- Stealing Books in Eighteenth-Century London by Richard Coulton, Matthew Mauger, and Christopher Reid
This excellent little book, Stealing Books in Eighteenth-Century London, showcases some of the best qualities of the digital humanities by offering new insights into book ownership and literary culture and by confirming stereotypes about criminal life in eighteenth-century London. For their project, Coulton, Mauger, and Reid went through the Old Bailey Proceedings Online (OBPO)—the digital version of the Proceedings of the Old Bailey, the published record of all cases heard at the semi-annual sessions of London's central criminal court—and identified 721 instances of book theft between 1674 and 1820. This isn't exactly 'big data' in the sense of millions of records, but it is certainly more information than would be possible to investigate systematically without a database.
Stealing Books is organized straightforwardly: after an introduction, there are chapters on the procedures at the Old Bailey ("Courts"), on who the accused were ("Prisoners"), and on who accused them of book theft ("Prosecutors"). The procedure started with the charge and indictment, which in its written form is the first document in most cases on the OBPO. Two thirds of cases were categorized as larcenies, petty if the value of the stolen goods was one shilling or below, grand if the value was higher. This was an important distinction because grand larceny could be punished by death. One important discussion in many indictments was what exactly constituted a book: for instance, whether unbound sheets, books without their designated plates, or wastepaper counted. By exploring how these definitions were negotiated, Stealing Books makes a significant contribution to longstanding debates in book history. Prosecution and evidence, where voices from all walks of eighteenth-century London life can be heard, frequently centered around the identification of specific books. Since the accused's guilt was usually taken for [End Page 257] granted, defense and cross-examination (the third stage in the procedure) were often most concerned with lightening the sentence. Prisoners who claimed they simply wanted to read the books had little success with that strategy. Finally, verdict and sentencing suggest that juries and prosecutors also tried to avoid heavy sentences, for instance by deliberately under-charging prisoners to avoid the death penalty.
Unsurprisingly, most accused were young, desperate men from the working population. The main categories of prisoners were household servants, members of the service and retail sectors, members of the transport and book trades, employees in manufacturing, and soldiers. Thefts were committed at the workplace (though that was often difficult to distinguish from the home), in lodgings, in bookshops, and in locations where books were in frequent use. Often removed in customized clothes, stolen books were disposed of at bookshops specializing in second-hand books, at pawnbrokers, and at grocery businesses as wrapping paper. Overall, thieves stole books because they were easily accessible, easy to conceal, portable, and readily disposable.
Book thefts were prosecuted by two major groups: consumers of books and members of the book trade. The former constituted the much larger group (65%), but the value of stolen books was much higher for the latter. Stealing Books documents that most prosecutions by consumers came from men (85%), and about half came from the middling classes. In contrast, 97% of prosecutions by members of the book trade were by men, even though women were quite involved in the industry. These thefts sometimes occurred during production (in warehouses and workshops), but more often during distribution (in transit, from auction houses and storerooms, and from commercial libraries). 60% of thieves were unknown to the prosecutors, but 35% of thefts were inside jobs.
In this chapter on prosecution, the authors (Coulton is specifically credited with "Prosecutors") develop some of their most interesting insights about eighteenth-century literary culture. For one, we know that the middle classes usually owned books for devotion, entertainment, reference or professional work. The genre most frequently stolen from consumers was religious books, which were easy to purloin and easily resalable because they were so integrated...