Special Collections Visiting Scholars – Commonplace Books, Scrapbooks and Other Albums
Back in June, we received our first Visiting Scholar for 2015 – Professor Kevin James of the University of Guelph. Since delivering a workshop based on his research on 11 June, Professor James has written up his findings in a short essay – you can download it here.
Professor James is a social and cultural historian of Britain and Ireland during the 19th Century, with a focus on travel and tourism – his previous research has drawn on 19th and early 20th century hotel books, which provided a blank space for tourists to record their thoughts and feelings in creative ways.
This in turn led him to take an interest in similar objects – such as albums, scrapbooks and commonplace books, of which there are many held by Special Collections at St Andrews. It soon became clear how valuable they are to the study of manuscript culture, compilation, and creation practices, and the history of the book in his period of interest.
Investigating the methods of compiling albums, and reasons for doing so, formed a large part of his research. Special Collections holds examples of albums created collaboratively, and by individuals, and for recording family history, collecting autographs, and for establishing ‘narratives of self’.
Professor James also explored the perceived gendered nature of collating albums; the shift from the organised, scholarly practise of commonplacing popular among men of learning in the early modern period, to the supposedly more loosely arranged and whimsical practice of album creation carried out by women of in the Victorian period.
William Alexander Craigie’s volume (above) is clearly in the tradition of the former, and Ethel Palmer’s (below) is in the latter.
Agnes McIntosh, the sister of W.C. McIntosh, Professor of Natural History at St Andrews, documented her brother’s career with an example of male and female collaboration in album creation:
Through his research, Professor James rejects the idea that albums produced for leisure are of lesser value than commonplace books – seeing Mary Simson’s Golf Scrapbook as an example of a carefully curated and nuanced record, in this case of the relationship between town, gown and golf in St Andrews.
Professor James also considers the purpose of albums that survive in Special Collections. While some were obviously intended to document something in order to be shared with others, some examples have no obvious thematic organisation. The arrangement of apparently disparate material in an album created by Mabel Beaumont may have been according to a private mnemonic – if it had any meaning, we can now only guess at what it was.
The value of the collections held here at St Andrews is that they allow the study of albums over time and genre, and in the context of other records being produced. Professor James considers our albums to be deeply personal and highly social tools of commemoration, recollection, and literary tradition, embedded within the technological, social, commercial, and cultural developments of the 19th century.
It was a delight to welcome Kevin to Special Collections and to reinforce the strong links with Guelph as well as to enable him to undertake this research.