Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Using the Web for Academic Research: The Reading Experience Database Project

Alexis Weedon gives us some insight into a new web-based project designed to collate evidence for changing reading habits through history.

In literary criticism and cultural studies more attention is being paid to the reception of the text – who read it, who had access to it, how was it read – partly perhaps due to the interest in reader theory. Such questions are relevant to the study of the development of a literary canon, the study of popular literature, the transmission of ideas through society both today and in the past and the changing relations between the author, editor, producer and reader of the text.

In such an interdisciplinary field there are a number of approaches to the study of reading: on the one hand from a close reading of the text we can theorise about the implied reader and the actual reader, on the other bibliographic studies allow us to trace the ownership and circulation of specific important texts through the accumulation and dispersal of physical libraries for example. There are a number of other equally valid approaches most of which, however, tend to focus on the reception of canonical literature.

Our reading matter is much wider than that – in that famous formulation of popular media – we read (as well as watch TV) to be informed, educated and entertained. Reading literature is, for most of us, first and foremost a pleasurable experience. And it is largely the accumulation of critical opinion and enduring appeal that determines whether the book we read is regarded highly as a classic in our culture or whether it is viewed as mere entertainment. Such distinctions and value judgements have changed over time and are constantly being reassessed. However, we don’t know how these judgements are established or who establishes them. Moreover, we know very little about the consumption of books, newspapers and magazines today and this raises questions about reading and literacy in the past.

Jenny Hartley’s recent study of contemporary reading groups tells us a lot more about how texts are circulated, recommended and enjoyed both as a personal and a group experience [1]. Celia Brayfield author of Bestseller: Secrets of Successful Writing and several bestsellers herself carried out a smaller survey of peoples reading habits in 1996 [2]. She found 57% of her sample owned over 100 books, ownership being commonplace. John Sutherland has pointed out the economics of this: the cost of a new novel has remained at around one tenth of an average weekly wage for most of the 20th century [3]. However this is not so true of the past when a new novel could cost more than a workingman’s weekly income.

In her survey Brayfield found that some people felt overwhelmed by the amount of print they had to read for professional reasons. For others reading was an activity done in their ‘spare time’ to fit in with the odd jobs they had to do. It was generally a snatched pleasure done while doing something else, for instance on journeys, listening to music, in the bath, supervising children. As an author speaking to potential novelists, Brayfield injects a note of realism saying that: The days when people gathered around the fireside after dinner every night to read aloud to each other have passed. … If the great nineteenth-century writers constructed their vivid, flowing stories for [such] people … consider how much harder a twentieth-century writer has to work to hold the attention of people reading by themselves on the bus. (p. 30-1)

What is the Reading Experience Database (RED) Project?

Such comparisons of the idealised attentive – and fictional – leisured reader in the past have provoked this project. We know so little about people’s reading habits in the past. We can ask people today but we need a different methodology to find out how, what and where people read in the past. Hence the Reading Experience Database – collaborative project headed by Professor Simon Eliot at the Centre for Writing, Publishing and Printing History, University of Reading, and The British Library’s Centre for the Book. The Open University and the University of Luton are also involved and supportive of RED. The aim of the project is to gather documentary evidence of reading experiences since the advent of the printing press until the First World War. A period which cannot now be documented by oral testimony – and which precedes the Mass Observation project in the 1920s and 1930s. And a period in which evidence is fragmentary and of necessity is documentary.

The project will be a tool for those interested in the consumption of print and the history of reading. At this initial stage we want to collect documentary evidence and to establish a ‘critical mass’ in the database, and at a later stage we will make the database available to scholars.

We want to find out who read what: whether men and women read different genres or different classes read different texts. We want to ask where they read; at home or travelling; in the streets or at work. We are also interested in how they read it: aloud or silently, in company, to an audience or alone? And how did they regard what they read, whether different classes read the same text differently. This in turn leads us to larger questions: when did reading become commonplace and how did the taste for different genres change?

Where is the Evidence?

Of course there is a mass of material – and we have limited the size of the project through the dates 1450-1914 and by only recording the evidence of British readers – readers born or resident in the British Isles reading in any language whatsoever. This means that we shall be interested, for instance, (to quote from our promotional blurb) in what British-born readers read when they were abroad (what did Milton read, and in what circumstances, when he was in Italy?). We shall be concerned with what other nationals read while they were here (what did Erasmus read when he was in Cambridge?). We shall be recording what the first generation of British settlers and, later, Irish emigrants read when they arrived in the New World. We shall be recording what was read in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Welsh, Erse and so on, as well as in English [4].

The Reading Experience Database Form

The Reading Experience Database (RED) form is accessible on the Open University Web site [4]. Entries made on the web form are sent by e-mail to myself as the database manager and I check ASCII file before adding the field names and loading it onto the BRS-SEARCH database. While this procedure is labour intensive, it was felt that because the RED form is openly available on the net, some editorial intervention would be necessary to weed out spurious entries. To aid researchers involved in the project we are currently moving the database onto Microsoft Access and creating a form which can run from researchers’ CD-drives through Microsoft Office.

We also have a paper form, which can be duplicated, filled in and sent to us for keying in. We have tried to minimise the number of times similar details have to be repeated. With the paper form the reference can be given once at the subsequent forms attached. We have constructed two paper forms: a minimum form, containing what we consider to be the minimum amount of information which it is useful to record, that is either the basic subject matter of the work (i.e. broad genre) who read it and when – and when can be anything from 15th century, to 8pm Thursday 23 May 1754 – and the supplier’s name. The full RED form provides more detail and asks for details of the text read, the reader or listener, the evidence for the experience and the supplier’s details. While there are over 90 fields in the web version, the format enables users to enter the details through check boxes, drop-down menus as well as by keying in.

At the moment RED is only searchable in its BRS-SEARCH form by the RED database manager, by the summer it is envisaged that it will be transferred onto Microsoft Access and the Steering Committee will be able to evaluate the progress to date. The scope of RED is wide, and so we plan to make available sections of the database for demonstration use and piloting in due course. We have two PhD candidates, Teresa Gerrard, University of Luton, working on the reading experience of the common reader 1850-1914 and Kate Kelman, Queen Margaret’s College, is looking at popular reading for women in Scotland between 1880-1939. Our post-doctoral fellow, Stephen Colclough was appointed in October 1997 to look at Reading 1700-1740, 1800-1840. He has spent much of his time working on Commonplace books 1800-1840 but also on manuscript diaries and reading and has compiled Primary Sources for the History of Reading [5] which is a form of location register of sources and he also produces our electronic newsletter the RED Letter.

RED is a long term project and we do not expect, particularly in the early years of the project when momentum will still be building up, for there to a be continuous, even flow of data coming in from contributors. For this reason the RED Steering Committee is devising a long list of what it calls standard works. These are mostly either studies of reading that naturally record a large number of examples of historical reading experience, or diaries, journals, autobiographies, biographies, etc. which include many references to the central subject’s reading matter. Both types of work will provide a density of data that will justify the task of working systematically through them to extract the reading experiences they record. This task will be undertaken by members of the Steering Committee and by a large group of volunteer enthusiasts.

The Evidence of Reading Experience: Autobiographies

One recognised source of documented evidence of reading is the autobiography. Clearly this is not an innocent source and we need to examine carefully the limitations of the evidence presented. Laurie Lee, born at the beginning of the First World War, claimed that he and his play fellows were “the inheritors, after centuries of darkness, of our country’s first literate peasantry” [6]. How accurate that claim is depends on your interpretation. Certainly compulsory free primary education was a product of the 1870s, but at other periods in our history different sections of society have, for different motives, taught themselves or been taught to read. It has been claimed that the 19th century was the period when the market for print increased so enormously that it became the first ‘mass media’. During the century the percentage of the population who were literate rose from c30% of women and c60% of men to 96% of the total population.

Laurie Lee’s recollection of his parents and grandparents is indicative of the changes which were taking place all over Britain in the late 19th century as within three generations reading skills and greater access to reading matter became the norm. His recollections tell us more about the difficulties of obtaining reading matter – perhaps a more difficult notion for us to comprehend today. He recalled that his mother and father – “children of a coachman and a sailor … were largely self-taught. But their parents could do little more than spell out their names – and given a book were likely to turn it over in their hands, cough loudly, and lay it aside” (p.15). And he mentions a few books were available to this rural labouring family in the first quarter of this century: they had almanacs, Sunday Psalm books and the widely sold ‘Penny Readers’ with their irreproachable love stories, moral tales such as J. Cole’s life-story of a footman who became a butler through thrift and prayer stories of martyrs and church missionaries and strictures on drink (p.16). Yet even these he claimed created a revolution in home entertainment by supplanting the gossip of grannies in chimney corners.

Some of the habits of reading surreptitiously under the eye of the bookseller, or reading what comes to hand from other people’s unwanted, discarded books are familiar today. And it raises the question of how do we get hold of the material we read? Today, with the wealth of printed literature it is not so difficult to find books, but in the past when they were less common and more expensive how did people get access to print? Lee recalled how serendipity played a large part in his reading development – he came across Dickens through finding his collected works on a bonfire, scorched and mildewed, which he took home and read as they dried steaming, by the light of an oil lamp. There were only a few books at the village school but it was only when Lee was old enough to go to the school in town that he had access to a greater range of reading matter. “On my way home from school, he wrote, I developed a special technique: at several pages a day, while loitering at the bookstall in Woolworth’s, I found I could read most of their stock in a year”. (p. 18). Lee said that reading by stealth became so deeply ingrained that when he discovered the town library – it had been open some years, but none had thought to tell him – he was perplexed by the luxury of books that he could borrow freely.

Lee’s description of his and his parents and grandparents literary abilities point to several factors in the growth of reading which we are interested in in this project. Factors such as schooling, access to reading material through the growth of the library system, even improvements in housing and lighting, transportation networks and how these factors affected people of different class/status differently.

For instance if we compare two autobiographical sketches we can see what difference class made. Lee’s mother had read him Tennyson in the 1920s. Fifty years earlier Molly Hughes’ mother had read to her children in the more luxurious surroundings of a middle-class urban home. Neither Lee’s serendipitous and uncritical reading habits nor the limited access to books which left the Lee’s household with penny ‘moral epics’ were to be found in Molly Hughes’ house. And she relates how, growing up in her London home the family discussed their readings amidst a great deal of humorous argument, defending their favourite authors. Mary Hughes describes one incident (a quote which is in the database)

“Occasionally the discussions became acrimonious. My eldest brother was one day making disparaging remarks about Tennyson, and my mother, all agitated in defence of her idol, fetched his poems from the shelf, and with a ‘Listen now, children’ began to declaim Locksley Hall. When she reached ‘I to herd with narrow foreheads’ she burst out, flinging down the book, ‘What awful rubbish this is!” [7].

Molly was taught first by her mother, then at school, learning languages, Latin and mathematics as well as reading her brother’s books of poetry and plays. Yet even so she was confined by the social mores, for as a girl Molly Hughes, was not allowed to join her elder brothers in their activities – to travel on the omnibus, to go to the theatre, or go to the Lord Mayor’s Show. So she enjoyed them vicariously, through the printed memorabilia they brought back for her. We know this because she notes in her autobiography that when her brothers went to The Show “They always brought home for me a little book, that opened out to nearly a yard of coloured pictures, displaying all the features of the Show”. In her excitement she ran round the house imitating the street hawker shouting out his advertisement for his wares (p. 26).

Mary Hughes’ autobiography reveals both the advantages of a middle class urban household in terms of education, access and ownership of books and the gender bias of the time. All interesting questions which don’t, of course, only apply to the 19th century – and other researchers are interested in the reading habits of 16th and 17th century women, rural and urban workers and so on. Autobiographies document the spread and increasing diversity of print available to the common reader.

The Evidence of Reading Experience: Marginalia

Marginalia is also evidence of reading. One record on RED documents Samuel Sotheby, of the auctioneer family, reading Jacobus Koning, Bijdragen tot Geschiedenis der Boekdrukkunst. Here is an Englishman reading a Dutch text, and this is the evidence that we want. We know he read it and when he read it because he annotated the margin of his copy in pencil saying: I never stumbled upon these observations relative to the Burgundian Arms, until Nov 13 1940. We also know his son read it, because he came across the marginalia and thought to comment on it in his Paper-Marks in the Early Block-Books of the Netherlands and Germany, London 1858 (p.6).

Marginalia is also a key to how the text was interpreted and even why it was read. Many of us use read books in a way that is very different from how the author intended us to read them – reading them in strong disagreement with the author, or being interested in the setting rather than the events of the narrative – or even reading them out of ‘duty’ or boredom. I found a copy of William Beloe’s Recollections of a literary life in the Cambridge University Library, which had been read by W. Beckford in the early 19th century (1760-1844). He had pencilled annotations sometimes violently critical of Beloe’s comments at the beginning of the two volumes – he wrote on the flyleaves giving the names of the some of Beloe’s acquaintances. So I know Beckford read the book and I know he didn’t always agree with the author’s version of events. But this volume had another surprise, it has also been read by H. R. Luard some time round the 25 July 1882. He had gone through the volumes with a pen adding the names and further (salacious) details about authors and prominent persons mentioned in the text.

With such evidence I could be sure both men had read the text. However it differs from the autobiographies I have mentioned before. I don’t know where the book was read, nor whether Beckford or Luard were reading it alone or out loud to a group of undergraduates for instance, and this could be useful information. Both Lee and Hughes relate how their families read aloud to each other and how they read alone, silently in company. And this is of interest – we want to record whether the reading was silent or aloud; and, if aloud and in company, whether the audience listened passively or participated by making comments. For example when the literate member of the family read the latest instalment of a Dickens novel to their assembled relations, did its members comment on or discuss the story? Were servants present and, if so, how did they react? Evidence of listening experience is important to record for many in the past got their experience of texts from listening rather than reading.


The RED project is a long term one. It is developing a new methodology to capture a hitherto inaccessible history. We hope by the joint efforts of volunteers, post-doctoral fellows and the Steering Committee to accumulate the evidence necessary to trace a history of reading by the ordinary reading public as well as by the famous. RED emulates the STC project in its reliance on volunteer contributors, submitting their snippets of evidence to build-up the larger picture, and in the use of new-technology – today it is the web. We already have a list of 27 contributors from the UK, Ireland, USA, and Canada who are reading though specific texts including Jane Austen’s letters, Pepys’ diaries from 1661-1663, Newton’s Correspondence from 1661-1675, selected periodicals, working-class diaries, commonplace books and many others. If you are interested in contributing please contact Dr Stephen Colclough s.m.colclough@open.ac.uk or Dr Alexis Weedon alexis.weedon@luton.ac.uk.


  1. Hartley, Jenny. (2001) Reading Groups (Oxford: Oxford Unversity Press). Jenny Hartley of the University of Surrey Roehampton and her colleague, Sarah Turvey, surveyed 350 groups across the UK, reaching them through questionnaire.
  2. Brayfield, Celia. (1996) Bestseller: Secrets of Successful Writing (London. Fourth Estate). She sent a 1000 questionnaires out via 10 outlets including sixth forms, dentists waiting rooms, a design house, estate agency, post-grad college, choral society, health club, bank.
  3. Sutherland, John. (1998) Lecture at Institute of English Studies, University of London, November.
  4. Reading Experience Database introduction and form. 1997 at http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/RED/ (24 April 2001).
  5. Colclough, Stephen. (1999) Primary Sources for the History of Reading (Oxford and Bristol: HOBODS).
  6. Lee, Laurie. (1975) ‘True Adventures of a boy reader’ in I Can’t Stay Long (London. Deutsch) p.15.
  7. Hughes, M.V. (1934) A London Childhood of the 1870s (Oxford: OUP) p.7.

Author Details

Alexis Weedon
University of Luton, UK


Phone: +44 582 489031
Fax: +44 582 489014

Dr Alexis Weedon is a senior lecturer in publishing and new media at the University of Luton, author of Victorian Publishing: The Economics of Book Production for the Mass Market 1830-1916 (Continuum, forthcoming) and co-editor of Convergence: The Journal of Research into New Media Technologies at http://www.luton.ac.uk/Convergence/ .