Stephen Copley Research Report: Jacqueline Kennard on Orkney Library and Class Identity, 1800-1842

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I’ve just returned from the most wonderful week visiting Orkney Library and Archive in Kirkwall, during which I spent valuable time with books and manuscripts essential to my Masters dissertation about the social history of Orkney Library during the Romantic period. I’m immensely grateful for the Stephen Copley Research Award, which contributed to the costs of this trip. It enabled me to immerse myself in the rich history of Orkney and to explore as many resources in the archives as possible, leaving me well-equipped for planning and writing my dissertation this summer.

The Bibliotheck of Kirkwall – the collection of books bequeathed by William Baikie, Stronsay, in 1683, which founded Orkney Library – is known as the oldest public library in Scotland.[1] In 1815, this collection became part of a new subscription library alongside other donations of books by subscribers. Sadly, this iteration of the library is vastly understudied. J. B. Craven’s Descriptive Catalogue of the Bibliotheck of Kirkwall, a source which secondary scholars often look to, neglectfully summarises the library’s early nineteenth-century history in just one sentence: “The old Bibliotheck became afterwards incorporated with the ‘Orkney Library,’ which was instituted 23rd August 1815.”[2] This is despite plentiful surviving materials from the period, including borrowing registers, a minute book, a request book, subscriber lists, catalogues, and rules and regulations, which are housed in Orkney Library and Archives.[3]

My dissertation is centred on the administration and use of Orkney Library in the Romantic period and so I spent much time with these crucial manuscripts. I also photographed electoral rolls, which I will use alongside online census and directory records to help build biographies about library borrowers. For a better understanding of nineteenth-century life on Orkney, I examined the Orkney and Zetland Chronicle and Orkney and Shetland Journal, the only two Orcadian newspapers from the period, as well as contemporary travel and guide books, including one written by Alexander Peterkin, a borrower of Orkney Library himself! I also endeavoured to photograph all library catalogues relating to Orkney Library and my time period, essential resources for tracking the changing collection of the library as well as considering other means through which borrowers might have accessed books.

A thanks must go to the staff in the archive for their enthusiasm about my project and recommendations. They were also kind enough to show me the first Bibliotheck catalogue, compiled in 1684. It’s funny to think that that piece of paper was the reason all of us were there – in the building that exists only because of Baikie’s bequest of the original 160 books over 300 years ago. I feel very fortunate to have seen it.

Although the archive was closed a couple of days during my trip, I made the most of my spare time. Most of it was spent reviewing and transcribing what I had seen so far in the archive, but one day was spent visiting the remains of some of Orkney’s neolithic structures – truly awe-inspiring! I started at Maeshowe, a tomb around 5000 years old which is covered in Norse runes from the Vikings’ time on Orkney, before visiting the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, and, finally, Skara Brae, the oldest village in Europe. Prior to my trip I had not realised how diverse and rich Orkney’s history is. I’m thrilled that I can contribute to this by researching another of its treasures – the oldest public library in Scotland.

A lunch break from the archive was spent visiting St Magnus Cathedral, beautiful and worth a visit in itself but also the site of historical importance to the library, as the Bibliotheck was housed there for a time from 1689. Baikie’s body is also buried in the Cathedral, as is that of James Wallace, whom Baikie originally tasked with instituting the library and so can be termed the ‘first librarian’ of Orkney Library.

I feel incredibly privileged to have had the opportunity to visit Orkney and my research will be far better for it. I have a greater sense not only of Orkney life during the Romantic period, but also of how my research fits into its wider history, and I’m eager to revisit my photographs and continue transcribing the materials I viewed. Thanks must again go to BARS for offering me the Stephen Copley Research Award. I’m looking forward to sharing some of my findings from this trip at their ‘Romantic Making and Unmaking’ conference in July.

In the meantime, I shall leave you with this glorious sunset!


[2] J.B. Craven, Descriptive Catalogue of the Bibliotheck of Kirkwall (1683): with a Notice of the Founder, William Baikie, M.A. of Holland (Kirkwall: privately printed 1897), xi.

[3] Sadly there are two borrowing registers which are missing, covering the years 1824-1830 and 1835-1842. Helpfully, the minute book covers the entirety of my period of interest, which can reveal some of the library’s happenings during these gaps.


Jacqueline Kennard is a SGSSS-funded MSc Historical Research student at the University of Stirling. Her MSc dissertation is centred on the archive and borrowers of Orkney Library in Kirkwall. In October she’ll be beginning a PhD exploring nineteenth-century Scottish libraries and the role they play in establishing senses of class identity in their users. Follow her on Twitter/X here.