Books and Borrowing 1750-1830

The Final Year: What Goes In?

The end of Year 2 is an odd time for a project like this.  We can, I think, rightly be proud of where we’ve got to despite pandemic circumstances, with over 125,000 records currently in the system.  This meets our benchmark and puts us on course to reach our target of 150,000 records by the end of our final year.  We’ve also covered a wider range of libraries than we originally proposed as the project has discovered further records available for digitisation and inclusion.  We’ve added a private library at Craigston Castle.  We’ve covered a more complex library ecology within a single institution by entering data relating to the Hunterian Museum Library and digitising records relating to Robert Simson’s books at the University of Glasgow, allowing these collections to be considered alongside the student and professorial borrowing registers from the main library.  We’ve also been able to include the borrowing records from Robert Chambers’ circulating library, covering a more directly commercial form of borrowing we’d been worried at the outset that our coverage would be unable to encompass.

As we move into our final year, though, we’re also faced with the limits of what we will be able to achieve with our current funding.  While we expect to produce detailed transcriptions and data relating to 150,000 register entries, we’re now in a situation where we’ve uncovered well over 400,000 entries that we could potentially include.  We also have a great deal of work to do to put in place some of the overarching systems that will allow the database to function well.  These include things like connectors between different editions of the same work and the subject classifications we’ve been thinking about from an early stage, but which we’ve been waiting to implement until we have the majority of the books in the system.

At this point, therefore, we need to make some further decisions about what’s plausible to complete, prioritising making the database as useful and wide-ranging as possible for our users and providing coverage sufficient to let us answer our research questions.

I wrote about the process of scoping back in October last year, and what we’ll be seeking to accomplish is broadly in line with what we proposed then.  We will seek to cover as diverse a range of readers, places and libraries as possible, while also prioritising a decent level of coverage across the eighty years between 1750 and 1830.  This means de-emphasising certain power users (such as the university professors who often had substantial sections of their institutions’ libraries borrowed at once), but we think this is the approach best suited to meet our goal of getting a better sense of what the elusive general reader was genuinely engaging with.  We have covered the Glasgow professorial records from 1751 to 1790 in full, and we hope to be able to incorporate professorial registers from Edinburgh and St Andrews into a further project on institutions and disciplinary formation that we’re currently drafting materials for.

Three very large collections make up the vast bulk of the registers we’ve digitised – we have 38 registers from the Advocates Library, 36 from the University of Edinburgh and 25 from the University of St Andrews (for comparison, the total number of registers currently in our system is 141; 99 are from those three libraries, with 42 from others).  We’ve transcribed very substantial samples from each of these three long runs, but complete transcription is beyond our means.  In the third year of the project, we’ll be looking to complete a small amount of further work on these records to help improve our overall picture of borrowing across the period the project covers, as well as using the full range of digitised registers to help answer particular research questions.

For a good number of libraries, we have all the primary data in the system, with only final checks and linkages to be done.  These include Dumfries Presbytery Library; the professorial and student registers of Glasgow University Library; the Hunterian Library; Innerpeffray Library; Inverness Kirk Sessions Library and the Wigtown Subscription Library.  We are committed to producing complete data for Robert Chambers’ Circulating Library (insofar as the abbreviations and crossings-out allow for this), and this process is now well underway.  We also have the vast majority of the data for the Royal High School entered; Maxine’s work photographing the registers has turned up some further entries that we now hope to incorporate.

For a couple of libraries (Selkirk and Haddington) we have excellent transcriptions courtesy of Viv Dunstan and Mark Towsey, but we need to do some further work to align this imported data with the structure the Books and Borrowing database employs.  One of our main priorities for the rest of 2022 is to complete this process of alignment.

This leaves four further libraries.  For the Leighton Library, the records in the Water Drinkers’ Register and Matriculation Book are complete, and we have made substantial progress on the records in the Main Register.  For Westerkirk, data is complete from 1813 to 1821, providing a very substantial sample.  We would like to get further with decoding the later entries in the Kalendar if we have the time, but will be prioritising libraries that are currently unrepresented before completing further work on Westerkirk.  Pandemic circumstances meant that the records of Aberdeen Theological Library were not available for interpretation until recently (as I write, Gerry is visiting Aberdeen to photograph historic catalogues and other documents necessary to work with these records); we do not expect to be able to complete transcriptions of all six of these fairly substantial registers during the lifetime of the project, but we will be aiming to transcribe a substantial sample to employ alongside data from elsewhere.  Finally, we have begun work on the Orkney Library; again, we will be seeking to complete as much transcription as possible from these four registers, making at least a substantial sample available as part of the initial database release.

As the project team continues to work on transcription and interpretation, Brian Aitken has been working on the initial stages of the interface design, which includes means of visualising the spread of records in the system.  This has been very useful for us for gauging where we have substantial data already, and where we might prioritise in the final year.  We are well served for the 1750s and 1760s, having transcribed a great number of the survivals from these decades.  Currently the database is extremely rich in data from the 1770s (a key period for the universities in Edinburgh and St Andrews).  We are also well anchored at the nineteenth-century end of our time span, with the Chambers, Westerkirk and Wigtown records, supplemented by material from our larger libraries, providing a good sense of what readers were engaging with in the period between the Battle of Waterloo and the Reform Bill.  In addition, we have a number of libraries (including the Royal High School, Innerpeffray, Haddington and Leighton) that were steadily active through a substantial part of the period the project covers – some of these libraries will be particularly useful as barometers of change (although we must remain aware of the relatively static nature of certain collections).

Where we now need to strengthen representation in the database is the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  The 1790s in particular is an important decade for us, both as a period of uncertainty in which a great number of significant events occurred and for the importance historical accounts place on it as a time of shifting cultural mores.  Our data shows that borrowings in the 1820s differ considerably from those in the 1770s in many respects.  Paying more attention to the 1790s in our final year will provide us with a good opportunity to work towards explaining the nature of this transition.