Books and Borrowing 1750-1830

Why Do Libraries Matter?

This week, I’ve been reflecting on a theme which is, of course, very close to our Books and Borrowing hearts. Why do libraries matter? This was prompted by a conversation with the Chief Printer of the Pathfoot Press, project friend and supporter Kelsey Jackson Williams.

Back in the dim ages of long ago (also known as pre-Covid), we had planned to hold a public engagement workshop in collaboration with the Pathfoot Press, at which members of the public would learn the skills of hand-press printing, and would then then design and print their own postcard, flyer or poster, on the theme of why libraries mattered to them.

Well… that didn’t happen. Like so many other institutions, the Press had to suspend operations during the Covid-19 lockdowns and subsequent periods of restriction, and Kelsey and I decided that such a workshop would just be too risky, given the dangers of infection caused by close contact in a relatively small space. But we didn’t want to give up the idea of creating a beautiful, hand-printed artefact on the Press’s historic Columbian Press, and we also didn’t want to give up on the idea of asking people to think about why libraries mattered to them. In an era of increasing funding cuts to public libraries, public library closures, and government neglect, it seemed ever more important to highlight their importance, both in the past, and now. So we will still be producing a printed artefact on this theme – watch this space for further details!

The Columbian Press, by W. Strickland. Engraved by H Anderson, 1813

Free public lending libraries came into being, of course, after the end of our project’s chronological end date, in the wake of the public libraries act of 1850, and thanks to the visionary efforts of men like Andrew Carnegie.

Photograph of Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie, whose philanthropic donations funded a total of total of 2,509 Carnegie libraries between 1883 and 1929. Photograph: Wikipedia

Nonetheless, in our own period (1750-1830), for many of our borrowers, membership of a library was literally the only affordable way for them to access books.

To give a sense of this, take the example of a three-volume novel, such as Jane Austen’s Emma, which, on publication in 1815, would have cost a purchaser 21 shillings, or 1 guinea. Subscription to the Orkney Library in the same year cost half a guinea. For half the price of buying a single work of literature, therefore, Orkney subscribers could gain access to a whole collection of more than 800 books. Prices were similar at the Leighton Library, and only slightly higher at Wigtown. At Innerpeffray Library, borrowers were able to borrow for free, as long as they bound themselves to pay a fine if they did not return the book undamaged. At Craigston Castle, and other large private houses in the North of Scotland, we know that enlightened lairds willingly lent out books from their own private collections to friends, neighbours, and estate workers, thus unwittingly acting as free lending libraries in the local community.

Three volume set of Jane Austen's Emma

Jane Austen’s Emma, a book which cost 21 shillings or 1 guinea on publication

List of subscribers to the Orkney Library, showing the 10s6d (half guinea) subscription price. The last subscriber listed on this page is a borrower found in our Advocates Library registers. Malcolm Laing (1762-1818) was the son of Robert Laing of Kirkwall and was admitted Advocate in 1785. He was MP for Orkney from 1807 to 1812.

Libraries thus enabled access to print to people who would otherwise not have been able to afford it. They still do this.







And this matters, because, as Neil Gaiman put it,

Libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education, (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.[1]

Reading matters, because it opens our minds to other ideas. It shows us different ways of living, different ways of thinking, and gives us the power to enact the changes we want to see in our lives, and more broadly.

Libraries matter because they hold the books that can transform lives.

[1] Neil Gaiman, ‘Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming: A lecture explaining why using our imaginations, and providing for others to use theirs, is an obligation for all citizens,’ The Guardian, 15 October 2013. Accessed 24/08/2022.