The Scholar as Collector

I am always entranced by other academics’ bookshelves. Whenever I have the occasion to meet someone in their office, I find my mind wandering from the conversation at hand as I squint at the titles of their books and inwardly commend this or that especially intriguing-looking volume. Most often, the books I see are pragmatic collections, built out of necessity and convenience: this oft-cited monograph, that standard edition of a key primary text, and the inevitable drift of fifteen-year-old incomplete sets of the Scottish Historical Review or Past and Present. Their existence was informed by their owners’ research, not the other way around.

Sometimes, though, you come across a different kind of library altogether: one assembled by a scholar who is also a collector. This is not to suggest the parodic image of a hoarding bibliophile, lost amongst teetering piles of precious volumes, but rather that of a scholar for whom books have – at some point – ceased to be simply tools and become objects of fascination in and of themselves. For me, this is the most interesting collection insofar as it displays the fertile interchange between a writer and their books. Looking at their shelves you see the obscure nineteenth-century edition they made such good use of in an article or the long run of foreign state papers, published in Stockholm or Helsinki at the beginning of the last century, which underpinned one of their more groundbreaking monographs. This sort of collection not only preserves a record of their research, but, viewing it, you can sense the ways in which it continues to influence and direct their thinking: the books themselves have become subjects, interlocutors, who are the subject of and define new research.

The scholar-collector’s library: a different kind of research tool?

Such scholars remind me of some of our nineteenth-century predecessors, David Laing (1793-1878), for example, whose collection of books and manuscripts surpassed that of many national libraries and now – even in fragmentary form – makes up a substantial part of Edinburgh University Library’s manuscript collection. For someone like Laing the acts of scholarship and collecting were inextricably entwined with research leading to new acquisitions, just as new acquisitions in turn inspired further research. What many of us now would think of as the separate purviews of a research-focused academic and a special collections library were fused into a single, dynamic act of historical and intellectual recovery.

Sir William Fettes Douglas, Portrait of David Laing (1862), National Galleries of Scotland.

I wonder if we miss something by not imitating Laing. No longer can we expect to assemble, say, a collection of early modern manuscripts to rival his (unless our purses are deeper than those of most modern academics), but there is still a wealth of material relevant to so many of us which has not found its way into public collections but instead floats and jostles on the sea of the antiquarian market. Would those of us who study early modernity and its successor ages do well to spend slightly less time in libraries and slightly more in bookshops and auction houses, or even in our chairs at home, browsing eBay? I think so. We needn’t discover an unknown edition or catch a priceless manuscript for the act of collecting to transform our research. Even the simple fact of possession can be enough for us to see something different, exceptional, and worth studying in the most mundane book and that, in turn, can lead to avenues of research and discovery we could never otherwise have expected.

So, as strange and old-fashioned as it may seem, I salute the scholar-collector. They view their field from a subtly different vantage point than do many of their colleagues and that shift of perspective can result – and has resulted – in some of the most exciting scholarly work of our time.

© Kelsey Jackson Williams, 2019.

Demography, Statistics, and the Cultural Historian

These days if I’m forced to put myself in a sub-disciplinary box, I usually say that I’m a cultural historian.  This is less because I’m an adherent of the Burkean New Cultural History (or any other theoretical agenda, for that matter) than because it seems to offer a comfortable basket into which I can fit my interests in intellectual history, material culture, literature, and the history of scholarship.  It also nicely serves to distinguish the kind of qualitative, example-driven work I do from the more quantitative, statistical work that one might (in an oversimplifying sort of way) associate with an economic or social historian.

Needless to say, I now find myself deep within the territory of economic and social history, doing my best to say something useful and not be too much of an idiot while doing so.  Over the past year I’ve been working on the readership of early Enlightenment Scottish texts (you can see an example here and some commentary on the data-crunching underlying this work here).  This part of my book project has now reached a point where I have a sprawling, unwieldy spreadsheet recording the names, residences, and occupations of 3,575 subscribers to historical works published in Scotland between 1707 and 1744.

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A sample few lines from the database: some Stirling-based subscribers.

Now comes the challenge of deriving meaning from all of this data.  Historical demography is not a field I’ve ever explored in any depth, but I’m now finding it absolutely imperative to understand if I’m going to do anything useful with my spreadsheet of readers.  Take the basic question: what percentage of the population subscribed to these books?  The population of Scotland in the early eighteenth century was probably somewhere in the ballpark of one million, which would seem to suggest that my subscribers represent only a tiny fraction, something on the order of 0.35% of the total population.  But what if you consider them as a fraction of the adult population?  Of the literate population?  On a more fine-grained level, what can I say about the relative percentages of subscribers from different parts of the country?  Or the presence or absence of different professions and social classes?

Some of these questions will probably be insoluble, but others will, with effort, be resolved.  It’s a sobering reminder, though, that different corners of the field use very different forms of scholarship to produce their results and that we should be wary of trespassing without understanding in our interdisciplinary travels.  I for one will certainly be asking friends more familiar with demography and statistics to comment on the resulting chapter when it eventually takes shape.  In the mean time, I’ll be trying to make sense of historical demography and thinking hard about what that can teach me about the shape of the Scottish Enlightenment . . . .

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams