Bible societies which filled Victorian Britain, yet the trends he described were ubiquitous even half a century earlier. The long eighteenth century is widely recognised to be an associational world, filled with social clubs and societies of innumerable types.

The range was vast and included, amongst many others: debating, gambling, and drinking clubs, philosophical, literary and scientific societies as well as political and philanthropic associations. Nor were contemporary definitions fixed on how a society differed from a club, or a corporation from an association and many of these terms were used interchangeably.[1] Nevertheless, these were typically private bodies, whose members met on a regular basis, sometimes at a public venue, such as a tavern and coffee house, or a private premises, for sociability combined with a particular purpose whether recreational, intellectual, political, or philanthropic.

‘The Dilettanti Society’, by Charles Algernon Tomkins, after Sir Joshua Reynolds. Credit: National Portrait Gallery, NPG D32326.
‘The Dilettanti Society’, by Charles Algernon Tomkins, after Sir Joshua Reynolds. Credit: National Portrait Gallery, NPG D32326.

Of course, library societies were an aspect of this associational world and many of the Books and Borrowing libraries owe their existence to the enterprising initiative of a few individuals, pooling their resources together in order to establish a permanent collection of books. Like all clubs and societies of this period, the regulations and rules of entry were written and printed. For libraries these rules were typically affixed to the front of a catalogue detailing how it would be managed, the requirements for membership, borrowing rights and fines. Becoming a member of a library society typically involved the payment of a one-off entry fee and then payment of an annual subscription. Sometimes prospective members were required to obtain the further consent of a number of existing members. For example, the rules of the Leighton Library at Dunblane read: ‘That any person may be admitted as Civis, upon obtaining the consent of two of the Trustees, and paying five shillings’[2]. Obtaining this consent may have proved little more than a formality but at least provided the library’s membership with a shade of exclusivity.[3]

Rules of the Leightonian Library
Rules of the Leightonian Library of Dunblane

Establishing a system of subscription provided a means of funding through which a library could continue to grow and purchase books whilst also discouraging single or infrequent users. In a manner similar to other clubs and societies, the regulations of a library society provided an exclusive space for members and their books to inhabit.

For some members, the option to borrow books was of less importance than the opportunity to act as passive patrons for a local cause. Amongst the subscribers at the Wigtown Subscription Library were John Stewart, 7th Earl of Galloway (1736-1806) and later his son George, the 8th Earl (1768-1834).  Neither Earl seems to have borrowed books but both were happy to associate themselves with as well as support the library financially and in the form of book donations.[4]

Signature of John Stewart, 7th Earl of Galloway (1736-1806) in the Minute Book of the Wigtown Subscription Library, 8 September 1795.
Signature of John Stewart, 7th Earl of Galloway (1736-1806) in the Minute Book of the Wigtown Subscription Library, 8 September 1795.

Active members of a library society could also assert their status as local leaders by acting as president, clerk or treasurer and serving on a library committee, thereby taking an active role in the library’s administration. Studying the borrowing records of these associational libraries could reveal which members prioritised these associational aspects of membership over the opportunity to borrow books from a library’s collection.

The work undertaken by the Books and Borrowing team will help uncover these associational networks surrounding libraries. A deep study of library records will also help to enlighten similarities in our libraries with other aspects of associational culture in Scotland.

The Scottish Enlightenment constituted an ‘integral part’ of Scottish associational culture and the works of David Hume, William Robertson, Adam Ferguson, and Adam Smith commonly appeared in the catalogues of Scottish libraries.[5] A general selection of the works of canonical authors such as these were considered key to prevent, as an entry to the New Statistical Account put it: ‘[the] pernicious reading commonly called light reading’ at the expense of books ‘fitted to expand the mind, and to cultivate and refine better feelings and affections of the heart’.[6] Yet it may be that once bought, such canonical texts adorned the library’s shelves, monuments to an enlightened ideal but overlooked by users who preferred the novels of Jane Porter or Walter Scott.

Our libraries may differ in other respects. Associational clubs and societies were typically an urban phenomenon and their increase in number can be tied to a period of urban expansion, or an ‘urban renaissance’, taking place in British towns during the eighteenth century.[7] Yet many of our libraries inhabited rural locales such as Dunblane, Selkirk, Wigtown and Westerkirk, far from the sometimes social and intellectually exclusive clubs of Edinburgh or Glasgow. That membership in a library society had a role in shaping local identities in rural Scotland is immediately clear from the opening pages of the minute book at Westerkirk Parish Library which uses the collective phrase ‘We the miners’.[8]

Minute Book of Westerkirk Parish Library, 1 August 1793.
Minute Book of Westerkirk Parish Library, 1 August 1793.

Nor does the subscription library movement seem to be a case of a metropolitan phenomena transplanting itself into the provinces.[9] Indeed, the first subscription libraries emerged in North America, the first in the form of the Library Company of Philadelphia in 1731, before spreading to Scotland, at Leadhills (1741) and Kelso (1750) and then northern England, at Liverpool (1758), Warrington (1760), Leeds and Halifax (both 1768).[10] No doubt further similarities and differences between wider associational culture and library societies will become clearer as the work of the team progresses.

[1] Peter Clark, British Clubs and Societies, 1580-1800: The Origins of an Associational World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp.10-11.

[2] A Catalogue of the Leightonian Library, Dunblane (Edinburgh: William Smellie, 1793), p.iii.

[3] Jill Dye, ‘Books and their Borrowers at the Library of Innerpeffray c. 1680-1855’, unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Stirling (2018), p.187.

[4] Mark Towsey, ‘First Steps in Associational Reading: Book Use and Sociability at the Wigtown Subscription Library 1795–99’, Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 103:4 (2009), pp.476-77. Not all patrons were as consistent with their support. Another subscriber at Wigtown, John Hathorn, army captain and laird of Castlewigg, defaulted in his annual subscription payments and was later struck off as a library member.

[5] David Allan, ‘Politeness, Sociability, and the “Little Platoon”: Associational Theory in the Scottish Enlightenment’, in Mark C. Wallace and Jane Rendall (eds.), Association and Enlightenment: Scottish Clubs and Societies, 1700-1830 (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2021), pp33-34.

[6] J. Gordon, ed., The New Statistical Account of Scotland: by the ministers of the respective parishes, under the superintendence of a committee of the Society for the Benefit of the Sons and Daughters of the Clergy, vol. 7 (Edinburgh: Blackwoods and Sons, 1845), pp.469-70.

[7] Peter Borsay, The English Urban Renaissance: Culture and Society in the Provincial Town, 1660-1770 (Oxford: Clarendon, 2002), pp.16-28

[8] Minute Book of Westerkirk Parish Library, 1 August 1793.

[9] Mark Towsey and Kyle B. Roberts, ‘Introduction’ in Before the Public Library: Reading, Community, and Identity in the Atlantic World, 1650–1850 (Leiden: Brill, 2017), pp.21-22.

[10] Keith A. Manley, Books, Borrowers, and Shareholders. Scottish Circulating and Subscription Libraries before 1825: A Survey and Listing (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Bibliographical Society, 2012), pp.17-18, 28-29.