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Theft, vandalism and hatred: 400 years of bad behaviour in the King James Library, part 1

A well used copy of John Mair’s Brief survey of the terraqueous globe (Edinburgh, 1762).

In every working library, each day sees a struggle played out between order and chaos. It’s a fact of life that however hard librarians work to impose order, opening the doors to users inevitably means that a measure of chaos enters in their wake. Often this is chaos at a fairly low-level: a book being absent-mindedly left on a train; the quiet of a study area being shattered by a phone ringing – that kind of thing. Sometimes though, the chaos that users bring in is a bit more of a problem than this.

What follows is a look at some of the ways that users of the King James Library have interacted with books with rather less uplifting results than their authors might have hoped for.

A portion of the title page of Sir Robert Spottiswood’s Practicks of the laws of Scotland (1706).

Barely had the Library opened its doors than it was embroiled in a notorious case of book theft. When a session of the Scottish Parliament was held in the building in 1645-46, part of its proceedings were given over to the trial of Sir Robert Spottiswood, son of the Archbishop of St Andrews, on a charge of high treason. Having been a prominent supporter of Charles I during the Civil War, he was found guilty by a Parliament largely comprised of the king’s opponents and was condemned to death. It wasn’t only the victorious side in the war who sought vengeance against him however: hardly had Sir Robert met his grim end (he was beheaded on Market Street) than the University presented a petition to Parliament requesting that his books be acquired for the Library, the record stating it was well known that both he and his father “did wrong the university in borrowing books out of their library and not restoring thereof and otherwise retaining many books from the same”. Parliament approved this request and the books were duly added (or restored) to the Library. (You can read the transcript of the proceedings on the Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707 website).

The Upper Hall, or King James Library, by James Fairweather, about 1898 (from the Photographic Collection).

Harsh retribution of this kind against thieves did not prove a sufficient deterrent to others however, as evidenced by the fact that in the years that followed Library regulations were increasingly concerned with measures designed to prevent students making off with books. For example, in 1734, a notice listing ten ‘Laws’ governing use of the Library was posted in the King James Library by order of the University, including one stating that

 […] no student shall take or move any book out of its place in any press or shelf in the Library, but shall demand what book he may want from the Library Keeper, and wait until he receives it at his hands. Every student who becomes guilty in this article […] shall be reprimanded publickly [or] fined for intrusion and ill manners. […] the Library Keeper is hereby required to take particular note of all students who shall be thus guilty and to give up their names to the University.

The threat of fines and naming and shaming doesn’t seem to have been an entirely successful deterrent however. Students sought to circumvent this regulation using a tactic nowadays associated with light-fingered school kids in a sweetshop: all pile in at once and grab what you can. The Senate Minutes for 1743 record a complaint made by the Librarian, James Angus:

[…] several students, notwithstanding of laws to the contrary, came in together, went to several presses at the same time and took out books, and […] he had reason to suspect some were clandestinely carried away.

The years that followed saw progressively tighter rules, seemingly principally designed to prevent students from getting their hands on books. The Library regulations of 1753, for example, included a long list of books which were not to be lent to students:

 […] dictionaries and grammars of any kind, folio systems of geography, manuscripts, large anatomical books, Mr Hutcheson’s present of books, commentaries and criticks on the Bible, except to students of divinity, books that are taught in any of the classes, nor the best copie or edition of a book, if there be other copies in the Library; and this beside what other particular books the several classes of the Curatores shall order from time to time not to be lent out.

Rather more drastically, it was made certain that particularly prized books did not leave the library at all – by chaining them to lecterns. An example of one such, the Foundation Bible of St Leonard’s College, can be seen on display in the Gateway Galleries exhibition.
An older photograph of the Foundation Bible of St Leonard’s chained to a lectern.

Perhaps it was understandable that such extreme measures were taken – if one remarkable case of kleptomania inflicted on the University bookseller in 1762 is anything to go by. Patrick Bower, the bookseller in question, reported to University authorities that a number of his books had gone missing and that he had suspicions that students may have been responsible. A minute of a University meeting recorded how a raid on student rooms was conducted in search of the culprits:

[T]he Hebdomadar, with another Master, […] went to the College between 7 and 8 last night, and having gone thro’ several rooms came in course to the room possess’d by David Rattray and his brother Henry, and when the Masters asked access to see their books David Rattray told them his books were in a chest, and that John Hog, the porter, had the key of it. When the porter was order’d to be call’d, David Rattray confess’d that in his chest were several books which he had taken out of Mr. Bower’s shop, and the chest being open’d, the books […] were found in it, all which the lad own’d to have been taken by him out of Mr. Bower’s shop, and that he had written his own name upon them all.

In all, the ‘several books’ were found to number 63 stolen volumes, amongst them quite a few works of a religious nature.

End of part 1: come back next week, 24 October 2012, for the conclusion to “Theft, vandalism and hatred: 400 years of bad behaviour in the King James Library

Colin Bovaird

Academic Liaison Officer and King James Library observer

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