The Records of the Bristol Library Society

Taking advantage of the recent loosening of Covid-19 restrictions, I was finally able to make the long trip to Bristol to access the library records which form the other half of my doctoral project. My project examines political reading and library membership at two British subscription libraries during the first three decades of the nineteenth century. Of course, being based at Stirling, the records of the Leighton Library, stored at the University of Stirling, have been readily accessible for a while, with a number of the Leighton’s borrowing record already inputted into our project database. The records of the Bristol Library have not been as easily accessible, and so it was, with a great deal of relief, that I made my way down to Bristol to access and photograph the records there.

Exterior of Bristol Library in 1876
Exterior of the Old Library, King Street, Bristol. Home of the Bristol Library Society, 1774-1855, in Bristol: Past and Present (Bristol, 1882), III, p.126.

Where a collection of records are deposited, can often tell a story in of themselves. Between 1773 and 1855, the Bristol Library Society inhabited its own premises located on King Street in the centre of the city. The building still stands today, and during my time in Bristol I was fortunate enough to stay just a few streets away from the original building. After 1855, the Library Society began a nomadic existence until it was amalgamated into Bristol’s public library network in 1893. As a result, many of the Society’s records, and many of its original books, are stored in Bristol Central Library. Most of the administrative records of the Library Society have since been moved to Bristol Archives, but the library’s borrowing records remain, and I accessed these from the Bristol Room of the Central Library. The Bristol Room has its own links to the Library Society, containing not only the same mantelpiece that sat within the King Street residence but also three of the library’s own chairs which may have been used by the borrowers whose records I was combing through.[1]

Interior of the historic Bristol library with furnishing now in the modern Bristol Centra Library
(left) Interior of the Bristol Library Society, engraving by James Sargent Storer, c. 1820. Note the mantelpiece and three Windsor Chairs, all of which can be found in the Bristol Room (right) of Bristol Central Library

Furnishings from Bristol Library now in the Bristol Central Library













For over eighty years, the Library Society was Bristol’s foremost library space and the records that have survived are varied and voluminous. The highlight of this collection is without doubt the existence of seventy-seven volumes of unbroken borrowing records running from 1773 to 1857, records which are only now receiving sustained scholarly scrutiny.[2] The eighteenth-century records of borrowers and borrowings are being digitised as part the ‘Libraries, Reading Communities and Cultural Formation in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic’ project based at the University of Liverpool.[3] In addition to this, the library’s eighteenth-century administrative records, stored in an annual general meeting minute book and committee minute books, will shortly appear in an edited collection by Dr Max Skjönsberg and Professor Mark Towsey.[4]

My project concerns the nineteenth century records of the library, of which there is a great deal of material still surviving. Forty folio registers cover the borrowing record of July 1800 to August 1833. Within each register, upon tabulated paper, either the borrower themselves or the librarian recorded the details of each borrowing including the library class mark, title of book, name of borrower (sometimes a signature), the date the book was taken out and the date the book was returned to the library. Additional space was left to record the date a book was to be returned as well as fines for exceeding time or damaging or losing a book. For the period 1800 to 1833, these columns were rarely filled in, nor were fines regularly enforced for either a late returned or damaged book. Each double page spread records at least fifteen borrowings, with each register containing on average around 186 pages. Some quick calculations thus reveals that these registers contain over 110,000 borrowing entries for the period of 1800 to 1833 alone. Owing to the total size of this borrowing data and for the purposes of my own project, I have chosen to focus on the borrowing records of a select number of individuals and at selected periods of time leading up to 1833.

So far, my analysis has focused upon the borrowing record between 1818 and 1820, a period of time that encompassed two general elections as well as the Peterloo Massacre, the ‘Radical War’ of 1820 in Scotland and the ‘trial’ of Queen Caroline. The borrowing registers record that one of Bristol’s resident MPs, the Whig Edward Protheroe, was a periodical visitor to the library, often accompanied by his brother Philip Protheroe. Although Edward had won re-election to Parliament in 1818, he decided not to stand again in 1820 owing to a dispute over campaign financing.[5] Other users in the same period include a young Charles Pinney who would later be the Mayor of Bristol during the time of the Bristol riots in October 1831, the surgeon William Fisher Shrapnell and Joseph Storr Fry the chocolate and confectionary manufacturer.

Page for the Bristol Library Society borrowing registers
Bristol Central Library, Bristol Library Society borrowing registers, B7491, p.13.

Studying both the records of the Bristol and the Leighton Library offers the opportunity to observe how subscription library use contrasted in areas of rural and urban Britain. The differences between the Bristol and Leighton libraries are obvious but there are also striking similarities. Both libraries had large ecclesiastical memberships and direct structural links to local church hierarchies. The Minister of Dunblane always served as the head of the trustees at the Leighton Library, with other trustee roles and many of the library’s regular users also ministers at neighbouring parishes. A similar situation occurred at the Bristol Library Society. Here it was the Bishop of Bristol who was asked to serve at the head of the library hierarchy, with the role of vice-president also generally filled by an Anglican minister. Indeed, the role of the clergy in the Bristol Library was perceived to be so great that on 23 March 1829, a proposal was submitted at a general meeting to change the rules of the Society and allow for two vice-presidents, one a clergyman, the other a layperson. Though this amendment received majority support, it failed to achieve the two-thirds of support required to change the rules of the Society by just one vote.[6] Rather inevitably, the next vice-president, elected at the same meeting, was the Reverend John Eden, another Anglican minister, who would remain in the post until 1840.

Analysing the Bristol borrowing records also provides a chance to compare an English library to Scottish libraries in the ‘Books and Borrowing’ project. Here again similarities abound. As we are discovering with some of our Scottish libraries, the most popular borrowed author at Bristol, at least for the period of 1818, was Walter Scott. Yet the borrowing of other Scottish texts such as the works of Joanna Baillie, James Boswell, George Chalmers, Elizabeth Hamilton, John Moore and not to mention The Edinburgh Review point to the continued popularity of the works of Scottish authors within the British literary world. Scott’s popularity at Bristol is unsurprising but many of his works were also later additions to the collection with Guy Mannering, The Antiquary, Tales of My Landlord and Rob Roy all ordered for the first time in January 1818.[7] The borrowing of Scott’s work, alongside other texts that had only recently arrived at the library points to a further purpose of library membership, regular access to new and topical texts. Whether library books have a prime age for regular circulation before resting on the library shelf, or whether this trend for topicality occurred at other libraries of the period is impossible to say from a piecemeal analysis of the Bristol borrowings on their own. It is questions such as these that ‘Books and Borrowing’, and other digital humanities projects on library records are seeking to answer, discovering trends of use and engagement amongst Scottish and British libraries.

[1] Robert F. Parrott and John Boram, ‘Three Eighteenth-Century Windsor Chairs Possibly Made in Bristol’, Regional Furniture Society, 28 (2014), pp.97-105.

[2] Other studies of the Bristol Library records include, Paul Kaufman, Borrowings from the Bristol Library, 1773-1784: A Unique Record of Reading Vogues (Charlottesville, VA: Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, 1960) and Kathleen Hapgood, ‘Library Practice in the Bristol Library Society, 1772-1830’, Library History, 5.5 (1981), pp.145-153.

[3] ‘Libraries, Reading Communities and Cultural Formation in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic’,

[4] The Minute Books of the Bristol Library Society, 1772-1801, ed. by Max Skjönsberg and Mark Towsey (Bristol Record Society), forthcoming.

[5] David R. Fisher, ‘Protheroe, Edward (1774-1856), The History of Parliament, (accessed 15/11/21).

[6] Bristol Archives, 32079/153, Minute book of annual general meetings, 23 March 1829, pp.102-03; ‘Bristol City Library’, Bristol Mercury, 7 April 1829.

[7] Bristol Archives, 32079/156, Minute book of committee, 27 January 1818, p.247.