Books and Borrowing 1750-1830

Ted Powell Lecture at Innerpeffray

On 4th October I had the honour of giving the Ted Powell Memorial Lecture to the Friends of Innerpeffray Library. Ted Powell was a former librarian at Innerpeffray, and I was delighted to discover from his widow after the talk that he had been a great advocate of the Innerpeffray’s borrowers’ registers, and regularly urged the importance of further scholarship on them.

I began by describing the wider Books and Borrowing project, including our aims and objectives, and introducing the research team and our partner libraries. To put Innerpeffray – Scotland’s first free public lending library – in context, I explained the different types of libraries available to borrowers in the period, and emphasised the fact that most of these would have demanded either institutional membership or a subscription fee. I then enjoyed showing the audience examples of some of the different types of borrowing registers that we have transcribed, including pages from Orkney, Chambers Circulating Library, Westerkirk and Innerpeffray. I had chosen a random page from Innerpeffray’s early register simply to show its narrative format, only to discover that in fact it contained a very interesting entry: “I, William Murray, servant to John Gow in Millnab, grant me to have borrowed out of the Library of Innerpeffray, for the use of my mother, the twelfth and seventh volumes of the History of Europe, which I oblige me to return in three months”. William Murray’s borrowing led me to talk about the hidden women in our borrowing registers, discussed here, here, here, here  and here, and about the literacy rates of servants and their mothers in our period.

William Murray borrows David Jones’s A Compleat History of Europe; or, a view of the affairs thereof, civil and military, for the year 1707 (1708) for his mother

I then presented the data drawn from the new Facts and Figures pages in our digital resource, which easily allows users to discover the top ten books, authors, and borrowers for any given library, and across our whole dataset, along with a range of other interesting statistical facts. It was illuminating to compare the top ten books across the whole dataset with those at Innerpeffray; this allowed me to highlight the fact that only one work featured on both lists, although more broadly the genres that were popular at Innerpeffray are fairly consistent with those across the whole dataset. One further finding that this comparison allows is the fact that Innerpeffray’s borrowers were much more likely to borrow sermons than borrowers at libraries elsewhere – no doubt at least partly because of the prevalence of that genre in Innerpeffray’s holdings.

Comparison of the Most Popular Books at Innerpeffray Library against whole dataset

A comparison of the most popular authors gives fairly similar results, emphasizing the extent to which Innerpeffray’s borrowers were constrained by the holdings of the library in the choices that they could make. The total absence of novels and imaginative literature in the records of Innerpeffray’s most popular books and authors (with the exception of Shakespeare) can also be explained by the Trustees of the Library’s reluctance to buy these works until the 1850s.

As we have more borrower occupation data from Innerpeffray’s registers than we do from many others, I wanted to highlight this to the audience by showing them one of Brian Aitken’s excellent visualisations from our digital resource.

Borrower Occupations at Innerpeffray Library, from the Books and Borrowing Development Site

I also wanted to demonstrate the ways in which it was possible to drill down into the data with a visualisation of this kind as a starting point, so I looked at the Mercer/Draper/Weaver section of the pie chart, and was immediately struck by the quantity of borrowings by John Bryce, a weaver from Innerpeffray. Bryce borrowed 26 books over a 40 year period (between 1747 and 1787), and all of them, with a single exception, were works of practical religion or theology. Bryce therefore serves as a really useful reminder of the sustained importance of religion in the lives of individuals throughout the Age of Enlightenment, a period that we are sometimes too quick to categorise as secular and indeed sometimes even anti-religious. As our dataset more broadly clearly demonstrates, philosophical debates about the nature of the world took place fundamentally within the context of religion, not outside it.

John Bryce’s Borrowings

It was also pleasing to see the extent to which the Education category dominates the pie chart above, showing that schoolchildren or university students were the most prominent borrowers, alongside members of the clergy. Innerpeffray’s founder, David Drummond, third Lord Maddertie, left his books to be used for the benefit of all, and particularly for the young students, “I have erected a Library… which I appoint and ordain to be preserved entire… for the benefit and encouragement of young students”. I was happy to be able to confirm, via statistical analysis, that the hopes encapsulated in this quotation from Maddertie’s Will had been fulfilled.

I ended the lecture with a brief demonstration of our digital resource, soon to be fully launched to the public, as well as the Chambers Library Map and Online Exhibition.

My thanks to Lara Haggerty, and the Trustees of Innerpeffray Library for inviting me to speak, and to the Friends of Innerpeffray Library for their attention, and their useful and valuable questions.