Interlibrary loan is one of the greatest assets of any research
My current research
project, like those of most research historians, can be quite accurately described as niche
. It can, and hopefully does, have wide ranging relevance to modern society and will aid a greater understanding of our collective past. It can be, and hopefully is, interesting to a wide range of audiences. But it is certainly niche
in that it fills a precisely defined gap in our current knowledge. If it did not, it would not be worth researching.
Because of this, I simply cannot expect a library, any library, even a legal deposit library, to contain the precise combination of books I need to contextualise my study. All institutions have their limitations. Thus, interlibrary loan (or document supply as it is often referred to) is an extremely useful tool of which I make frequent use. My particular lending record, however, is beginning to say something about me--something I am not entirely certain I want said.
Earlier this year I reviewed a lovely book by Mark Towsey called Reading the Scottish Enlightenment
. In it, Towsey utilized a number of library records in order to understand reading preferences within different social groups. He examined not only what was ordered, but also the length of time it was kept, and if it was ever returned, in an attempt to gauge popularity and depth of consumption. Imagining the world 200 years from now, when historians become even more specialised and begin to study the reading habits of 21st century historians, I cannot help but wonder what they will make of me.
I began working at my new university this summer, and since then I have only ordered two books through document supply, neither of which was readily available for purchase at a price I was willing to pay. Both are excellent pieces of scholarship, but, with limited research funds, decisions must be made. Regardless, over the past four months I have requested the following two academic works:
- Robinson, H. Carrying British Mails Overseas. Allen & Unwin, 1962.
- Seville, Catherine. Literary Copyright Reform in Early Victorian England: The Framing of the 1842 Copyright Act. Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Let me preface my next comment by saying that the librarians at my university are not really judgmental
. They are lovely people who provide an extremely efficient service under tough budgetary constraints. But that does not mean that they do not tease me, just a little, whenever I go to pick up my books.
'Copyright, huh?' one said wryly. 'Looks like a real page-turner.' Smile. Nod.
'History of the postal service?' said another, adding ''interesting' in a tone that clearly indicated that they did not find it interesting in the least.
My research is on the manual transmission of international newspapers
(via postal services) and the unashamed plagiarism
they suffered once they reached the UK. Copyright and the Post. Makes perfect sense to me, but, I must admit, it does not look good on the old lending record. Perhaps I should order one on pirates, or ancient fertility rituals, just to mix things up a bit. But this is not simply a matter of personal appearances. The thing that bothers me most about their admittedly good-natured banter is that both books really were very interesting, and not just to a plagiarism
fanatic such as myself. They were full of political intrigue and corruption and, in the case of the latter, piracy on the high seas. Who could ask for anything more?
My own delusions of grandeur aside (I do not really expect to be the study of even the most niche of future historians), the situation begs the question: just how we do go about understanding historical reading practices. People do not own, or even formally borrow, a fraction of the material they will read in their lifetime. Even the most diligent commonplace book keepers do not record every scrap of intelligence they receive. Many are the witty jokes and literary allusions that go unnoted in the written record of our lives. And even if they did, how could anyone, even we ourselves, begin to understand the interplay of ideas within this amorphous cloud of information? There have been many recent studies of readership, but none of them seem to fully encapsulate the experience--something they all readily admit.
I look to the press as a written account, however imperfect, of public opinion. Its periodic, multipolar and conversational nature make it one of the closest analogues we have for public debate and consensus. And yet, it remains only one of myriad influences on perception and decision making. Thus, it is not enough to merely study a set of opinions, or even to measure and weigh the relative volume of those opinions, from the press. Nor will it ever be enough to simply measure the length and breadth of the readership, or decode the few scraps of marginalia and annotation that have survived. No. We must continue to wrestle with the idea of 'the reader' with every source we examine and be conscious and reflective of how our own readings shape our interpretations of theirs. We must never confuse possibility
We must draw connections
without creating conspiracies
. We must accept coincidence
We must contextualise but we must not grasp at straws.
I applaud the efforts of historians such as Towsey and Heyd who come at these questions sideways and try to piece together an idea of the elusive reader. I hope we find him someday. But I am not the sum of lending recording, and cannot pretend my readers were the sum of their newspaper subscriptions.
I am thus left with the uncomfortable dilemma of limiting my endeavours, of measuring the appearance of the noonday sun in diligent and precise detail, of understanding what I see completely, or pursuing the quixotic aims of the Enlightenment, of racing hopeless after Helios as he dips below the horizon, in the hope of someday understanding what he truly is.
In the end, I hope we all chose the latter.
*Image courtesy of Kingston Information & Library Service