‘William French is a damned bragging, lying b****’: Book Use and Marginal Contentions in Eighteenth-Century St Andrews, Part One
The historical records of the University Library in St Andrews’ Special Collections represent a uniquely valuable resource for studying book use and reading. It is relatively rare for more than fragments of an institution’s library records to survive, but St Andrews holds a remarkable wealth of material from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with enormous potential for studying the evolving ways in which knowledge was organised and books read during that time.
Between 1710 and 1837, St Andrews’ University Library was a legal deposit collection, entitled to claim a copy of every book entered in the copyright registers maintained by the Stationers’ Company in London. These copyright accessions included some scholarly volumes, but also a great number of works that would not otherwise have entered a learned library, including pamphlets, music, drama and novels. In the eighteenth century, St Andrews was a relatively impoverished and marginal town and this had knock-on effects on the university, occasioning the merger of St Leonard’s and St Salvator’s into a single United College in 1747. The flow of books from Stationers’ Hall represented a significant asset at a time when other sources of support were scarce. By 1800, about 60% of the library’s collection was made up of copyright accessions.
The extraordinary growth of the library in this period can be traced in detail due to the survival of a series of carefully-maintained accessions lists (UYLY107/1-6). These contain entries for nearly every book sent up as a result of the copyright privilege.
The lists also log the occasional gifts that the library received and record purchases made by the university’s Senatus Academicus and by teams of professorial curators. Due to the university’s limited funds, these purchases often responded to or supplemented the accessions from Stationers’ Hall, filling in gaps or securing periodical publications or foreign works that were outside the Copyright Act’s purview.
Rich accounts of what happened to these multifarious books once they entered the library also survive. A long series of shelf and author catalogues predating the first printed catalogue of 1826 show how the library was organised as it expanded, displaying the struggles of successive librarians to order the growing collections both intellectually and practically. Library catalogues are relatively common survivals, but St Andrews also holds a uniquely complete and detailed series of receipt books. These record almost every book borrowed from the library by students, professors and townspeople between 1737 and 1759 and then from the 1770s through until 1925, with a few gaps and exceptions (UYLY205, UYLY206 and UYLY 207). The volumes formed the Library’s receipt for each loan; in later volumes, returns were registered by striking out the original entry. St Andrews’ eighteenth-century registers are unusually rich and indicative due to a perfect storm of circumstances that prevailed at the time of their creation. There was a relative paucity of alternative locations for accessing books in the town, so St Andrews’ students were compelled to make greater use of the library than their compatriots studying at other Scottish universities (south of the border, undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge were generally barred from using the principal university libraries). While students were accorded generous borrowing rights, they were not generally permitted to read in the library itself, so if they wanted to use books, they had to take them out, leaving a record of their reading (or, at least, of their intention to read) inscribed in the library’s ledgers.
The receipt books thus provide exciting opportunities for research on wide range of different scales, from examinations of the borrowings made by a particular student on a particular day to considerations of large samples to trace trends in reading habits across centuries. Looking at slice samples from the later eighteenth century demonstrates that reading habits in St Andrews became increasingly heterogeneous as the decades wore on. Perhaps this can be attributed in part to the impact of the ideas put forward by the luminaries of the Scottish Enlightenment, which opened up more varied fields of texts for educational use. In St Andrews, a pioneering Professor of Logic, Rhetoric and Metaphysics, Robert Watson, was one of the first scholars to employ literary works in the classroom to inculcate proper notions of style and taste. However, the works borrowed ranged far beyond those that the university’s curriculum included, as students took increasing advantage of the reams of modern print with which the processes of the Copyright Act continued to fill the library.
While St Andrews’ receipt books can be analysed carefully for patterns and trends and linked up interestingly with matriculation records and other biographical sources, many of the surviving eighteenth-century books provide more immediate and compelling accounts of the ways that St Andrews’ students engaged with different kinds of writing. It is very clear that the students knew that writing in the library books was frowned upon. One student carefully penned a notice to this effect into Joseph Addison’s Works:
It is a most scandalous thing to write upon the liberary books which are deposited there for the use & benefits of such persons as please to have recourse to them. I myself am hurried on along by my mind to write this advertisement for the interest of any one to whose hands it may come in forewarning him of the dangers of abusing the Liberary books”
Nevertheless, despite – or perhaps because – of their awareness of the impropriety of doing so, students regularly penned comments into the library’s books. Some of these inscriptions are simply names and dates, fragments of diagrams, brief references or occasional drawings.
However, many of the marginalia are more substantial, and from these we can acquire unique insights into the various ways that books were used in eighteenth-century St Andrews.
One common form of marginalia was the personal attack, often penned into a popular and heavily-used book where its target would be more likely to encounter it.
Marginalia like this display the social dimensions of the library’s books, with commonly-trafficked works serving as means for circulating gossip, playing roles balanced somewhere between toilet cubicle walls and social media accounts.
Dr Matthew Sangster
Lecturer (English Literature), University of Glasgow
In his next post, Matthew will give more examples of marginalia in 18th century books, so watch out for abuse of the librarian, and students moralising and showing off!
The implications of these marginalia and of the other surviving records at St Andrews are explored more fully in an article in the Review of English Studies, ‘Copyright Literature and Reading Communities in Eighteenth-Century St Andrews’.