Books and Borrowing 1750-1830: An Analysis of Scottish Borrowers' Registers

Lead Research Organisation: University of Stirling
Department Name: English


This project uncovers and reinterprets the history of reading in Scotland in the period 1750 to 1830. Using formerly underexplored records of a diverse range of library borrowers, we will undertake cutting-edge research and create a valuable new resource that will reveal hidden histories of book use, knowledge dissemination and participation in literate culture.
Despite nearly forty years of intensive research into the history of reading, we still know surprisingly little about reading in the past. Our knowledge tends to have an elite and masculine bias, and to be heavily weighted towards England's metropolitan centres. This is unsurprising, since until relatively recently, the well-preserved records of famous people have been far easier to exploit than more wide-ranging and complex sources. Our project will correct these biases using Scotland's uniquely rich manuscript records, considering their local contexts and their wider implications.
Although the borrowing of books does not necessarily equate to the reading of books, evidence of book circulation is nevertheless key to understanding the reading life of a nation. We will collect together at least 150,000 records of book borrowing from historic borrowers' registers from 13 Scottish libraries covering a wide geographical range of provincial localities and metropolitan centres. We will include information from libraries used by the labouring classes, women, professionals, students, scholars and artisans. We will transcribe, organise and make available data through an extensive open-access database, and analyse and interpret records to test received accounts of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century culture. Quantitative and qualitative analysis of such records on this scale has never previously been attempted, and our research will allow us to confirm or reconsider hypotheses about reading and Scottish identity that currently rest on either anecdotal evidence or small case studies.
Evidence from pilot projects (on Innerpeffray Library and Glasgow and St Andrews University Libraries) suggests new data may lead us to think differently about two important historical and literary movements: the Scottish Enlightenment and Romanticism. Our working hypothesis is that analysis of the substantial corpus of material in our database will significantly challenge prevailing ideas regarding which texts were most influential in our period, as well as notions of the Scottish Enlightenment as predominantly scientific, secular and metropolitan. Similarly, pilot projects suggest that the works by poets that currently dominate Romantic scholarship were very little borrowed in the period, and that accounts of the democratic nature of Scotland's intellectual culture have been substantially exaggerated. By considering the texts that were actually circulating and the people who actually borrowed them, we aim to provide concrete evidence from which scholars can begin to make new and more accurate claims.
The project will be led by Katie Halsey (Stirling; PI), whose expertise in the history of reading and library history is key to the project's success and Matthew Sangster (Glasgow; CI), who will bring additional expertise in Romanticism and working with historic borrowers' registers to the project. The PI and CI will work with three postdoctoral researchers and an international advisory board, in collaboration with Aberdeen University Library, the Advocates' Library, Dumfries and Galloway Archives, Edinburgh University Library, Glasgow University Archives and Special Collections, High Life Highland, Innerpeffray Library, Kirkwall Library, John Gray Centre, Leadhills Heritage Trust, the Leighton Library, the National Library of Scotland and St Andrews University Library. Through intensive data creation, innovative academic publications and an ambitious public events programme, this project will work to radically expand our understanding of the history of reading and the history of ideas.

Planned Impact

As demonstrated by our pilot studies, the project's findings will be of interest to a wide range of potential non-academic audiences, including but not limited to: family history researchers; modern library users and readers; librarians and information professionals; children and schoolteachers; and the public at large.
We have identified two major impact objectives, and seven pathways towards achieving those objectives. Our first objective is the creating and sharing of new knowledge, and we will achieve this objective through disseminating the results of our research to the widest possible audience, both on our website and social media activity, and through the events below, which have been designed to drive further traffic to our website.
Both academic and non-academic stakeholders will be the beneficiaries of our Conference in Year 3, held under the joint auspices of the Universities of Stirling and Glasgow, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals Library & Information History Group and the Historic Libraries Forum. The conference will allow the sharing and transfer of knowledge between academic researchers and library and information professionals, as well as highlighting the importance of the little-known archival record to a much wider audience than heretofore.
Our Teaching Materials and Workshops for Teachers will similarly enable the sharing and transfer of knowledge among researchers, schoolteachers and schoolchildren, equipping teachers with knowledge and understanding of cutting-edge new research and the skills and materials to pass this knowledge on.
The Creative Writing Workshops will engage new audiences with the archival records, and will place particular emphasis on the ways in which reading and creative writing enhance quality of life.
Our second impact objective is to develop and improve existing public services, specifically public libraries and museum and heritage organisations.
Historic libraries have frequently not been able to use their borrowers' registers in ways that would help them to tell their stories effectively to visitors and other users. In some cases this is because of the untranscribed and/or disorganised state of the MS registers; in others it is because they simply do not have the staff or volunteer knowledge to use these rare and interesting resources appropriately. Our Exhibition and Social Media Kit will provide the necessary tools for librarians, volunteers, or other staff members easily to create exhibitions and other publicity tools for their own institution.
We will also run three hands-on Training Workshops on 'Using Historic Borrowers' Records' for staff, volunteers and the public at three of our partner libraries: Innerpeffray, Glasgow University Library, and the National Library of Scotland. Each workshop will be delivered by one or more of the project team, and will have a different remit: Identifying Obscure Titles and Unknown People; What the Records Can and Can't Tell Us; and Patterns and Trends in Borrowing. These Training Workshops will provide useful skills to staff and volunteers at the partner libraries, who will then be able to tell their stories more effectively to the wider public.
Finally, our Produce a Postcard Event will benefit prisoners, adult learners and targeted members of the wider public, who will receive postcards that contain information about how to access modern library services and our website. These will be disseminated by the Scottish Book Trust. Drawing on the project's initial research on the impacts of library access, the postcards will be designed to engage marginalised communities with Scotland's complex history of cross-class reading, autodidacticism and communal self-improvement, manifested particularly in libraries such as Leadhills and Innerpeffray. They will also provide encouragement and practical information about how to use library services.


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