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Posts Tagged ‘library history’

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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One thing I learned in my PhD is that it’s important to push yourself to try difficult things. It’s possible to get through an undergraduate degree by always playing it safe. Even a postgraduate Masters can be mostly completed in your comfort zone. But when you get to PhD level, it’s only by trying difficult things, and tackling them head on, that you get the best results.

I’ve been trying to apply that since completing my PhD in 2010. For example today I submitted a proposal for a colloquium on library history research to be held in London in early 2015. It would be much easier for me not to go. I have a severely disabling neurological disease, and travelling all the way there, even giving a talk locally, would be very difficult. But I know that I can contribute a lot to the meeting, and so I sent in a proposal. And if I managed to attend the meeting and present my paper I’d get a huge sense of personal achievement.

Likewise the other day I put in a proposal for a conference to be held at Inverness in a few months time. Ok Inverness is not as far away from me as London, but it would still be quite a trauchle (good Scots word – think ‘struggle’) for me to get there. But again I think I can contribute a lot to the conference, it would be nice to get the research from my Masters dissertation ‘out there’, and it may help to see it eventually in print form in an academic journal.

This is also why I’ve been pushing to get my research published in journal articles. Again this is a difficult thing for me to tackle. My progressive neurological disease causes significant cognitive problems, such as considerable difficulty reading, concentrating, general confusion and dementia-like memory problems. So preparing journal papers, and dealing with revise and resubmit for example isn’t easy. But I do it because it’s challenging and rewarding, and seeing my research in print is ever so satisfying. I currently have two papers accepted by journals and awaiting publication, another one being considered by an editor, and another one where I was offered revise and resubmit, and will be doing that. For the same reason I aim at ambitious journals. I have time, hopefully, and would rather wait and work to see my paper published somewhere really good, than go for an easier, safer, less satisfying result.

Of course doing all this requires confidence. But generally that’s something that grows during the PhD process, and culminates in the successful passing of a viva. And then as you get first one paper accepted and published, and then another (I’ve had five single author history journal papers accepted so far) the confidence grows even further. So it’s an ongoing process.

So try the hard things folks. Don’t play it safe. And see where it takes you. Even if, like me, you are outside conventional academia, and ploughing your own path.

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