Posts Tagged ‘book history’

10 years ago this month in 2012 my Scottish Historical Review journal paper was published. Sole authored, it looked at book ownership in Scotland in the late eighteenth century, using a local case study of Dumfriesshire after-death wills and inventories. This was part of my PhD research into reading habits in Scotland in this period, and this was one of the first journal papers I published after completing my PhD at Dundee University in 2010.

I thought it might be nice to do a retrospective blog about this journal paper. The paper was published in Scottish Historical Review, and the full published PDF version is available on my website, in green Open Access form on my publications web page.

This research arose from my belief that testaments – Scottish after-death wills and inventories – could be a useful guide to the books people owned. To be fair I hadn’t always thought this way. But from my research assistant work on Bob Harris’s small towns project, researching Angus towns in the late 18th and early 19th century, I had discovered that Scottish testaments often mentioned books, in particular testaments with lists of personal possessions. Not consistently, not totally reliably, but enough to be informative. Sometimes only e.g. a “bundle of books” might be valued. But in other cases you might get a detailed list of titles owned. I was grateful for any clues at all. Note this is very different from the situation in England at the same time, where comparable probate records rarely record any great details of personal possessions after the 1720s.

I couldn’t possibly research testaments across the whole of Scotland, just for the practicality of the scale of it. Nor was a random based approach suitable, given the scarcity of references. I needed to study a local area’s complete testaments over a given time period, but in a manner that had to be feasible and practical for me to tackle as a small part of my PhD. In the end I settled for Dumfriesshire, which is semi-rural, but with some towns and many villages. And logistically it was feasible for me to study this area.

I persuaded the then National Archives of Scotland (now National Records of Scotland) to lend me digital images of testaments for Dumfries Commissary Court between 1750 and 1800. At that time they had never lent such a set of records, and only agreed somewhat reluctantly because of my disability situation – my progressive neurological illness meant that it was essential I could do the bulk of this research from home. But this loan also set the precedent for similar loans for other (less disabled) Scottish academics in future.

In total I borrowed digital images of 1,379 testaments, including 345 with detailed inventories and 82 with wills. I also did a manual check in the Edinburgh search room of warrants of inventories, additional papers of appraisements and inventories, for lists including books not copied into the registers of testaments.

As I wrote in the published journal paper:

References to books were found in over a third of the detailed inventories of personal possessions recorded in a quarter of the testaments in the court’s register.

i.e. where there was a surviving detailed inventory of personal possessions then a third of the time that would contain references to books.

Most of these found references were detailed lists of books, including their titles. In other cases there were passing references to books, or in some cases valuations of book furniture (e.g. book cases). In total I had details of 156 different book owners, including considerable information about them, and in many cases also about the books that they owned.

The bulk of the paper looks at the Dumfriesshire book owners found in a variety of ways. For example their spread through time and space is considered, and also their range of occupations. Unsurprisingly many were from generally more prosperous occupations, but the list also included others like a gardener, a smith, a labourer, and a servant.

The lists of books recorded allowed the types of books owned to be considered, both in a broader pattern, and for individual owners. Ownership of religious books was a constant feature, but over time other books appeared more and more in the lists, fitting with wider trends in books and reading at this time in Scotland. Many books could also be linked to the occupations of their owners, for example legal reference works owned by solicitors (“writers”), and also the work-related books owned by merchants, etc.

Alongside religious books classical books remained an ongoing presence, but they were also accompanied by other language books, especially French. Well-known Enlightenment books were owned, as well as many books of history, and voyages and travels. Periodicals and magazines were also a frequent presence.

One of my favourite sections of the paper looked at the very largest book collections recorded in these records. Perhaps unsurprisingly these also often were the references that mentioned book furniture, given the practical implications of storing a large collection of books. The question of where people bought the books was considered in this section too, drawing briefly on a local Dumfries bookseller who appears – with his entire detailed stock list – in the Dumfriesshire testaments I studied, having died in 1788.

Preparing my paper for publication was a delight, reworking things and strengthening the analysis and contextualisation. I would like to thank Catriona Macdonald who was the then journal editor for an easy and very systematic editorial process. And thanks too to the peer reviewers for their helpful feedback and suggestions.

The only downside was that the final pre-publication proofs came through as I was undergoing a summer of gruelling chemotherapy infusions at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee. In fact I ended up having to proofread the journal paper one-handed, hooked up to a chemotherapy drip! It was that or I probably wouldn’t turn them around in time, given how ill I was likely to be (and indeed very much was) with side effects in subsequent days.

Looking back I am very proud of this paper. I hope to publish again in Scottish Historical Review in future. But this was a very positive experience, and one that I look back on fondly.

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One of Haddington in East Lothian’s most famous sons is Samuel Smiles (1812-1904), author and government reformer. His best known work is a book called Self-Help (1859), arguing for the poor to improve their lot through self education and industry, a viewpoint that fits well with Victorian moral values and thinking, but might in some of its arguments raise eyebrows among many today.

Samuel’s father was also called Samuel Smiles. The other day professional genealogist Fergus Smith tweeted about a circa 1820 reference to the father, noting that he was working then as a stationer, not just the merchant he is often referred to in his son’s biographies.

This reminded me that I’d encountered the elder Samuel as a borrower in the free Haddington town library borrowing records I transcribed and analysed as part of my history PhD at Dundee University. Haddington was unusual at this time in having a free public library for its inhabitants to use, and its borrowing registers for many of the years 1732-1816 survive.

I thought it might be nice to blog here about what the father was reading. Each line below includes the date a book was borrowed from the library, the book borrowed details as noted at that time, and in many cases in brackets fuller title/publication details per the 1828 Haddington library catalogue.

  • 1810 Nov 1 – Burns Works vol 2d (Burns’s Works, 4 vols, 1803)
  • 1811 Jan 23 – Beauties of Scotland 4 Vo (Beauties of Scotland: containing an Account of the Agriculture, Commerce, Mines, Manufactures, Population, &c. of each County, 5 vols, plates)
  • 1811 Feb 1 – 1 vol Rollins Roman (Rollin’s Roman History, from the Foundation of Rome till the Battle of Actium, 16 vols)
  • 1811 Feb 21 – 2 vol Abercrumes wariers (Abercromby’s Martial Achievements of the Scots Nation, 2 vols)
  • 1811 Mar 15 – Robertsons History on Amaresia (sic) (Robertson’s History of America, 4 vols)
  • 1812 Feb 19 – 1 vol Cooks Voyages (Cook’s Voyages to the Pacific Ocean)
  • 1812 Mar 26 – 2 vol Capt Cooks Voyages
  • 1812 Apr 7 – 3 vol Coocks Voges
  • 1812 Sep 10 – 1 vol Rolins History
  • 1812 Oct 6 – 2 vol Rollins History
  • 1812 Oct 15 – 2d vol Rollins History
  • 1812 Oct 30 – Rollans History 3 vol
  • 1812 Dec 8 – 5 vol Rolins History
  • 1813 Feb 4 – 7 Vol Rollins History
  • 1813 Feb 27 – 8 Vol Roilns History
  • 1813 Apr 19 – 9 vol Rolins History
  • 1813 May 4 – Rolins History 10 vol

It is likely that father and son borrowed books after 1816, but I did not have access to borrowing records for that period. The earlier borrowing records we have are a rare survival. The original manuscript registers are held in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Incidentally Samuel Smiles the author appears in my writings about this library, because in his autobiography he recalled his early reading experiences at this Haddington library:

I did not make much use of the library. Patrick Hardie, the master of the English School, was the librarian; and when I took out Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, he havered a bit to me, in his dictatorial way, as to how I was to read it. I did not like this, and went to other libraries

To read more about the Haddington library at this time see either my PhD thesis or my Journal of Scottish Historical Studies academic journal paper about it. The latter is available freely online, via green Open Access rules, in the publications section of my personal website.

My Haddington library borrowing transcripts and database have been donated to the Books and Borrowing 1750-1830 project at the University of Stirling, and should hopefully appear online through that at a future date.

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Today is World Book Day 2022, a celebration of reading in the UK and Ireland, targeted especially at children and young people. It is a day for celebrating the power of reading, but also for showing youngsters how they can access it and benefit from it. And I am a big fan.

I was an enthusiastic childhood reader, with early visits to Melrose public library, and still remember borrowing Enid Blyton books and Tudor history. Then when we moved back to Hawick I devoured first the children’s basement floor of the Hawick public library – a grand Carnegie library with lovely architecture – and then was allowed to borrow from the “grown ups” section. There I devoured masses of Agatha Christie books, science fiction and fantasy, as well as doing research into my family history in the research part of the library. I also borrowed books from primary school and secondary school libraries, and the Wilton church Sunday School small library.

Years on reading is much harder for me, thanks to a progressive neurological disease that struck in 1994 when I was just 22. Soon I could no longer easily manage print for extended periods, even large print was troublesome. But then eBooks came along, which I could adjust to have a quite ginormous font, and I was reading again. I adore reading, and on my Kindle usually have a couple of novels on the go, as well as various non fiction books. All read with a gargantuan font that lets me keep reading. I pick up a lot of bargain eBooks in sales, and also read free ones from Project Gutenberg.

However World Book Day has a special significance for me now because between 2003 and 2010 I completed a part time PhD at Dundee University on Scottish reading habits between circa 1750 and 1820. This was a surprising route to take. I’d studied first computer science at university until my illness struck. Then I retrained as a historian. But I was not in any way a literature student.

I worked part time as a research assistant 2003-4 on Bob Harris’s Scottish Small Towns Project, working on the pilot study in Angus. And among other things this introduced me to the history of reading and book history, as I uncovered the history of cultural activity in Angus in the 18th and early 19th centuries, including the spread of libraries, newspapers and bookshops. I discovered that library borrowing records existed rarely in Scotland (though since then more have turned up, all welcome!) and how researchers like Paul Kaufman had showed these could be analysed. And I was entranced.

At the same time I was completing a taught MPhil degree and pondering if I wanted to try for a history PhD. And I couldn’t get away from wanting to research reading habits more. Bob Harris agreed to supervise me, and I started a self funded PhD, though later won funding from AHRC for the rest of my part-time PhD. My approach was very much social and cultural history rather than literary, as I got to grips researching what Scots were reading and how they fitted this into their lives in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Magic, though with my own reading problems due to illness/disability I was frequently envious of how “my readers” in the past were managing to access books!

My PhD thesis is online and freely available for all to read. In a nutshell though it showed how reading was growing in Scotland in this period, and how important reading was as an activity throughout the country and at all levels of society. A very positive thumbs up for reading.

So whenever World Book Day comes around I think back to my historic research in this field, while at the same time looking forward to my future reading. I am so lucky I got to complete a PhD on this topic. And so grateful I can still read, albeit with considerable adjustments, and a gargantuan font, thankfully helped hugely by adjustable eBooks.

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15 years ago in 2006 my first academic journal paper as a historian was published. Sole authored, it looked at the borrowing records between 1732 and 1816 of Gray Library in Haddington, East Lothian, an unusual example of an early free town library. The paper examined these borrowing records to see what they told us about the town’s reading habits at this time.

I thought it might be nice to do a retrospective blog about this journal paper. The paper was published in the Journal of Scottish Historical Studies, and the full published PDF version is available on my website, in green Open Access form on my publications web page. Note I had earlier co-authored publications from my computer science days, but this was the first academic journal paper I wrote fully myself, and my first history piece after retraining as a historian, picking up BA, taught MPhil and PhD history degrees.

The paper was written fairly early on in my part-time history PhD at Dundee University, investigating Scottish reading habits circa 1750-1820 (my full PhD thesis is also available freely online). I decided to write the paper to give me a push to write up this good case study, but it was also creating good analysis I could use in my PhD thesis.

I submitted the paper too late for that year’s competition by the journal for postgraduate students. I remember Callum Brown, the then JSHS editor and at the time a professor of history at Dundee University, asking me if I wanted him to hold my paper back for the next year’s competition. But my health then was so precarious with my neurological disease resisting treatment, so I asked him to just consider it for normal publication as soon as possible. So he did.

It’s common for academics looking back at their early published writing to find it naive or flawed in other ways. I’m actually really proud of this paper, and its breadth and depth of analysis. Admittedly I would struggle to write it now, as my neurological disease has progressed more. But I still think irrespective of that aspect that it stands up well to the test of time.

I was blessed with rich library borrowing records, though I had to transcribe these all myself, working on a microfilm copy of the manuscript originals at home (yes I have my own microfilm reader!). That and the subsequent checking took many months, but gave me over 5000 borrowings to analyse.

Using my genealogical skills and research, especially in the then National Archives of Scotland, I researched the library borrowers extensively, allowing me to identify hundreds of them confidently, and note their gender, occupation, birth and death dates, and address if more specific than (or different from) Haddington. Adding these genealogical details allowed me to examine the borrowers and their borrowings in myriad different ways and groupings, and was a very powerful tool.

Such analysis was only practically possible because I built a linked relational database of the library borrowing records and its readers. This is something that at that time was groundbreaking in a Scottish book history context, but even today would be unusual. The three linked relational tables of borrowers, borrowings and books were then loaded into a MySQL relational database system, where I could run SQL queries to search for the borrowings of specific groups of borrowers that I was interested in. For example the following query counts the most popular books among teenage boy borrowers:

SELECT LinkToTitle, Count(LinkToTitle) FROM
FROM borrowings, readers
WHERE ((borrowings.LinkToBorrower=readers.ReaderID
OR borrowings.LinkToOtherReader=readers.ReaderID)) AND readers.AgeOfBorrower=”teenage” AND readers.Gender=”male”) AS tmptable GROUP by LinkToTitle
ORDER by Count(LinkToTitle) DESC

Comparing male and female borrowings at the library was very important, and allowed me to engage using this substantial data with academic theories and contemporary opinions about differing reading habits by gender. I also relished the way this system allowed me to examine other groups in detail. For example I was able to pull out the borrowings of teenage users of the library, both boys and girls, which led to a particularly satisfying section of my paper.

One branch of my family tree traces back to Haddington, and it was a delight to see ancestors pop up among the library’s borrowers. Two of them sneaked into my published journal paper: my 5xg-granny Jean Veitch (later Mrs Somner) and her father William Veitch, a watchmaker in the town.

My Haddington library records and database have recently been gifted to the Books and Borrowing project based at the University of Stirling. This means that other researchers can build on my work, indeed a number of them already are, which has been fascinating to see. And ultimately the Haddington borrowings I recorded will be available to view freely online.

The findings in the paper were numerous, ranging across changing reading habits, variation by gender and occupation, demonstrating the use of books to educate young minds, and different ways of fitting in the library into your working week. However I think its main contribution was as a proof of concept. Both for the power of relational databases to analyse library borrowing records in a myriad of ways, but also for the potential of enhancing the library borrowings by other genealogical and historical research to better contextualise the borrowers and their borrowings. However on a personal level it was also a proof of concept for me, re my ability to write and publish academic journal papers. Even if with it sailing through peer review with no revisions required prior to publication it perhaps gave me an overly optimistic and unrealistic view of the tribulations that might ensue in that process!

Again my journal paper about the Haddington library borrowers is freely available to download and read on my website, as a PDF linked on the publications page.

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Photo of the book "Index, A History of the" being reviewed

I recently read this new book, exploring the history of book indexes over time. This obviously appealed to me as a book historian and bibliophile. But especially so because a couple of decades ago I retrained as a book indexer, qualifying with the Society of Indexers in the UK. I hoped that it would be work I could manage alongside my progressive neurological illness. Sadly after qualifying I found I was already too ill to work reliably as an indexer. But I maintain a great interest in and appreciation for the form.

The book ranges broadly and deeply over what is very much an abstract concept, often difficult to grasp in some of its more theoretical elements. Yet the book explains these well. I particularly enjoyed the early sections on the medieval origins of the index, and the different approaches of the distinctiones (more subject based indexes) and concordances (more like modern web search indexes), and how these ultimately merged in a way to create the modern book index.

As a book historian the discussion of the transition into the printed book era was fascinating, including the establishment of page numbers. I hadn’t known of the practical difficulties early printers faced trying to print these. The book here included helpful illustrations to show how early books were printed and numbered. Indeed the whole book was illustrated well throughout, often showing example indexes from printed books.

Another highlight section for me was the chapter looking at the especially eighteenth century phenomenon of mock book indexes. Despite in my academic historian guise being an eighteenth-century specialist as well as an historian of reading I was quite unaware of these published works. I appreciated how soundly the discussion of the battles conducted to and fro through published indexes was grounded in the world of eighteenth-century publishing.

Moving closer to the present day the book looks at the establishment of indexing societies in the nineteenth century and some of their loftier goals. Surprisingly comparable to a modern Google-type search index, but rather something that was aimed to be built through the medium of traditional subject indexes. Indeed the role of printed book indexes alongside Internet-type search engines in the present day is a topic that the book returned to time and again.

I was most pleased to see the final chapter of the book cover in depth the working methods of modern professional book indexers. So often people assume that this work can now be done automatically by computer. But to produce a good and effective subject index still requires a human book indexer. This was further demonstrated by the book including part of an index to itself that had been generated by automated computer software. The limitations of the resulting index were clear, especially when viewed alongside the also included subject index compiled by a modern professional – and human! – book historian.

Overall this is a thoroughly enjoyable work, and an example of exemplary scholarship. Recommended of course to any bibliophile or book historian, or indeed to anyone who has found a book index helpful in the past and wants to know more. Thank you Dennis Duncan.

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This week I attended the online SHARP 2021 book history conference. SHARP is the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing, and holds annual academic conferences for book historians. Usually these are held face to face, and I have attended many of them in the past. But this year, because of the Covid pandemic, it was a fully online conference, hosted by the University of Muenster. The conference ran over five days, from Monday 26th July 2021 to Friday 30th July 2021, with often very packed days of parallel sessions, up to 12 hours or so each day.

I was particularly grateful for the conference being online because due to my progressive neurological disease it is now increasingly difficult for me to attend face to face conferences, even those held relatively nearby to me. It may also not be feasible for me to travel to attend any more international ones, given how knocked out I am from my brain disease, the logistics of getting there and extra costs/difficulties of attending with a helper, and problems re wheelchair access.

Even so I could only attend a small fraction of the time available to attendees, being knocked out sleeping for up to 18 hours a day due to my brain disease. Luckily I could attend from bed, in my pyjamas, with my iPad and headphones. Hence my not turning my camera on at any point when asking questions!

The conference programme was full of variety and interest, as well as some experimentation in the format of panels. There were quite a lot of 5-1-5 panels where 5 speakers would each speak for 5 minutes about a single slide per speaker before a Q&A. I must admit that I was initially rather baffled at the start of the week by what 5-1-5 meant, and ended up going back to the conference’s original call for papers for clarification! Generally though I tuned in for 60 minute panels with 2 speakers (the conference’s 60 minute variant on the more traditional 90 minute panels with 3 speakers), where each would speak for 20 minutes, before usually a lively Q&A with the audience. All handled by a chair – always very effectively in my experience at SHARP 2021. I must also praise the speakers for running admirably to time, allowing lots of time for audience participation.

The conference’s primary online delivery method was Zoom, with up to 4 rooms used simultaneously for individual sessions. Generally this worked well for me, tuning in on my iPad. Though I had some hiccups on day 2 getting into the relevant room, with initial passcode errors. So I missed the first 25 minutes of that panel, but fortunately caught most of a talk I was particularly keen to see. Online conferencing can sometimes seem very impersonal, but I found it very effective for following speakers and their slides, and for good Q&A sessions afterwards. There was also a lively text chat section available during each session, which was well utilised by audience members to make comments on points mentioned, share references and knowledge, and to ask questions. Other questions were asked live via webcam/microphone as appropriate.

The range of participants at SHARP conferences is always varied, and unusually welcoming to young scholars. But I felt this online version was particularly wide ranging in the people taking part. It was especially nice to see many questions being asked by PhD students, as well as PhD and Masters students presenting their work at the conference alongside more established academics. There was throughout a very strong sense of camaraderie and willingness to help and share information and knowledge, which was very much appreciated.

Most of the sessions were held live and not recorded, so had to be watched at the scheduled time or you’d have missed it. But a fair number were pre recorded, allowing conference attendees to watch when suitable, including throughout August. I even started watching two recorded panels on the Sunday before the conference officially started! This did not allow me to take part in live discussion with the presenters, but was an appreciated and welcome innovation. It probably also helped with some time zone and availability issues. Though it was very nice to see people attending from all around in the world, in multiple time zones. For example North Americans waking up to watch during the day in Europe while Antipodeans were staying up late to catch online panels live.

Over the week and my earlier pre-conference start I watched 9 panels. Topics covered were diverse, ranging over bookselling during a pandemic, biblioforensics and book biography, the early modern English book trade and copyright and stationer wills, dispersed libraries and library organisation (including Samuel Pepys!), the book trade in present day Mexico City and New Delhi, SHARP’s own journal Book History and its new paperback incarnation, new research into Scottish library borrowing registers (a project I’m involved with, having gifted some of my own transcripts of borrowing records from my many years ago PhD on historic Scottish reading habits), translating medieval/Renaissance books between English/Scots and Spanish and vice versa, and initiatives at the Bodleian library in Oxford re digitisation of material. All were fascinating for me, and again just a tiny fraction of the events on offer to attendees over the full 5 days of the conference.

For all the events I attended I was an avid viewer of the presentations. Often participating in the chat too, and asking questions in the panels, sometimes through the text chat, occasionally unmuting my microphone (but camera still off – pyjamas!) to discuss something more complex. Throughout I felt thoroughly engaged, inspired, and eager to do more research of my own, and learn more about some of the issues and topics I learned about during the conference.

A nice bonus is that attending the conference prompted me to rejoin SHARP. I have been a member for many years in the past, but drifted away in recent years, as my progressive disease was worsening quite dramatically. But I am still an active researcher of book history and reading history, and attending the conference inspired me to rejoin the society. The only question was whether I would rejoin with a Book History journal included. While attending the event discussing the new incarnation of the journal my mind was made up: get the new paperback journal! Plus I should add that the $38 reduced rate for students / independent scholars / retirees helped too!

Over the coming weeks – throughout August – I plan to watch more recorded panels and keynote sessions. I’m very much looking forward to this. Looking further ahead I hope that I can participate in SHARP conferences in future in some way, albeit remotely. I think it’s unlikely as I say that I can ever attend SHARP in person again. So I hope there will continue to be some online provision, even after most book historians have returned to a more normal way of working.

I also want to thank the organisers for an extremely well run event. I would particularly like to praise conference lead Corinna Norrick-Rühl, who valiantly helped me when I had connection problems. And she must have had so much else to deal with all week! I really appreciated the personal touch.

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A while back I discovered that there is a nice list of subscribers in the back of a book of poems from 1811 by Borders poet Andrew Scott (1757-1839). This seemed well worth analysing further. Indeed it’s the sort of thing that I did as part of my history PhD researching reading habits in Scotland circa 1750-1820.

I thought it might be interesting if I jotted down some thoughts about the process, before I start. The ultimate aim is some form of publication, possibly another academic journal paper.

Surprisingly little is known about the poet Andrew Scott. He was a native of Bowden in Roxburghshire, and spent some years fighting for the British army in the American Wars of Independence. Later he returned to his home parish, and for the rest of his days worked as an agricultural labourer, and also church officer (“beadle”). He died at Bowden in 1839.

His poems are fun, as indeed are the songs also included in the 1811 publication. They are mainly written in Scots, indeed more specifically Border Scots. Many are about the local area, or people he knew. There is a particularly touching poem mourning the loss of his young son.

The list of subscribers appears at the back of the book. It was common at this time for a book to be published by subscription. About 600 names appear, many from the nearby Scottish Borders area, others from elsewhere, including just across the Border in Northumberland, so relatively nearby of course.

Looking at the list of subscribers I am struck by the strong presence of women. Even married women with husbands still living, such as my 6xg-granny Mrs Usher at Melrose. Often in records of reading, including subscription lists, women are largely invisible, concealed behind the names of male relatives, if at all. This book does not seem like that.

For the men in the list in particular many occupations are given, which definitely merit further analysis. Addresses are also given for subscribers, allowing a geographical analysis, including by type of settlement.

My immediate task is to transcribe the subscription list. This will then provide the basis for the analysis steps. I may also want to research some of the subscribers more fully, perhaps using genealogical records. Much to do anyway, and a process I should enjoy very much.

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It’s International Women’s Day, and the Books and Borrowing 1750-1830 project I’m involved with blogged today about women borrowers in libraries.

I studied such records as part of my PhD examining Scottish reading habits between circa 1750 and 1820. Women are largely hidden as readers in historic library borrowing records, especially in libraries which restricted access to men. But sometimes they show up as borrowers directly, or it is recorded that a book was borrowed on their behalf. Other female members of the family may potentially have read any other book borrowed from the library.

At Haddington’s Gray Library which I studied female borrowers make a prominent appearance, and their borrowing patterns can also be compared with male borrowers at the same time. For example it’s possible to detect that they were borrowing on different days of the week from men, and that they also tended to choose a different pattern of books. For full details see my Journal of Scottish Historical Studies paper on this, which is available free in open access form.

However for this blog post I want to focus on one female Haddington borrower in particular. Jean Veitch (ca1770-1804) was my 5xg-granny, the daughter of a watchmaker in the town, and granddaughter of a Border laird in Peeblesshire and Selkirkshire. Jean first appears in the Haddington library’s borrowing records in June 1785, when she was about 15, and her father William started to borrow books for her. Over the following months he borrowed several volumes of Fielding’s Works for Jean. At this time the library asked that anyone borrowing especially for someone else note that when they took out the book. This rule may not always have been followed rigidly though, and it is possible that William borrowed some other books for his daughter over the following years.

In December 1790 Jean is first recorded borrowing a book in her own name, a volume of Cook’s Voyages. A week later she borrowed a volume of Pope’s Works. This was the last mention of her in the record.

Jean married in 1794, to my 5xg-granddad Richard Somner. For more on her life story see my blog post about her.

Also potentially of interest is my blog post about her grandfather James Veitch of Glen and Bowhill, including the extensive library of books he left when he died. I don’t know if any of these passed down to his watchmaker son in Haddington.

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March 31st 2020 will mark exactly ten years since my successful history PhD viva. I thought it might be nice to reflect on how the subsequent years have gone, and where things stand now for me, in academic terms.

I live with a severely disabling neurological disease, which struck in 1994 when I was just 22. It’s gradually progressive, and prevents me from working in any paid capacity in academia or elsewhere, and limits what I can do. The last decade saw me continue to battle a major relapse in my disease, including needing high dose chemotherapy infusions in hospital throughout summer 2012. Fortunately this treatment helped stabilise my condition, although it is still progressive.

Nevertheless I have continued to be active as an academic, publishing new peer reviewed journal papers and book chapters, and presenting conference papers and participating in other ways.

In the early stages post PhD my primary focus was on publishing work from my PhD thesis. Increasingly I have moved onto new research and new topics, and have a number of interesting new research projects underway.

An unexpected more recent change of tack saw me switch from my usual eighteenth century interests to jump back into the seventeenth century. My pre-PhD MPhil (taught PG Masters) dissertation studied a rich set of seventeenth century Scottish local court records, and I felt strongly that these merited publication as well as my later PhD research. In addition I discovered a poem about the court in 1682 – written then too! I have an annotated transcript and accompanying essay about the poem due to be published soon. This might sound straightforward, but the seventeenth century context is far outside my comfort zone as a historian. Yet I have derived much pleasure working in it, and learning the historiographical ropes. Encouragingly I also think there could be more publishable outputs possible from this MPhil dissertation research.

I have also combined my historical interests with indie computer game development, specifically traditional text adventure games, or interactive fiction as they are more commonly known nowadays. Two games have been entered into competitions, one about Border Reivers in 1490s Liddesdale, the other an occult treasure hunt in 1590s Scotland based on a true story in my family history. I plan to write more in future. It’s a creative hobby that gives me much pleasure.

Another area I would like to explore more is digital humanities. I’ve always used large scale computer techniques in my historical research, probably inevitable given my previous background as an academic computer scientist. Yet I would like to do more, for example building online portals to some of the databases and resources I have built in my research, and using spatial analysis and visualisation to further explore Scottish book history and urban history.

One thing that has declined over the last decade is my participation in academic conferences. This has had a strong correlation with my neurological disease progression, and the increasing practical challenges of attending conferences given these circumstances. However I do still occasionally speak at conferences, or attend. I was due to speak at a conference in May, but then Coronavirus happened. Hopefully the event is just postponed, rather than cancelled.

Something else that has declined over the last decade is how frequently I have been able to attend Dundee University history research seminars for the university’s history academic staff and postgraduates in particular. There are various reasons for this, but my progressive disease is definitely a major factor. I was delighted recently when I managed to attend a history seminar, the first in a very long time. Many familiar faces to see and catch up with, as well as new folks to meet. Yet even largely home based I don’t feel completely cut off as an academic historian. Twitter is a particular boon, connecting me with fellow academics and historical researchers with shared interests, all over the world. I also have a good number of lecturer friends I can call on for advice if need be. Ever since my PhD I have had an honorary research fellowship in history at Dundee University, which has also been a huge help, and is very much appreciated, giving me ready access to electronic journals and other resources, so vital to allow me to continue to keep up with research in my academic fields.

I don’t know what the next few years are going to bring. But for now I look ahead with optimism, and hope to continue to build on the good progress I have made as an academic historian in the last ten years.

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Photo of Grand Canal in VeniceI recently returned from our silver wedding anniversary trip to Venice, our third visit to the city since the 1990s. We always go in winter, out of season. It’s much quieter, and very atmospheric. But of course you run the risk of the acqua alta or high tides. And this year has been exceptionally bad for that, with already the worst tides to hit Venice for over 50 years. Given that, just days before our long-planned trip, we considered carefully whether we should still go. But taking into account the tide forecasts, and armed with our wellies we were taking anyway, we went ahead. We know the city well, and were confident we could get on well enough. Also we checked that our hotel had electricity and its lifts were working. As it was we flew in on another day of exceptionally high tides, albeit later in the day after levels had dropped a bit. Even so, when we got to our hotel the staff were still in rubber boots, albeit expecting to be back in normal footwear the next day.

I was most struck by the sense of resilience among Venetians we met. Everywhere there were still signs of the recent problems, with raised walkways at the ready if needed. Many shopkeepers were still cleaning out their flooded shops, and more metal flood barriers were being attached to buildings in case the high floods returned. And, of course, home owners were hugely affected, and trying to restore a sense of normality to their damaged homes. Everywhere many Venetians still wore wellies out and about, even on drier days, and were getting on with things in a stoic manner. But we always found people welcoming, kind and generous.

As a disabled visitor Venice poses many challenges, indeed I hadn’t thought I would ever get back again until my neurological disease unexpectedly became more stable for a time at least. I walk with two sticks permanently now, and struggle with stairs and distance. Venice is best explored on foot, but then you have to contend with bridges – with steps up and down each side – and of course crowds, even if the latter are far less of an issue out of season. We did see a wheelchair user boarding a vaporetto – water bus – but both of us wondered how well he would get on elsewhere in the city. There are lifts now for some of Venice’s larger bridges, but they are often out of order. And that still leaves many smaller bridges to cope with. To add to the hazard many tourists stop on top of bridges to take photos and selfies, so become obstacles. Much cursing. At least most folk were walking on the right hand side, in the Italian manner.

On the plus side we made many wonderful new memories. Much of our time saw visits to familiar sites. I was particularly keen to go back to the Accademia Gallery, to see massive detailed paintings by Gentile Bellini and others. I especially love the enormous city scenes with architectural details, that seem to jump off the canvas, like a 3D picture or stereo photo. This time I also saw the newly restored Vittore Carpaccio narrative cycle of St Ursula paintings. Gobsmacking. On the downside there were a ridiculous number of stairs in the building, and only limited lifts – asking about a lift on entrance got no helpful response, so after buying our tickets I battled up the opening stairs to the first floor. The lack of lifts would deter me from going back. But there are some gorgeous artworks in there. Also on the art front my husband Martin had an unplanned but wonderful visit to the Museo Querini Stampalia where he was blown away by the amazing ceilings and delightful collection of paintings and other artworks. He couldn’t stop talking about it and he’s not normally into art like this.

Another highlight was riding the vaporetto water buses, up and down the Grand Canal. We used these to shortcut the amount of walking I needed to do, and to cross the Grand Canal easily. So it was very much a case of leapfrogging from one stop to another. I’d forgotten the sensation of sitting inside the vaporetto stop (a floating box with seats), rocking gently, waiting for the vaporetto to arrive and bump heavily into the stop. If you want to use the vaporetti to help with mobility problems like this buy a multi day tourist ticket, which is good value. You can even buy one at Marco Polo airport when you arrive, then have the ticket in hand. Vaporetti staff were very attentive and supported me as I made my way on to and off the boats with my sticks. Though I never felt unsafe. I wouldn’t like to do that transfer in a wheelchair though.

Caffe Florian in St Mark’s, the world’s oldest coffee shop, was extensively damaged by the floods, but reopened during our stay. We turned up on my second outing day, got a quiet table inside, and treated ourselves to a wonderful meal of sandwiches, ice cream and cake, amazing coffees and chilled drinks. The service was sublime. A real treat, and somewhere we were delighted to return to. Another highlight was visiting our favourite restaurant, near our hotel, for a lovely Italian meal, in an atmospheric room looking out to a nearby canal. Superb food, and, again, incredibly welcoming service. We couldn’t have had a nicer time there.

Venice is, of course, a city filled with shops to appeal to tourists. I’d made a long list of the shops I wanted to get to, largely inspired by the Venezia Autentica website. In the end some were still closed, recovering from the recent floods. But we did manage to visit the masks shop I wanted to go to, and bought an amazingly blingy full face cat mask. Another must visit was Scriba pen shop north of St Mark’s. Set in an extremely compact unit, Scriba cram in a phenomenal range of pens, stationery and their own marble paper journals and notepads they bind with their own traditional presses. I’m a fountain pen fan, but didn’t need to buy any more fountain pens. But I did fancy a Murano glass dip pen, and the shop put together a set with my choice of glass pen (style and colour), glass stand, and ink colour in a wee bottle. All marvellously packaged up, safe for travels home. I also bought a good sized marble paper covered lined journal. Oh and they have a section of the shop set up where you can try the dip pens before buying.

As an academic I’m obviously prone to buying books. I managed to largely restrain myself this time though, thinking of taking our wellies back in our suitcases (the wellies had already taken up a lot of suitcase space on the journey out). But I was delighted to pick up an Oxford University (!) book about the printing revolution in Europe 1450-1500. Packed full of illustrations and interesting infographics, it was perfect for book historian me. My husband also bought a number of fascinating books in the Museo Querini Stampalia shop.

Having a comfortable hotel was vital. Location was important, given how difficult walking is for me. Luckily we stayed in a great place before, just a short distance from St Mark’s, en route to the Accademia, but in a very quiet side street. As usual I had to sleep extensively, in between days of activity. Luckily we’d allowed time, a week visit this time, but in practice that meant we would fly in, then I slept all the next day, then a day of activity, then another day of sleep, before a second day of activity, then more sleep before flying home. On those days I slept my husband explored Venice on foot and by vaporetto, often in wellies, and had a great time.

Visiting Venice is always a bittersweet experience, and that was no less the case this time. There is a palpable sense of decay, a city clinging on despite the ravages of time. But it is also an uplifting place to visit, full of curious nooks and crannies to explore and get lost in, gorgeous things to see, and welcoming people. Winter has a particular atmosphere in Venice. Magical.

But of course I fear for the city’s future. It’s a clear warning for the dangers of rising sea levels, more uncertain weather and global warming. It’s hard to be optimistic for Venice’s long term future. Though in the short term there are steps that could help, for example getting the much delayed flood prevention scheme up and running, and reducing access to and damage from big cruise ships. It’s likely some very difficult decisions will have to be made about Venice. But for now, anyway, it clings on, albeit increasingly precariously.

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