Institutions of Associational Reading: New Perspectives on Library History c.1750-1850

Posted on December 15th, 2010 at 1:45 pm by Edmund King

A one-day international workshop, 28 January 2011

To celebrate a new collaboration between Liverpool’s Eighteenth-Century Worlds Research Centre and the Liverpool Athenaeum (one of Britain’s most important historical subscription libraries, founded in 1798), we will be hosting a major international workshop exploring new perspectives on the contribution made by libraries and other institutions of associational reading to the cultural, intellectual, political, military, social and religious history of the global eighteenth century.

The recent upsurge in interest in the history of reading has opened up numerous new interpretative avenues for scholars. Libraries, book clubs and reading circles have attracted particular attention, as scholars seek to recover the physical, administrative and cultural environments in which reading took place. Institutions of reading promised access to a much wider range of books than most members could possibly afford, but they were hugely significant in other ways. Libraries emerged to serve particular communities, reflecting the specialist demands of imperial garrisons, dissenting academies and informal networks of medical men and lawyers. Associational libraries provided a forum for conversation, debate and sociability, and made a key contribution to the social impact of the Enlightenment, the growth of nationalism and the spread of religious evangelicalism. Since they emerged in Britain, North America and continental Europe at around the same time, they also provide endless opportunities for comparative history — with different territories adopting distinctive organisational models, yet consuming a remarkably similar canon of international bestsellers.

Speakers will include:

  • Sarah Arndt (Trinity College, Dublin), ‘The Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge: An Atlantic Context.’
  • Rosemary Dixon and Kyle Roberts (Queen Mary University, London), ‘Virtual “magazines of learning”: the Dissenting Academy Libraries Project, 1720-1860.’
  • Michael Eamon (Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario), ‘The Quebec Library: Entitlement or Enlightenment on the Colonial Periphery?’
  • Arnold Lubbers (Amsterdam), ‘Reading Circles and the Rise of Cultural Nationalism in the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, 1815-1830.’
  • Sharon Murphy (St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra), ‘Libraries, Schoolrooms, and Mud Gadowns:(Formal)Scenes of Reading at East India Company Stations in India, c. 1819-1835.’
  • Mark Towsey (Liverpool), ‘Imprisoned Reading: French Prisoners of War at the Selkirk Subscription Library, 1811-1814.’
  • Lynda Yankaskas (Virginia Commonwealth University), “‘To Seek and Promote the Public Good”: Village Library Societies in the Era of the American Revolution.’

For more information, to register or to submit further papers, please contact Dr Mark Towsey.

All are welcome, registration is free!

2011 RED User Workshops

Posted on December 8th, 2010 at 3:25 pm by Edmund King

We are pleased to announce two forthcoming events for librarians, archivists, teachers, and academics who would like a ‘hands-on’ introduction to the latest release of the Reading Experience Database. These are to be held on the 24th and 25th of February 2011, at the Open University Library, Milton Keynes, and the Open University, London Centre, Camden, respectively. Details of the workshops, their locations, and how to book a place are listed below.

24 February 2011: A Workshop for Librarians, Archivists and Information Managers

On Thursday, 24 February 2011, the RED team will be hosting an event to mark the launch of the latest version of RED. The event will take the form of a workshop designed specifically for Librarians, Archivists and Information Managers. The aim is to encourage attendees to explore how evidence drawn from material in their own collections might be included in RED, and how RED might be used as a way of engaging users of their own collections. The workshop will include a demonstration of RED, and hands-on activity sessions using primary source materials to show how users can not only explore RED, but can contribute evidence to it themselves. There will also be opportunities to discuss how RED fits within wider developments in ‘linked data’ and some of the challenges for professionals in working across domains with different tools, technologies and resources. Further details are given in the draft programme below.

The event will be held at the Betty Boothroyd Library at The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes. The event is free, but numbers are limited, and it is advisable to book early. Travel directions can be found here. For further information, contact: Carol Gillespie; tel: (+44) (0)1908 655141. To book a place, please download a booking form and, once you’ve completed it, email it to the Workshop Coordinator.

Draft Programme

9:30–10:00    Arrival, Tea/Coffee

10:00-10:15    Introduction to the day

10:20–12:00    Presentation about RED followed by hands on group activities: searching, finding and evaluating evidence of the impact of reading

12:00–1:00    Lunch

1:00–3:00    Presentations on ‘Linking University Content for Education and Research Online’ (LUCERO) and ‘Linked Open Copac Archives Hub’ (LOCAH) projects followed by hands on group activities on ways in which RED might be linked to existing relevant material in external collections, etc.

3:00–3:45    Presentation on use of RED materials to promote social engagement and opportunities for routes into more formal learning.

3:45–4:00    Closing remarks, and follow up plans

25 February 2011: Using RED for Teaching and Research: A Workshop for Teachers in Higher Education

On Friday 25 February 2011, the RED team will be hosting a workshop designed specifically for teachers in HE. The purpose will be to explore how RED can be used by students in a range of academic disciplines, as well as in attendees’ own research projects. For example, data in RED can form part of a study of the reception of literary texts; it can help us understand the role of printed material in shaping popular ideas and opinions; and it offers information about what people in the past read, how and in what circumstances they read, what impact their reading had on them, and how the experience of reading changed over time. The workshop will include a demonstration of RED, and hands-on activity sessions using primary materials to show how users can explore RED, and contribute evidence to it themselves. There will be opportunities to discuss how RED can help train students in the use of digital resources in the humanities. Further details are given in the draft programme below.

The event will be held at The Open University in London, 1–11 Hawley Crescent, Camden Town, London, NW1 8NP. The workshop is free, but numbers are limited, and it is advisable to book early. For travel directions see this map (click on ‘Local OU regional and national centres’, then ‘London’). For further information, contact Carol Gillespie; tel: (+44) (0)1908 655141. To book a place, please download and complete this booking form and email the completed version to the Workshop Coordinator.

Draft Programme

9:30–10:00    Arrival, Tea/Coffee

10:00-10:15    Introduction to the day

10:20–12:00    Presentation about UK RED followed by hands on activities: searching, finding and evaluating evidence of the impact of reading

12:00–1:00    Lunch

1:00–3:00    Presentation on using UK RED for teaching, followed by discussion

3.00–3.:45    Presentation on using UK RED for research, followed by discussion

3.45–4.00    Closing remarks, and follow up plans

RED in the “Journal of Victorian Culture”

Posted on August 16th, 2010 at 5:52 pm by Edmund King

The latest issue of the Journal of Victorian Culture is particularly rich in references to RED. Indeed, as part of the issue’s Digital Forum, there’s a substantial review of the site by Matthew Bradley. Bradley remarks that

the catholicity of the task is staggering, and the enormous achievement of the RED team and their volunteers in creating such a valuable resource is beyond doubt. The high standard of its qualitative data is clear, and the scholarly care in its records self-evident.

However, he also points out one of the problems involved with the project: the topic is so vast (practically limitless, in fact, given what it is possible for a small team of people to achieve in a limited space of time) that it risks being dictated to by the research interests of particular contributors or the breezes of academic fashion. (Bradley archly compares it to “charting a 1:1 map of the world.”) He also notes that,

despite the site’s insistence that RED ‘has no literary bias’, it is noticeable that these types of non-bibliocentric searches can produce very variable results … A search in the category ‘tickets’, produces nothing, for instance, even without entering any period limit.

This is a valid point, and it does indicate the extent to which book history remains wedded to the codex as the principal form and site of evidence. Happening upon the traces of reading is still very much an exercise in serendipity—you simply don’t know what you will find when you look at the margins of a used book for the first time, or turn to the end papers of an old diary. The trick lies in knowing to look there in the first place, and expanding one’s vision outwards, into areas one might not have thought of looking in.

While RED may never be the comprehensive database that would allow us to make rigorously statistical arguments for reading habits in given places or time periods, it can function as a source of compelling examples. The more entries that go in it, the more it can approach the ideal, but it can never hope to be a comprehensive database of every archive, every annotated page, every diary manuscript, in the British World, 1450–1945, much and all as we may want it to!

Also included are two articles by academics closely involved with RED. Shaf Towheed provides a stimulating think-piece on the promises and pitfalls that the mass-digitization of texts holds out for historians of nineteenth-century reading. While Google Books and other large-scale projects may seem to promise a “total archive” of textual evidence lies within reach,

twenty-first-century readers must contend with the vagaries of optical character recognition, the bottleneck of data download restrictions, and the unwieldiness of graphically intensive web-pages.

The digital library is not a straightforward facsimile of the physical libraries it draws upon, and it cannot simply substitute for them. As Towheed notes, this makes the current trend towards restricting access to already-digitized texts for reasons of preservation, or, worse, discarding certain print holdings altogether, extremely concerning. There are basic problems of access, usability, and legibility—not to mention the worrying class distinction that the “digital divide” threatens to inscribe—that must be addressed before the online archive can begin to function in any way as effectively as the existing print archive can. What the digital archive does better of course, is searchability—allowing readers to gain quick access to a wide variety of materials and comparing them on a macro level. Towheed worries, though, that archivists, librarians who look to the internet to reduce pressure on physical archives may be writing themselves out of history. A generation that has no experience working with physical documents—no sense of the materiality of the archive—may not see their inherent value and why anyone would want to pay for their upkeep. Our current desire for speed, convenience, and portability, in other words, may end up costing us large parts of the literary-historical record.

Finally, Rosalind Crone shows what dedicated research using physical archives can reveal about levels of literacy in the nineteenth century. She has examined the administrative records of prisons in three English counties, looking for notes on prisoner literacy. She has then subjected these to quantitative analysis, showing how the digital can mesh with traditional humanities research to generate new ways of seeing the data. Her research indicates that literacy was a highly variegated phenomenon in the nineteenth century, with large gradations of proficiency due to the chaotic and happenstance nature of working-class education during the period. Hopefully, her research will alert other historians of reading to the rich data that exist in prison records, something that is applicable to time periods and geographic locations outside Victorian Britain.

Edmund Blunden: Trench Reader

Posted on August 9th, 2010 at 3:49 pm by Edmund King

This blog has been rather quiet lately. However, I can now report that some exciting new developments are pending for RED in the next few months. We will soon have a redesigned site up and running, and the plans for the new International RED sites are developing well. On a personal note, I had a particularly interesting visit to archives in Australia in May and June of this year, which will provide the basis for some new research on reading in Prisoner of War camps in World War I.

We’ll have some exciting, reader-centred collections of entries appearing on the RED site soon, which I will announce as they become available. First up, I am pleased to report that the work of volunteer contributor Helen Chambers on the war-poet Edmund Blunden’s letters, diaries, and memoir, Undertones of War, is now online. The ramifications of Helen’s research are fascinating: they reveal how a sensitive and self-consciously literary young man responded to the trench experience, and just how “ordinary” the process of routines of reading remained for him, despite the extremity of his surroundings.

Bosch put heavies into the camp now and then. I was busy in a small way most of the day, in the afternoon read Shelley, and Wells’ “[The] Country of the Blind” with equal pleasure.

he writes from the the scene of Third Ypres in July 1917. Other diary entries record him reading Tom Sawyer, Frank Norris’s novel The Pit, and describe how a violent rainstorm caught him out in the open near Poperinghe, soaking his copy of Tennyson. Most meaningful to Blunden during this time, though, was the poetry of Edward Young, whose Night Thoughts, with their tone of melancholy reflection, helped him to endure the psychological trauma of trench service. This entry, from Undertones of War, shows how reading could provide texture to the present moment, bringing out additional dimensions of meaning that might otherwise have been lost—the “Undertones” of experience that Blunden writes about:

During this period my indebtedness to an eighteenth-century poet became enormous. At every spare moment I read Young’s “Night Thoughts on Life, Death and Immortality”, and I felt the benefit of this grave and intellectual voice speaking out of a profound eighteenth–century calm, often in metaphor which came home to one even in a pillbox. The mere amusement of discovering lines applicable to our crisis kept me from despair.

Anyone interested in reading further about Blunden’s war experiences and poetry career should visit The First World War Poetry Archive maintained by the University of Oxford, and the resources hosted by the Edmund Blunden Society.

RED featured in the “Times”

Posted on May 5th, 2010 at 8:19 pm by Edmund King

I’m pleased to say that there’s a short piece on the Reading Experience Database, featuring quotes from project leader Shaf Towheed, in the latest issue of the Times Higher Education Supplement:

In December 1898 Joseph Conrad wrote a thank you note to his friend Herbert for a book he had sent him. Conrad said of the book: “One is touched by the anguish of it, as by something that may one day happen to oneself. It is a great triumph for you.” The Herbert in question was H.G. Wells and the book was The Invisible Man, which had just been published. We know all this because of a project launched at the Open University called the Reading Experience Database (RED).

The article is part of a wider series of THES features on Open University courses, departments, and initiatives.

A Child and His Books, c.1806

Posted on April 28th, 2010 at 6:46 pm by Edmund King

One of the more fascinating by-products of comprehensive editions of authors’ correspondence is that they sometimes preserve fragments of experience from deep childhood. William Henry Fox Talbot gained fame in adulthood as a pioneering photographer, and it’s in that context that a team from the University of Glasgow and De Montfort University have combined to digitize Talbot’s full Correspondence. However, as the Project Page notes, Talbot was an unusually prococious and forward-looking child. When he was eight, he instructed his stepfather to “tell Mamma & everybody I write to to keep my letters & not burn them.” The result of this is an archive of over ten thousand items, preserving letters written by Talbot when he was in an early stage of literacy. The oldest letter in the digital collection, dated 15 August 1806 and largely dictated to an adult amanuensis by a six-year-old Henry Talbot, describes a day in the life of an aristocratic child in the first decade of the nineteenth century. As the letter shows, reading aloud from books played a central role in that experience, along with food and an unfortunate tangle with a household chair:

Thursday. rose at 8, O’Clock, came to Po [Agnes Porter, governess and teacher], turned the Hour Glass and played with it.— read my Journal of Sepr 5, 1805, that you wrote for me. said my Prayers. hit my chin against a Chair, cried a little. Betty put some Pommade divine to it. told Po, my Journal. did a Sum in Substraction, then ate my breakfast; Tea and dried Toast, it was very good. — Po read the Travelled Ant while we were at Breafast. liked it very much. went down with Po to the Breakfast Room. went up stairs to Aunt Mary, gave her a kiss and told her that Breakfast was getting cold.— I forget the Answer. came down again, ate a Finger and some Currants. My Uncle gave me the Finger and Aunt Mary the Currants. read in the Evening at Home. after Breadfast went up to the Dressing Room with Aunt Mary and then went out with Jane and Betty. dug in Jane’s Garden with sticks; so did Jane. she brought out her three Books of Trades, we I read the Wool-comber. had my Hands washed and then we baked. went to Dinner. there was a Cherry Pie, and Toad in the Hole. — After Dinner we played at Shop.— went out again with Jane to the Garden; went into the Green house because it rained a little. made Mount Parnassas decorated it with Flowers, Coxcomb, yellow toad-Flax and Candy Tuft.— had my supper went to Desert.— staid in the Drawing room with Christiana and Po.— amused ourselves with the Couch.— then Po told us about Fairford and St Paul— went to Bed and slept very well.

The Talbot archive, searchable here, obviously provides a wealth of insights into the development of early photography. However, as this small extract shows, Talbot’s letters also promise to reveal much about the social and reading lives of Talbot, his family, and his contemporaries in early nineteenth-century Wiltshire.