We tend to perceive history as a somewhat continuous flow from one period to another — regardless of how many times history itself tries to prove us wrong by introducing events and processes driven by no principle other than randomness, and hence messing up the timelines that we have made so much effort to arrange and pin down. Last Friday Dr Katie Halsey of the University of Stirling stepped out of the narrative of smooth, all-encompassing cultural transitions to present an intriguing case of what might seem to some as a historical ‘inconsistency’. Exploring the development of Innerpeffray Library in rural Perthshire and its readers, Dr Halsey told a peculiar story about reading in the Romantic period that did not happen the way we might like to imagine.
By now we have arrived at an agreement that cultural shifts are not immediate and all-encompassing. As human experiences at any point of history are highly varied and cannot be universalised, changes take time to spread and permeate all layers of society. Therefore, cultural developments affect different groups of people at different pace. Dr Halsey’s study, however, pushes that idea further and suggests that reality is even more complicated than that. In her presentation, Dr Halsey used one of William St Clair’s arguments from The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period as a starting point of her discussion. According to St Clair, the working classes, especially in more isolated rural areas, were slow to experience the effects of Romanticism due to their limited access to books and opportunities of education. Instead, they were more likely to read what we perceive as canonical works from the preceding period – the Enlightenment. However, the evidence that Dr Halsey has collected from the archives of Innerpeffray Library suggests that readerships are not that predictable.
Well-acquainted with the history of the library, the legal struggles and the social attitudes towards the establishment, Dr Halsey revealed the major factor that determined what was borrowed and read – the whims of chance. For years, the library was run poorly under the governance of generations of Trustees who were not as passionate about bringing enlightenment to the local community as the founder of the library, David Drummond. The management neglected Drummond’s Will, in which he left a considerable sum for the establishment and required that the library be taken care of and that its collection be regularly enlarged. Needless to say, the money was applied for purposes other than buying books and maintaining the library: the archives reveal irregularity of acquisition of new books, a tendency of decreasing dedication of funds to buying books at all, as well as the users’ lack of voice with respect to what books are to be bought by the library. As a result, over the so-called ‘Romantic’ period, Shelley, Keats, and Burns did not make it to the shelves of Innerpeffray Library. What is more, the records of the library suggest that users did not read the staple works of Enlightenment either. The most popular works turned out to be books on natural history, histories of Scotland and Britain and, perhaps not too surprisingly, John Smith’s Gaelic Antiquities, containing the extremely popular poems of Ossian.
Nevertheless, Dr Halsey made it clear that, regardless of the limited choice, books were borrowed and they were borrowed to be read. It is unlikely that users of the library would have travelled all the way to the library, through the notorious Scottish weather, and then return the books unopened (a practice of which the author of this text might or might not be occasionally guilty). Thus, Innerpeffray Library’s users portrayed in Dr Halsey’s account seem to have been determined and curious readers who were unaware of transitory fashions of reading but read whatever was available without discrimination. Enlightenment or earlier works, “canonical” or unorthodox – books of all kinds found their way into the lives of people. Unfortunately, we might never learn the intricate details of the influence these volumes had on their borrowers since almost no traces of the 4,608 reading experiences documented in the library records were left after the books had been closed and returned to their shelves. However, the peculiar but charming story of Innerpeffray Library and its dedicated readers does make us reflect on our understanding of cultural phenomena and begs us to rethink the way we perceive reading and literary history in general.
Report by Mila Daskalova, MSc student in Book History and Material Culture, University of Edinburgh.