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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
(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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I’ve been thinking quite a lot about my experiences of school history of late. Prompted in part by the musings of other academics, but also as I think about how I view history and what it means to me.

I was at secondary school, at Hawick High School in the Scottish Borders, between 1984 and 1990. I studied history for the first four of those years. I’d like particularly to reflect on the Scottish history content, or more often the lack of it.

For the first two years all pupils studied history, alongside many other subjects. In many ways this was the highlight period for me in terms of a strong representation of Scottish content. In one of those years we studied Scotland in the period before and during the Scottish Wars of Independence, using a published textbook written by several of the Hawick teachers. I particularly relished its case studies, for example a detailed examination of nearby Melrose Abbey and how it related to the surrounding countryside. Even better for genealogist me was an extremely detailed examination of the complex genealogical puzzle over who should inherit the Scottish crown after the death in 1290 of Margaret, Maid of Norway. We also covered in detail the stories and battles of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, alongside wider discussions of Scottish society and its people at this time.

Also in my first two years my history teacher Ian Landles was determined to teach us history of his beloved home town Hawick. So we learned all about where we lived, its history, including the famous textile industry, key events and people, and along the way guided walks taking us out and about to learn more on the ground. All very much appreciated.

In S3 and S4 (third and fourth years of Scottish secondary school) in my day Scottish pupils studied O-Grade courses, cutting down the range of subjects, to those we would sit formal school qualification exams in. My school year was the last before Standard Grade qualifications were introduced.

I chose history as one of my O-Grade subjects. Sadly S3 was an awful experience, with a teacher who could not control disruptive elements in his class. We battled to learn early nineteenth century British history despite this, but were eventually transferred to another history teacher’s class, thankfully Ian Landles again.

I remember we learned a little history of the Scottish Highland Clearances. But that was a rare Scottish element. I did enjoy the World War One content, and if I remember correctly Mr Landles tried to include Scottish elements. But it was still British history, with an emphasis on learning facts, names, dates, places, rather than the process of doing history per se.

I did well in the history O-Grade exam, but was disillusioned by the approach of school history, learning facts about things I often had little interest in. So I didn’t take Higher History. It’s such a shame, because for me history is such a fun subject, but the school courses, at least the syllabus I encountered in O-Grade, didn’t capture that at all. The magic for me lies in the process of discovery, working with primary sources and other evidence. These were all things I had learned to love myself through my own genealogical and family history research since primary school. This also led me to visit historical archives from age 12 or so, and quickly become hooked on the process of historical research. But again none of that appeared in S3 and S4 history, even if there were elements of it in S1 and S2.

When I went to St Andrews University there were two subjects I would have loved to study for an honours degree. Firstly computer science, which I applied to study, but also Scottish history, which I had to pass on. In the end I got to the Scottish history after all, after I fell ill with a progressive neurological disease aged just 22, and started studying history very part-time, to take my mind off the gruelling medical treatment I was undergoing. Over the following years, increasingly part-time, I picked up three history degrees, BA(Hons), taught MPhil, and PhD. But this was all done despite school history failing to grab me.

Now some might view the presence or otherwise of Scottish history in school history syllabuses as a political one, e.g. nationalism versus unionism, Scottish versus British. It’s certainly true that I’ve been a pro-SNP independence supporter, ever since my teenage years. However for me the issue seems deeper than that, more about learning about where you live, that has worth in learning about, and crucially is something that you can relate to. Luckily I became fascinated by history from age 5 onwards, but what I picked up re Scottish history was almost all due to my own private study from that, not from what I learned in school.

I also feel strongly that teaching facts to be learned by rote is not what history teaching should be about. It’s certainly not the aspect of history that hooked me. It’s also counter intuitive if the facts you are mechanically learning have no emotional resonance for you. Far better I think if you can teach the process of doing history i.e. how can we investigate a given topic? What sorts of evidence can we use? How can we handle inconsistencies between sources? And indeed what does the concept of a “fact” even mean in history anyway?

I have read that Scottish school history syllabuses are better in these respects now. I really hope that is the case, and that they continue to improve. Because if school history doesn’t teach youngsters a country’s history, it is letting them down and the country too. It’s also vital that it teaches the fun of history, and the buzz of enquiry, which should never be purely about learning so-called facts, but more how we can discover things for ourselves.

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