Dissenting academy libraries and their readers, 1720-1860

Dissenting Academy Libraries and their Readers, 1720-1860 is an innovative project which uses techniques from the digital humanities to study the history of libraries. The main objective of the project was to study the libraries of the dissenting academies, in particular what they reveal about the education offered to students and the impact that books had on students’ intellectual and religious development. A major outcome of the project is Dissenting Academies Online: Virtual Library System (http://vls.english.qmul.ac.uk), a groundbreaking online catalogue which records the holdings and loans of selected academies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Dissenting academies provided Protestant students dissenting from the Church of England with a higher education similar to that available in the English universities. The academies developed into an alternative system for training Presbyterian, Congregational, and Baptist ministers, as well as providing a university-level education for dissenting laymen. The project has concentrated on three genealogies of academy libraries: Congregational, particularly Mile End (1754-69) and Homerton (1769-1850); Presbyterian (later Unitarian), including Warrington (1757-86) and Manchester College (est. 1786); and Baptist, represented by Bristol Baptist College (est. 1720). Large numbers of books from the Congregational and Presbyterian academies survive at Dr Williams’s Library and Harris Manchester College, Oxford respectively, but many of the Bristol books were scattered at a series of sales in the 1960s. The project has unearthed an extraordinary breadth of source material which makes it possible to track the holdings of different libraries over time. The survival of loan records, including a set of registers from Manchester College covering 1803-81, means that it is also possible to investigate how the academy library books were used.
The Virtual Library System, edited by Dr Rosemary Dixon and Dr Kyle Roberts with technical assistance from Dr Dmitri Iourinski, is an online reconstruction of the academy libraries that represents their holdings and loans. It uses a specially modified version of Koha, an open-source integrated library system. The VLS follows the established conventions of library cataloguing and online catalogues, using MARC tags to organise bibliographical data. The major sources are the surviving catalogues (both author catalogues and shelf lists) and loan registers of the relevant academies. The system contains 12,000 bibliographic records, many of which were harvested from existing scholarly catalogues. These are supplemented with holdings information, including shelf-marks and subject categorisations, specific to each academy library. The VLS also contains over 30,000 loan records, providing an unprecedented view of the reading habits of students and tutors. Profiles of these historic borrowers are linked with biographical records of their careers in the Leverhulme-funded Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia (http://dissacad.english.qmul.ac.uk). The VLS can be used in much the same way as a modern online library catalogue, for example, to search for particular titles or authors; browse the shelves of an academy library; compare the holdings of different libraries; and browse, search, and sort students’ loan records. It is the first resource of its kind and sets a new standard in digital humanities resources for scholars and librarians.


Principal investigator
Professor Isabel Rivers
Principal project staff
Professor Isabel Rivers, Dr David Wykes (Project Partner)
Start date
Monday, June 1, 2009
Completion date
Sunday, May 1, 2011
Digital resources created
The 'virtual dissenting academy library system' will be published in 2011 on the website of the Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies http://www.english.qmul.ac.uk/drwilliams/. Users will be able to compare books held by the libraries of the main dissenting academies of different denominations in the period 1720-1860 and borrowed by the students. This resource will be linked to databases of academies, students, tutors, and archives, also to be published in 2011.
Source material
(i) The New College collection at Dr Williams's Library, London: the archives and surviving libraries of the main Congregational academies: Northampton (2 academies), Daventry, Wymondley, Coward's College, London, Hoxton, Highbury, Homerton, and New College, Hampstead. (ii) Harris Manchester College, Oxford: the archives and surviving libraries of the main Presbyterian and Unitarian academies: Taunton, Warrington, Exeter (2 academies), New College, Hackney, and Manchester. (iii) Bristol Baptist College: the surviving archives and library. The online 'virtual dissenting academy library system', with connected relational databases and user interface, will contain the historic data from the library catalogues and loan registers of these libraries.

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