Seated: PhD student Sierra Dye. Standing, left to right: Post-doc Andrew Ross, librarian Melissa McAfee’ visiting PhD student Dara Folan from the National University of Ireland, and Guelph undergrad Jeremy Dechert.
Seated: PhD student Sierra Dye. Standing, left to right: Post-doc Andrew Ross, librarian Melissa McAfee, visiting PhD student Dara Folan from the National University of Ireland and Guelph undergrad Jeremy Dechert.

Happily ever after? Not really, says Adrienne Briggs, a recent Guelph history grad. Fairy tale endings are for Disney. To learn about the original and often graphic stories of Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and the like, you might look over some of the hundreds of Scottish chapbooks in the U of G library archives.

That’s what Briggs and other students did earlier this year for a pilot project in their U of G history class that will see old-time chapbooks meet modern communications technology.

Chapbooks were popular booklets containing songs, ballads, poems and short stories written for the increasingly literate Scottish masses of the mid-1700s to mid-1800s, says history post-doc Andrew Ross. Between eight and 24 pages in length, they covered such topics as romance, travel, comedy, politics, fairy tales and social customs.

The books were sold town to town by peddlers, or chapmen, says Ross. Eventually, chapbooks were supplanted by newspapers and other periodicals.

U of G holds more than 600 titles in its library archives, the second largest collection in North America. Outside of the United Kingdom, Guelph has the world’s largest rare book and archival collection on Scottish history and runs the largest Scottish studies program.

This year’s history project brought together Ross’s students and special collections librarian Melissa McAfee.

McAfee wanted to make these books available in high-quality digital form to a wider audience. This pilot project was the first step toward digitizing the entire chapbook collection. And it was meant to benefit students in Ross’s inaugural fourth-year course in digital humanities last winter.

Says McAfee: “This project provided a unique, hands-on experience for the students, as well as helping to advance the library’s goal of developing projects in digital humanities, a new area of scholarly research that harnesses a variety of technological tools to support research in the humanities.”

A virtual library exhibit called A Groat’s Worth of Wit for a Penny will be launched next year; it will highlight six popular chapbook topics, including alcohol, heroism, comedy and fairy tales.

Reminding readers that “happily ever after” tales beloved of Disney fans often had more grim origins was what motivated Briggs to look into fairy tales in the chapbook collection.

Just look at Sleeping Beauty.

“In the Disney version, the prince saves her with a kiss and they live happily ever after,” says Briggs. “In the chapbook depiction, they live in secret for many years and start a family together, but Sleeping Beauty must stay hidden, as the prince’s mother is an ogre, and will try and eat her.”

McAfee also relished the chance to dig into U of G’s “cool” archives.

Briggs knows that many students won’t share her enthusiasm for archival material. “I think in today’s world, people – especially young people – want all their information fast. They should be able to click a few buttons, and it should be there. Any more work than that, and it’s too much time and effort.”

That’s why she was keen to tackle the chapbook project for her senior history course. “The chapbook project jumped out at me,” says Briggs. “I think it’s important to bring archival material and libraries into the digital world for them to stay relevant.”

She graduated last spring and now holds an internship at the Jewish Archives of Ontario in Toronto. “Picking this project really did pay off.”

In another section of the new chapbooks website, undergraduate student Jeremy Dechert traced early attitudes to drinking. “It was interesting to see how contentious an issue alcohol is, regardless of time or place.” Some of the themes still resonate, he says, including the social side of drinking, the health benefits of abstinence and branding of alcohol as a national beverage.

But there’s another side.

“A major difference between attitudes towards alcohol in 18th– and 19th-century Scotland and modern-day Canada is that alcohol consumption is no longer promoted as a crutch or alleviator of social ills or unfortunate circumstances,” says Dechert.

Six of the 20 students in Ross’s class looked at the chapbook collection for their project. Other students worked on their own projects using other archival resources.

Anje Merkies created a website about Canadian cookbooks from the 1800s. She based her project on U of G’s archived culinary collection, the largest in Canada.

Another website assembled by Spencer Hamelin covers the history of St. Patrick’s Ward – or “The Ward” – in Guelph.

Many of the projects are located on This free open-access platform allows users to design websites to display collections and host digital exhibitions. “You can create free your own virtual museum site,” says Ross.

He created the seminar course in digital humanities. As a guest instructor, McAfee helped teach archival skills, digitization of rare primary resources, and developing and curating an online exhibition.

Ross and McAfee presented the project results during a Scottish studies colloquium last year in Toronto. Briggs and Dechert also took part. Dechert says, “Presenting my chapbook project was a new and exciting experience that improved my public speaking skills and confidence.”

Ross says he even learned from his students’ projects. One student found a handy app for constructing a historical timeline – something that interests the post-doc in his role as an advisory board member of the Guelph Civic Museum. “That’s an example of a tool that I was not aware of that the museum is now considering for its own online exhibits.”

The library’s Archival and Special Collections unit has begun digitizing the entire Scottish chapbook collection.