Books and Borrowing 1750-1830

Time to Celebrate! Report on Books and Borrowing Launch Event

Friday 26th April saw the long-awaited launch of the Books and Borrowing database! Almost all the project team were able to be there, and we very much enjoyed catching up with Alex and Gerry, who have been working elsewhere for the past couple of years, as well as getting the chance to show off our wonderful new resource to an engaged and interested audience. Many thanks to all who came along. Images in this blog are taken from our launch presentation.

The event took place in the Wolfson Medical Building at the University of Glasgow, thanks to the generosity of Glasgow’s Collections Lab, which kindly sponsored the event. Following brief introductions by Matt, I introduced the project to those unfamiliar with its aims and goals, before asking Brian to discuss how the resource was constructed. It was wonderful to remember all the various stages of development that we had gone through, from the very earliest conceptual discussions to the final tweaks that we made in the days running up to the launch to ensure that things were running as quickly and smoothly as possible.

Image of Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine (1834) with text 'Constructing the Resource - Brian Aitken'


Brian’s statement that the database now contains almost 43,000 digitised images of library borrowing register pages, more than 145,000 borrowing records, around 11,000 borrowers, and around 27,000 book holding records from our 18 libraries was an excellent reminder of quite how comprehensive and complex the resource really is. As I’ve said so many times during the last four years, we really could not have done this project without Brian, and I was delighted that he was able to share some of the thinking and processes behind our beautiful digital resource, and to get the credit for all his hard work.

Diagram showing relationships between data collected for the Books and Borrowing project.

Brian’s entity-relationship diagram explained the relationships between the data that were key to making the whole thing work.

AI generated image with title 'Demonstration of the Digital Resources - Katie Halsey'

I then had the pleasure of demonstrating how brilliantly the database works, showing off our Facts & Figures pages and visualisations, as well the Chambers Map and Online Exhibition, to try to show people as many ways as possible into understanding the data.

The demonstration was followed by a wonderful talk by Matt, in which he showcased research findings relating to the Romantic period, which highlighted just how differently our data makes us think about the popular books of the Romantic period. Instead of Keats, Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Blake, or even Jane Austen or Mary Shelley, he suggested, we might need to think about teaching some of the authors detailed on the slide below.

List of the most borrowed authors in the database for 1789 to 1832. The  top three are Walter Scott, Charles Rollin, and William Robertson.

Matt’s overview of the second half of our dataset was followed by a series of snapshots of favourite research findings by members of the project team. Kit used the entertaining conceit of an Advocates’ Library version of Hello! magazine to talk us through a number of findings relating to that library. This was very well received by the audience.

Spoof magazine cover for 'Advocates!' with James Boswell as the cover star with some examples of borrowing register entries and a depiction of a law library in the 1740s.

Maxine crunched the numbers on the Royal High School of Edinburgh Library’s most popular books, and highlighted the significant differences between borrowings of the 1770s and those of the 1820s.

Comparison diagram of top ten most borrowed books from the Royal High School in the 1770s and 1820s

Alex discussed both Westerkirk and Chambers’ Circulating Libraries, ending with a fascinating comparison of the differences between the two libraries.

Comparison of borrowings from Westerkirk and Chambers libraries

Gerry considered the stratospheric popularity of Sir Walter Scott at Wigtown, beginning by reading a sensational account from Scott’s novel Anne of Geierstein (1829) and going on to discuss some of the possible reasons for his ubiquity in that library’s records.

Map showing the location of Wigtown marked with a red dot.

Josh ended our series of talks by discussing the value of library records to microhistory, using two case studies from the Leighton Library which beautifully demonstrated the ways in which he is using the borrowing records to build up nuanced pictures of the individual borrowers.

Image of borrowing register from the Leighton Library as displayed in the Books and Borrowing database.

The range and variety of these snapshot talks was an excellent tribute both to the brilliance of the researchers involved, but also to the wide utility of the database. I was delighted that the project team had been able to showcase the material so effectively, and I think the audience enjoyed these brief glimpses of the team’s excellent work.

Over wine and nibbles, we then had an informal question and answer session, and very much enjoyed talking to all the project partners, friends of the project, and interested members of the public about Books and Borrowing. I hope they all enjoyed themselves as much as we did!

Please, dear readers of this blog, do have a play with the new resource yourselves, and let us know what you think! You’ll find the Search, Browse and Facts & Figures sections at the top of our homepage, and FAQs here: Books and Borrowing 1750-1830 :: FAQs (

Happy browsing!