9 November 2020

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Having studied English at Emmanuel, Dr Katie Halsey (1995) is now a Senior Lecturer in Eighteenth–Century Literature at the University of Stirling and has published a number of books and articles on Jane Austen and the history of reading.  In this blog piece, she tells us about her current project on the history of libraries in Scotland, which looks set to uncover hidden histories of book use and which books are really important to national history.  

A hand-written ledger book from the eighteenth centuryIn June this year, I began a large Arts and Humanities Council (AHRC) funded project, ‘Books and Borrowing: An Analysis of Scottish Borrowers’ Registers, 1750–1830’. The aim of the project is to uncover and reinterpret the history of reading in Scotland in the period 1750 to 1830, via an analysis of the borrowers’ registers (also known as loans books, receipt books, and borrowers’ books) of 17 historic Scottish libraries.

These registers (L: the borrowings of Dr Robert Love of Callander in 1796 from the Borrowers’ Register of the Leighton Library, Dunblane) normally record the date of borrowing, author and title of book borrowed, and the name of the borrower. In some cases, they also record the address or occupation of the borrower, and other incidental details. From this, we know that represented in our records are farmers and farm workers, factors, gamekeepers, shepherds, blacksmiths, lay preachers, bolt makers, vagabonds, poachers, merchants, glovers, maidservants, coachmen, soldiers and sailors, as well as schoolchildren and members of the professional and leisured classes. We aim, at the end of the project, to have 150,000 records of borrowing digitised, and to have analysed and interpreted them to identify patterns and trends in the circulation of books across Scotland.

Evidence for the borrowing of a book is not, of course, evidence for the reading of a book (I am sure many of us have borrowed books from libraries that we never got round to reading, or began and didn’t finish, or only skimmed!). But what these records (many of which have never been systematically analysed) do provide is a much firmer evidentiary base of book circulation than has previously existed. From this evidence, we hope to start to challenge (or to confirm) existing narratives about which works were actually influential in our period. Preliminary analysis of our records suggests, for example, that accounts of the Scottish Enlightenment as predominantly secular are likely to be challenged by our data, since the borrowing of sermons, works of practical divinity and other theological works currently account for a very large percentage of our borrowings, well beyond the high Enlightenment period and even on into the 1830s. Similarly, the writers of the literary movement now thought of as Romanticism hardly appear in our records, even in the 1820s and 1830s, while largely forgotten poets of the eighteenth century appear much more frequently. Conversely, existing scholarship, based on publication and sales data, that suggests Lord Byron and Walter Scott were the most popular writers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is probably correct.

We are, of course, still in the very earliest stages of the research, and our first few months have been largely dedicated to data collection, rather than to analysis, so these preliminary hypotheses may still be overturned when we are able to analyse and interpret the full body of records by the end of the project in 2023. Nonetheless, we’re confident that our findings will be of interest! 

Katie Halsey (1995) 

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