The Royal High School of Edinburgh and the University of Edinburgh

I’ve been so delighted to get started with the Books and Borrowing team and have really enjoyed getting stuck in and learning all about the project’s Content Management System (CMS) and what’s been achieved so far.

‘Books and Borrowing’ is a project close to my heart as my PhD focused on the pupil borrowing records of the Royal High School of Edinburgh from the 1770s to the 1820s and I have a long-standing interest in what library records can tell us about people’s reading lives, particularly children.

My PhD project made use, not only of the borrowers’ records, but also the library catalogues, acquisitions and documents relating to the school curriculum in order to ascertain the intended use of the school library and its actual use by the school’s pupils, particularly in relation to the development of the formal school curriculum across the period.

The past few weeks have been busy getting to know the system and I’ve started work on the 1790s student borrowing records for the University of Edinburgh. What has struck me so far is the element of similarity between the borrowing habits of these students and the younger pupils at the Royal High School. Save the specific medical and legal texts which make up a good proportion of the student borrowings at the university, the fictional and historical works borrowed by the students closely mirror those borrowed by their contemporaries at the Royal High School (with, I’m sure, some key differences which I hope to explore as more data is added).

We have also had the exciting news that, with thanks to Edinburgh City Council Archives, the Royal High School records can be incorporated into the project. This will mean that c.19,500 borrowings from over 2000 boys aged between nine and thirteen can be added to the already extensive dataset. This will allow comparisons to be made between younger borrowers and older ones and will, in some cases, allow us to trace the borrowing lives of individual readers from childhood to adulthood.

Tracing these readers across the two sets of records is something I’ve been attempting to do these past few weeks. I have so far found two potential former Royal High School pupils whose dates match up with records at the university in the early 1790s, John Johnston and John Fyffe. Some further work will need to be done to confirm these but it’s an exciting prospect that we can begin to build a picture of the reading lives, not just of our more famous borrowers but of the common reader too.

Borrower entry showing Edinburgh student John Fyffe borrowing Goldsmith's Roman History.
John Fyffe borrows the second volume of Goldsmith’s Roman History – is this the same John Fyffe who attended the Royal High School of Edinburgh?
Edinburgh borrowing register entry showing John Johnson borrowing 'Locke's essay folio@
John Johnson borrows ‘Locke’s essays folio’ – is this the same John Johnson who attended the Royal High School of Edinburgh?