Bringing Scottish History to the Modern Age

By Sierra Dye, University of Guelph

Broadsides and chapbooks, such as those pictured above from the U of G's collection, have a long history over several centuries. Broadsides were typically single sheets while chapbooks were folded into small pamphlets. Sold by street criers, travelling 'chapmen,' and by 'balladeers' at markets and fairs, they were the main reading material of a majority of the population, carrying news and popular culture of the day.

At the University of Guelph, Scotland's past and future are coming together in an exciting new project to digitize Guelph's Scottish chapbook collection. Part of a collaborative effort between the Guelph's Special Collections and Archives, History Department, and the Digital Humanities, this project brings together the expertise and enthusiasm of faculty, library staff, and graduate and undergraduate students in a cooperative effort to preserve and expand access to this valuable collection.

The library at the University of Guelph is home to one of the largest collections of Scottish archival material outside of the UK. Thanks to the generosity of the Scottish Studies Foundation, efforts are already being made to digitize many of these fabulous sources, which will be made available online. However, the project to digitize the chapbooks — headed by Special Collections librarian Melissa McAfee and Dr. Andrew Ross in the Digital Humanities — is a separate project whose purpose is not merely to digitally archive this material, but to put it together in a new, interactive website using some of the latest tools and technology available.

Chapbooks represent one of the most popular forms of literature produced in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries in Scotland, as well as elsewhere in Britain and Europe. Usually printed on a single sheet of paper and folded into small booklet forms which ranged between 8 and 24 pages, chapbooks were produced quickly and cheaply in early modern Scotland. These booklets were distributed by chapmen who "chapped" or bartered or sold these chapbooks, door-to-door and in the street, to homes all across Scotland where they were eagerly collected as an inexpensive form of entertainment. Indeed, along with broadsides, chapbooks were often the only reading material a family might afford and therefore represented one of the most common and ubiquitous types of literature available at this time.

The chapbooks themselves cover a wide range of subjects, representing whatever the printer thought would be most likely to sell at any given time. Some are prints of religious sermons or reflections; others are folk or fairy tales written for children; others still are histories or biographies of famous national heroes. Dashing highwaymen and Irish rogues also claim a space on the chapbook pages, as do ghost stories and tales of supernatural spookiness, as well as instruction manuals on divination, charming, and dream-reading, most of which are clearly written with a young, female, husband-seeking audience in mind. The majority of chapbooks, however, are simply collections of short songs and ballads, designed to be read (or sung) out loud, including love songs, drinking songs, songs of adventure, tales of heartbreak, humorous songs, political diatribes, and songs of sadness and separation from Scotland's native shores. Some songs are quite tragic, others are extremely cheeky, but all are representative of an era of entertainment in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

At the University of Guelph, we are fortunate to house one of the largest collections of chapbooks printed specifically in Scotland. At this time, we hold over 600 chapbooks, the majority of which date between 1749 and 1850, and we hope to continue to improve our collection. However, it is important to us to make these valuable and fascinating materials available to as many people as possible, as well as to preserve these texts for future generations. To that end, we have created and initiated a project to digitize our chapbook collection and create an online and interactive exhibit available free of charge to anyone who is interested in these remarkable stories and songs. Over 200 chapbooks have been digitized to date and have been stored as high quality .tiff files in Guelph's library. Using Omeka platform software, we are in the process of creating a website where these digitized images will be available for download or online browsing. We are also currently exploring partnerships and the integration of other software, including OCR (Original Content Reader) applications which will hopefully make it possible to do searches in the full-text of the chapbooks. In addition to the images themselves, we are also providing a comprehensive listing of metadata so that researchers and interested parties can sort the information by date, place, printer, or other categories, as well as detailed descriptions of the content in order to facilitate ease of access.

However, this will not be just your basic, every-day internet archive. In partnering with the Digital Humanities and History departments, we are hoping to also provide interactive demonstrations and exhibits of how this material can be used productively for both research and education. At this stage, we are planning on including research papers based on the chapbook material, a historiography of studies of the chapbooks, interactive GIS mapping showing distributions of chapbook printing, teaching modules demonstrating how these materials can be used in the classroom, online exhibits designed by Guelph students as part of a course in Digital Humanities, and much more. With this wide variety of online exhibits, we hope to not only join other institutions who have begun to catalogue and digitize some of their chapbook collections (most notably the National Library of Scotland, the University of South Carolina, and the University of Glasgow), but to also forge ahead and break new ground with our application and integration of digital media.

One of the greatest strengths of this project is its collaborative nature. Archivists and doctoral students, undergraduates and post-docs, faculty and outside scholars and staff: we all bring something different and essential to the table. Together, we hope to design and create a digital website that will allow others to join us, not only in accessing the chapbooks, but also in continuing to collaborate in future endeavors and projects that will further aid in the celebration and sharing of Scottish history.

For more information, contact:

Melissa McAfee, Special Collections Librarian
Archival & Special Collections University of Guelph Library
Guelph Ontario N1G 2W1

519.824.4120 58927
Twitter @melissa_mcafee