As well as using the books to attack each other, the students also employed marginalia to vent their frustration at the university authorities. William Vilant, the librarian between 1768 and 1788, seems to have been a figure who inspired particular hatred. During his tenure, the students conducted a guerrilla war with him through the pages of the library.
The Proper Use of Language
Books were also used by the students to demonstrate their superior accomplishments. In particular, many annotators were keen to correct authors when their grammar slipped, probably mirroring the corrections made to their own compositions by the professors.
Knowing the World like Men
Other marginalia in the library books perform explicit displays of knowledge, with annotators responding to the tests implied by texts’ omissions or circumlocutions.
Sometimes, annotators’ notes reveal the systems of value by which they judged what they read, often evoking a rather different set of categories than those employed by 21st century readers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are a significant number of marginal comments about the nature of good writing and thinking in Hugh Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, one of the period’s most successful treatises on how to communicate effectively.
It was relatively common for students to leave short appreciations at the conclusions of the works that they read, providing their impressions for other contemporaries who soldiered through entire texts.
I have perused this most excellent work and would recommend it to all serious and enquiring persons”
Occasionally, more emotional reactions are recorded in the books, showing how the students responded to drama, desire and tension.
a madman in love”
As these annotations demonstrate, the books that arrived in St Andrews as a result of the Copyright Act encouraged kinds of learning that the framers of the legislation might have been rather surprised by. However, they also show that the library did good service for a thriving community of contentious, pedantic and critical readers. While quite a number of the books that arrived during the eighteenth century have not survived, those that have and the records that were created around them demonstrate powerfully that rather than being solely a solitary activity, reading in eighteenth-century St Andrews was often an occasion for boisterous and impassioned social intercourse.
Dr Matthew Sangster
Lecturer (English Literature), University of Glasgow