Barbara Burns speaks to Professor Mark Towsey (University of Liverpool), director of the project ‘Libraries, Reading Communities and Cultural Formation in the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic’, and Dr Rita Dashwood, the project’s MHRA Research Associate for 2022/23.
BB. Mark, can you tell us a bit about your project and the Open Access database that you’re preparing. How will this benefit the humanities research community?
MT. The project is compiling the largest collection of contextualised bibliometric data on subscription library holdings, membership and book usage ever assembled, derived from catalogues, acquisition records, minute books and borrowing records from more than 90 libraries during the eighteenth century. Sometimes it feels as if we’ve still got a long way to go, but with well over 90,000 borrowing records, 32,000 holding records and 9,000 membership records already under our belt – all of which will be made available in an Open Access database this summer – we should have a transformative impact on how scholars from across the humanities research community think about the circulation and reception of specific books and authors in the eighteenth century, many of whom of course figure prominently in debates about the Enlightenment, the rise of the novel and the Age of Revolutions.
Although there is quite a lot of scholarship now on the mechanics of the eighteenth-century book trade, there has until recently been very little systematic data on where books were going and how they were being encountered by readers. Along with several other current projects (including the Mediate project in the Netherlands and the Books and Borrowing project at Stirling) we’re looking to change that and open up new ways of researching the influence of eighteenth-century texts.
BB. Mark, what are you learning about a shared reading culture across Europe and North America in the later eighteenth century, and what insights into society at that time are you gaining?
MT. We’re still frantically collecting and cleaning data, so we haven’t had much time to reflect on what it all means yet, but some important insights are already emerging. One of them is just how varied reading tastes were across our one hundred libraries. There is a core collection of famous books that most libraries owned (Fanny Burney’s novels, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Cervantes’ Don Quixote or Dr Johnson’s Lives of the English Poets), but for the most part what is really striking is how dissimilar many of the collections are.
This has important implications, because by far the best-known library borrowing records in this period are for the Bristol Library Society, which were the subject of a much-cited study in the 1960s. Yet our data shows that Bristol was an unusual kind of subscription library, much more focused on scholarly works and high politics than most libraries, and more averse to more fashionable novels and poetry than other libraries for which borrowing records survive. As a team, we’ve also become interested in the power dynamics at play within our libraries, both in the social (and gendered) composition of their membership and in the political and imperial nature of their collections. These are areas we’ll be exploring in some of our planned publications, so watch this space!
BB. Mark, during this period, Britain and America saw the emergence of hundreds of these so-called subscription libraries. What were they exactly, and why were they important?
MT. The period we’re looking at is an exciting one in the history of reading. Lots of people were becoming more aware of the pleasures and rewards of reading than they had been before, with reading for education and entertainment filtering much further down the social scale as a result. And yet books generally remained expensive objects, making it impossible for most readers beyond the aristocratic and landed elites to buy all of the books they wanted to read. There also weren’t yet any public libraries of the kind we’re used to today, funded by the taxpayer and open to all without a fee – these wouldn’t be introduced until the middle of the nineteenth century.
Subscription libraries (sometimes called social libraries or library companies, especially in north America) emerged as one solution to these problems. They were essentially private membership clubs, where members would pool their resources to acquire much larger collections of new and fashionable books than they would have been able to afford individually. Some were extremely exclusive, charging prohibitive fees that shut out all but the wealthiest members of urban communities. But many were more affordable, and our database will ultimately allow academics and members of the public to trace the reading habits of tradesmen, millers, butchers and innkeepers as well as doctors, lawyers, merchants and manufacturers.
BB. Rita, you were appointed in October 2022. How has your educational experience prepared you to take on this project?
RD. My background is in literary studies, but I have always conducted interdisciplinary research that combines literature and history, as this project does. I specialise in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and my first book, Women and Property Ownership in Jane Austen (Peter Lang, 2022), is partially about conduct books and women’s education. This current project has provided me with a wonderful opportunity to consider things through the lens of book history and to look beyond English texts. My knowledge of foreign languages (Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch) is helpful when putting together the section of the database for non-English books and conducting research on translated European-language works.
Also, my time working for the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick has given me skills in processing archival material for digital preservation and online public access. Before joining Mark on his project, I worked as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow on The Romantic Ridiculous project with Andrew McInnes at Edge Hill University. I was involved in the project’s public engagement initiatives, including working with heritage sites (Wordsworth Grasmere and Windermere Jetty Museum) and secondary schools as part of two exhibitions which we organised. This prepared me to help Mark now with the impact for the Libraries project, which was inevitably delayed by the pandemic.
BB. Rita, what is the main focus of your work at the moment, and what are you enjoying most?
RD. I’m responsible for carrying out digital research for the project database on non-English European books. This means that I have learnt how to use the database to find the correct editions of the books listed in our library catalogues and insert them onto the database which will be made available to the public. This requires attention to detail and some detective skills, particularly when the libraries have misspelled an author’s name and/or given you only a short version of the title of the work!
One of my favourite aspects of this work is that it lets us see the borrowing records of people in the eighteenth century. Why would a woman working as a haberdasher, for example, have borrowed dozens and dozens of books on travel, including one on Spain which she borrowed three times? If a man is borrowing works on female education, is he borrowing them for his own benefit or on behalf of his wife and daughters? Learning to navigate the data has been really helpful in my new research on cosmopolitanism in women’s reading habits in the subscription library, focusing particularly on translated works of conduct literature, which will be my contribution to our project’s edited collection. Mark has been very kind in sharing his expertise to help me make sense of the data, such as in looking for hidden female readers in examples like that, as well as in finding patterns amongst members’ borrowing records.
BB. Rita, which aspects of being part of the broader academic community at Liverpool are most useful to you in terms of your early career development?
RD. For me, the best part of this project has been to become part of the book history academic community. As this is such a large project, bringing together colleagues across the UK and the US, and having a close relationship with the sister-project, ‘Books and Borrowing 1750-1830’, at the University of Stirling, there are many opportunities for collaboration, both on the conference we are jointly organising in April, and on our edited collection. At the University of Liverpool in particular it has been great to be part of the Eighteenth-Century Worlds research centre, which brings together colleagues from history, literature and law, and I have continued to be involved in the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, at whose conference in January we introduced the project as a team.
We have also just been successful in obtaining an impact acceleration account from the University of Liverpool, which will allow us to collaborate with the Birmingham & Midland Institute to investigate how historical research on libraries and reading communities can be used to promote pride in place, and mental health and well-being. This part of the project will utilise my experience in delivering public engagement events and managing my YouTube channel to enhance public understanding of the transformative role of reading. To achieve this, we will be putting together an online exhibition, a workshop, and YouTube videos, about which I’m very excited!
BB. Rita, what would you say are the key achievements emerging from this project?
RD. The project enables us to find out what people were really reading in the eighteenth century, to confront our expectations of what this would have been and, in some instances, to revise them. Discovering that women would have been a significant minority amongst the membership of subscription libraries, as well as the having the opportunity to explore the possibility of hidden female readers that our records provide, have been intriguing aspects of this work. Ultimately, the database we are putting together will be a great resource for anyone working on eighteenth-century books in Europe and North America.