Pamphlets – social media before the internet

Pamphlets in the stacksMy name is Rachel Scott, and I am a librarian and postgraduate student at the University of St. Andrews; I have just completed an internship with the Rare Book Department. Part of my internship has been to help audit pamphlets, including a vast collection of pamphlets bound by the Advocates Library, usually in related subjects and around the same date.

Pamphleteering was at its height in the eighteenth century although there are a few from the seventeenth century going through to very early nineteenth century. Pamphlets were a quick way of sharing and transmitting ideas, new philosophies and arguments.

Daniel Defoe, arch-pamphleteer
Daniel Defoe, arch-pamphleteer

The pamphlets I audited cover a range of topics including new economic ideas, a number of which are attributed to Daniel Defoe who is most well known for his novel Robinson Crusoe. He also wrote extensively on economics, theology and politics, and was the forefather of economic journalism. One example is ‘The ballance of Europe: or, an enquiry into the respective dangers of giving the Spanish monarchy to the Emperour as well as to King Philip’ (shelfmark NLS 2.26(8)).

This run of pamphlets covers a wide range of topics such as Irish politics: ‘The complaints of Dublin: humbly offered to His Excellency William, Earl of Harrington, Lord Lieutenant General and General Governor of Ireland.  By Charles Lucas. In behalf of himself and the rest of the citizens and inhabitants of the said city’ (shelfmark NLS 2.5(12)). Then there is the American War of Independence, including views of the time directly after America was emancipated from Great Britain: ‘The rights of Great Britain asserted against the claims of America: being an answer to the declaration of the General Congress’ (shelfmark NLS 2.7(3)) dated 1776, which includes a breakdown of how much money Britain had spent running the colonies before independence.

Pamphlets were a way of publishing correspondence about controversies and disputes such as the discussion on ‘Mr. Bower’s answer to a scurrilous pamphlet’ which occupies several pamphlets bound into a volume (shelfmark NLS 2.112). This was interesting to me, as the communications back and forth between the gentlemen, although over a period of time, could be compared to a discussion of ideas on social media; it demonstrates that some things do not change, there will always be a need and a want for a platform to share and exchange ideas, just the methods have changed!

Bound pamphlets
This image shows the pamphlets with bindings from various times in the National Library of Scotland’s history. Second from the right is the original binding from when they were first collected.

One pamphlet that I found rather surprising was an ‘Address to the Society for the Improvement of British Wool’ dated 1791 (shelfmark 2.6 (4)). On first glance its title was nothing remarkable, however on reading a little further, and checking dates, it was promoting the placement of sheep and other livestock on Scottish land – in other words promoting the Highland Clearances.