Enlightenment readers in the Scottish Universities – Matthew Sangster

Dr Matthew Sangster delivered an enlightening and engaging seminar on his recent work concerning the rather understudied area of the history of readers. Dr Sangster is an English Literature Lecturer at the University of Glasgow, where he focuses on eighteenth-century and romantic literature, as well as book history – in particular on the history of publishing and libraries. Though he has a focus on the author, his recent work focuses on the history of the reader, with the intention of understanding reading patterns, curriculum changes, and the sharing of works amongst readers.

One of the reasons, perhaps, why the history of the reader is so understudied could be due to the rather limited sources we have to consult which are varied, unreliable on occasion, and often do not follow a pattern long enough for us to stabilise a study. Authors are survived through their printed works, and, after the 1710 Copyright Act, through the Stationers’ Register as they record their works, making them accessible figures of study. Publishers and printers are also easily accessible, as they too survive through printed works: through imprints and colophons, the Stationers’ Register, letters and ‘contracts’ or ‘negotiations’, we are left with a significant amount of detailed evidence which enables us to construct their professional life and business habits. So, how does one study the history of the reader? Dr Sangster talks us through his process of trawling through university library borrowing catalogues, where students’ and professors’ borrowing records are kept in a relatively detailed fashion. Though this could be seen as blurring the boundaries between borrowing and reading, borrowing might be a more enlightening manner to determine the figure of the reader rather than attempting to discern what a particular reader owned in their own personal collections.

Borrowing catalogues enable us to study a host of readers and their habits, follow students and their curriculum, patterns of interrelation sharing, as well as offer a rough layout of the library and their cataloguing system. Dr Sangster has, thus far, researched the records of the University of Glasgow libraries, as well as those of St. Andrews, and plans to work on library catalogues of the University of Edinburgh as well. By transcribing these registers, and transferring the data to a computer, he has been able to determine the journey of a work passed from reader to reader, as well as the habits which make this possible. This allows us to determine the popularity of a work by seeing how many times it was borrowed, perhaps in the same year and by students taking the same course, which is indicative of the sharing of knowledge and sharing of works that were deemed important in the library. The records are shown to be detailed, with information such as the students’ name and course, year, dates borrowed and returned, as well as the professor who signed off on the register. Dr Sangster shows this to be valuable information in determining reading patterns and habits. For example, did a student take books only relevant to their studies, or did they branch out? Did a student only take books out assigned them through the curriculum or did they take works from nearby shelves, demonstrating intuitive thinking towards research? Were these in fact pertinent to their studies, or were they merely interesting, recommended to them? Furthermore, looking at shelf marks show the cataloguing system, and therefore how a student would search for works.

These registers are also invaluable in showing us the development of a discipline: for example, curriculum changes show the appearance of Greek works, travel writing, or the rise of the female author. Works were also shown to be interdisciplinary as it was clear that there was no delineated discipline, and this is demonstrated by the wealth and variety of works taken out by students and professors alike. This in turn is indicative of how reading could be a public activity as well as private, as communication amongst readers was pivotal in ensuring the popularity of a work. In fact, these records can be used to determine precisely this, how recognised were works and their authors? By showing how often a book was taken out of the library, and by whom, can indicate the rise or fall in favour of an author, how their fame developed, and how their work was received in an academic community. Communication amongst students and professors regarding what they were reading played a vital role in the authors’ reception.

To conclude his discussion, Dr Sangster also spoke to us about how these catalogues also illustrated the rise of marginalia. By selecting and examining what the registers showed to be popular works amongst students we are able to see how marginalia and commentary amongst them developed. The majority of the cases show them to be corrections of grammar and criticisms of the printing work, which Dr Sangster remarks are a way of establishing authority over a work. However, they can also be rather humorous annotations, and gloss; these marks, expressing enjoyments or disgust, are also important in determining reading patterns and the reception of a work and its author. These marginalia are often shown to be a discussion amongst students, indicating the journey of a work as it is passed through various students, as well as cementing what is mentioned above: how students would share their reading lists and preferences amongst themselves.

University library records occupy transitional moments in time, and often they are detailed enough for studies such as these only for a certain span of years. However, Dr Sangster and his analysis of such catalogues demonstrates how illuminating the study of readers and their patterns can be. Though this remains a relatively understudied field, Dr Sangster’s work is proof of how rich a resource these catalogues, and the study of the students using these libraries, are.

Report by Sophia Chiappa, MSc student in Book History and Material Culture, University of Edinburgh.

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