The Team Attends the British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies Conference, 6th-8th January 2021

Last week saw the project team join forces with our friends at the Libraries, Reading Communities and Cultural Formation in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic project to present a panel at the 50th annual conference of the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (BSECS).

Our panel involved each member of both teams giving a very brief introduction to one key research finding or technological development, speaking for 3 minutes and using only one slide. Although we were initially nervous that the format would not work, in fact it turned out to be ideal for the online nature of the conference, and audience members responded warmly and positively to the work we presented. Katie Halsey began by introducing the key structuring questions for the panel, which were: how did libraries contribute to social, political and cultural change in the long eighteenth century, and which books were really circulating in the period and who really borrowed them. She then introduced the aims and objectives of the ‘Books and Borrowing’ project. The next speaker, Josh Smith, introduced some methodological questions surrounding the use of the term ‘associational’ in relation to libraries, and was followed by Alex Deans, who presented the example of Westerkirk as an associational library, following up on Josh’s points. Matt Sangster then spoke about the top ten authors borrowed from Glasgow University Library between 1757 and 1771, making the point that two of the top four were Frenchmen, and that History (widely conceived) featured extremely heavily in the list. Kit Baston delved deeper into the Glasgow data to talk about the borrowings of James Boswell, as an example of a borrower who may well appear in the records of a number of our different libraries, including Edinburgh University Library and the Advocates Library. Gerry McKeever rounded off the ‘Books and Borrowing’ section of the panel with a discussion of the buying and borrowing of Sir Walter Scott’s works at Wigtown Subscription Library.

Detail from Wigton Library's minute book requesting the treasure to acquire the works of the author of Waverley.
‘The Meeting direct the Treasurer to continue to order the works of the Author of Waverley as they are published.’ (Wigton Library Minute Book)

Mark Towsey, principal Investigator of the Libraries, Reading Communities and Cultural Formation project, then introduced that project, highlighting the importance of subscription libraries in the period, and talking through an exciting new technological development made possible by the sharing of data by friends at ECCO. Max Skjönsberg discussed the subscribers to the Bristol Library Society, and Sophie Jones completed the panel with a very interesting analysis of the occupations represented in the New York Society Library’s membership.

Snip from Twitter
Positive feedback via Twitter

We were interested to note that many of the questions that arose in the discussion after our presentations focussed on whether or not there was evidence of marginalia in the books, on the extent to which borrowing patterns can be matched up with the intentions of readers, and whether we would be able to do visualisations of the data as helpful ways into it. People were also interested in the question of whether or not women were represented in borrowers’ registers and membership lists. Discussion also considered how we could represent occupation data most effectively. After the panel, Professor Penny Corfield generously shared some of her own work on this topic with us, for which we are very grateful. We’ll be reading it over the next week, and discussing how best to implement the various suggestions made during the discussions.

We all enjoyed the conference very much, and the team would like to thank Brianna Robertson-Kirkland, the organiser, for her tireless efforts in bringing it into being.