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Towsey, History Now is the Favourite Reading: From Library Circulation Records to A History of Reading

Mark Towsey

This keynote will examine the role of library circulation records in framing wider histories of reading. When Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume claimed in a letter to a friend that ‘history now is the favourite reading’, he reflected a surprising cultural trend that emerges very clearly from contemporary library circulation records. History books dominated lending at every library for which such evidence survives between the early eighteenth and the mid nineteenth century, documenting a widespread taste for history reading which reached from the bustling Atlantic port of Bristol to the plantations of Charleston, South Carolina, and from the fledgling manufacturing community of Easton in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania to the tiny market town of Wigtown in the far southwest corner of rural Scotland. This paper will explore how reading historians go about interrogating and explaining the widespread circulation of history books, following books from library shelves into readers’ diaries, correspondence and commonplace books, and back again. In the process, the paper will suggest that library circulation records play a crucial role in the toolkit available to historians of reading.