The Archives Re-Open: Planning for Research in the Orkney Archives

News that archives and libraries are now able to re-open has been enormously welcome to the whole project team as we start to plan our research over the summer and for the remainder of this year. I am particularly excited to be planning a long-delayed and long-anticipated trip up to the Orkney Archives in Kirkwall at the end of this month to photograph their borrowers’ registers, and associated materials.

The borrowers’ registers cover the period 1816 to 1910, though our project’s focus means that I will of course only be photographing the first five of their borrowers’ registers (CO5/100/2-7), but there is also a relevant Minute Book, list of subscribers, notebook of books requested, and sundry other documents that will help to build up our understanding of the library and its borrowers.

Box CO5/100 with registers and associated materials

Box CO5/100 with registers and associated materials from our period. Many thanks to Lucy Gibbon for this photograph.

The historic Kirkwall library, founded in 1683, is the northernmost of our partner libraries, and has a fascinating history, explored in David Tinch’s The Orkney Library: A short history 1683-1983, and elsewhere. In brief, the library, like two of our other partner libraries, Innerpeffray Library and the Leighton Library, began as a bequest. William Baikie left his collection to form a public library at Kirkwall. The original 160 books were augmented and supplemented over the following century, and the library was administered by local ministers until 1815, when the Synod voted to give the collection to the ‘Public Library new forming by subscription in the Town of Kirkwall’ [1]. At that point, the library began to operate as a subscription library operated by a committee of subscribers, with a subscription fee of half a guinea (this was perceived as being deliberately low ‘in order to make the Library accessible to all who may wish to become members’ [2]). Despite this laudable aim, however, as Jill Dye points out, ‘the user-group is particularly high-class, consisting of a veritable who’s who of Orkney society in the early nineteenth century’.[3]

We are looking forward to finding more about these individuals, and the books they borrowed, once transcription and analysis of the records gets underway this summer, and to comparing results from Orkney with our other sets of borrowers’ registers. Were Orkney borrowers as likely as those at the Leighton, Westerkirk and Wigtown to borrow the works of local authors? If so, we might expect to see the works of Orkney-born Mary Brunton (1778-1818), whose 1811 novel Self-Control was the runaway hit of that year. If they enjoyed novels that employed local colour, we might find Walter Scott’s The Pirate (1822), which contains a substantial section set around Kirkwall. As always, our early findings will first appear on this blog.

portrait of novelist Mary Brunton

Thanks are due to Karen Walker and Lucy Gibbon of the Orkney Library and Archives, for their assistance in organising my visit to the archives, and to Jill Dye, for sharing her own photographs of the records with me.

Those interested in reading more about the Kirkwall Library should consult the following works:

Anderson-Smith, Myrtle, ‘The Bibliotheck of Kirkwall’, Northern Scotland, 15 (1995), 127–34.

Craven, J. B., Descriptive Catalogue of the Bibliotheck of Kirkwall 1683, with a notice of the founder, William Baikie, M.A., of Holland (Kirkwall, 1897).

Dye, Jill, ‘Books and their Borrowers at the Library of Innerpeffray c.1680-1855’; University of Stirling PhD thesis, 2018, pp. 208-15.

Kaufmann, Paul, ‘Discovering the Oldest Publick Bibliotheck of the Northern Isles’, Library Review 23:7 (1972), 285-7.

Tinch, David M.N., The Orkney Library: A short history 16831983, (Kirkwall: Orkney Library for Orkney Islands Council, 1983)

[1] Orkney Library and Archive OCR 1/3: Synod of Orkney Minutes 1806-20, p.77.
[2] Orkney Library and Archive CO5/100/1: Minute Book – Subscribers to the Library 1815-1857, p.1.
[3] Jill Dye, ‘Books and their Borrowers at the Library of Innerpeffray c.1680-1855’; University of Stirling PhD thesis, 2018, p. 211.