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Posts Tagged ‘library borrowing records’

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
(SELECT *
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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Inspired by various twitterers I’m adopting the #AcWri hashtag to carry on the good results from #AcWriMo. And to help me make progress I am planning to continue to blog about my goals for research and writing, and how I’m getting on, and the outcomes. Hopefully this will encourage me to get more things finished, rather than have vague ideas still lingering about.

My next goals are to move two research projects forward. Both are aiming at journal papers in the end, and one ideally needs to beat that 1st April 2013 open access submission deadline. So I need to push on.

The urgent one, let’s call it Project 1, is to look at the role of chapmen in reading habits in Scotland in the 1700s / early 1800s. I found out quite a lot of useful information about this, including uncovering unanalysed primary source material, in my PhD. And I’ve since found more good stuff, that I now have at home and need to transcribe and analyse. So my goal for Project 1 in the next few weeks is to finish transcribing the list of chapmen admitted to the Fife Chapman Society in the late 1700s. I’m using this rare local record to give me a sense of how numerous and widespread chapmen were throughout Scotland. At this period chapmen, travelling sellars who sold cheap print, are largely invisible in historical records, so to have such a relevant and rich primary source that can be usefully analysed is too good to overlook. Once I’ve done that I’ll be able to start moving the writing forward. The list of chapmen admitted to the society isn’t too long, so it’s just a matter of me sitting down by the microfilm and getting on with it.

The other project I’m looking at is to examine some valuable library borrowing records I found in kirk session collections in the National Records of Scotland. I have two good sets of library borrowing records to work through, in the form of digital images at home. One, a library in Shetland, is particularly appealing because it’s from the 1870s, so I can look for the borrowers – since I have names and addresses – in the census returns, to find out more about them. In the future I’m planning a large-scale study of the Balquhidder library borrowing registers from Perthshire, which can also be studied alongside census returns. But this kirk session example would be an ideal small pilot case study. And it’s worth writing up as a paper. So to move it forward, let’s call it Project 2, I need to transcribe the borrowings for this library from the kirk session records. Not sure I’ll manage that in December, but I can make a start on it. I can work on it on and off, on my laptop, even while sitting on the sofa at night.

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