Books and Borrowing 1750-1830

The (Huge!) Borrowing Records of St Andrews

One of the most interesting aspects of the ‘Books and Borrowing’ project is the diversity of the libraries we are dealing with. Our fourteen (soon, perhaps, to be fifteen – watch this space!) target libraries with surviving borrowing registers range from community institutions in small towns to major collections based at the ancient universities. This variety will, we hope, allow us to constellate a view of distinctive, localised book cultures representing contrasting ideas about the underlying principles and function of a library.

The University of St Andrews Library contains by far our largest body of material: our working estimate is for c.100,000 individual borrowing records across 1750-1830, a significant chunk of which we aim to include in our final database. Project Co-I Dr Matthew Sangster has published previously on the institutional makeup of St Andrews, in particular its legal deposit privileges under the terms of the 1710 Copyright Act (sometimes known as ‘The Statute of Anne’), which required copies of newly-published texts to be sent to a handful of specific collections in England and Scotland.

The 1710 Copyright Act

The Act introduced a range of other measures: for example, William St Clair’s 2004 The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period explores the fundamental inefficacy of its limitation on copyright to fourteen years, since eighteenth-century publishers ignored and aggressively counteracted this principle. However, from St Andrews’s perspective, legal deposit rights meant that this relatively impoverished institution was able to accrue a much greater range of newly published texts than would otherwise have been possible. And in fact, Sangster has argued that St Andrews was ‘peculiarly open to transformation’ by this influx of literary works ‘due to its location, small size, patterns of use and the relatively limited funds available for buying books of the professors’ choices’ (p. 953).

When combined with the fact that historic catalogues and a significant proportion of the original texts have survived, the St Andrews borrowing registers (known as ‘receipt books’), are an astonishingly rich primary source that minutely detail the borrowing habits of professors, students and assorted other local individuals. In tackling this dauntingly large tranche of data, we are fortunate to be building on work already done as part of the library’s Borrowing Registers Transcription Project. That data has been imported to our custom-built content management system where it needs to be normalised and checked for accuracy.

The process of working through the St Andrews records also involves creating additional data points that we want to make available to users of the database. Perhaps the most significant (and potentially the most time-consuming) aspect involves connecting up borrowing records and associated library holdings to specific editions of literary works. This is sometimes very easy, since in many cases a borrowing record clearly identifies a text that can be checked against a historic catalogue and resources such as the ESTC, with the edition in question confirmed by a surviving book still in the library today (sometimes even featuring eighteenth-century marginalia!). Inevitably, however, there are cases where the data is patchy, where books have not survived, and where a large number of editions make it very difficult to identify the text in question with certainty. For this reason, we have incorporated a feature that enables us to signal a ‘confidence level’ about our attribution of editions, on four levels from ‘confident’ to ‘speculative’.

There will be more to say about the technicalities as we progress. Now that the project is well underway we are already seeing the fruits of our labour in terms of a growing number of satisfactory records in the system. As a team, we are looking forward to the point where can begin the exciting processes of analysing and interpreting what our data reveals.

A sneak peak inside the ‘Books and Borrowing’ content management system.