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Posts Tagged ‘reading habits’

When I did my history PhD at Dundee University (“Reading habits in Scotland circa 1750-1820”) I was plugging a big gap in the research. All PhD research should make a contribution, but it’s rare for a subject to be quite so little studied before as this one. Scottish reading habits and book history more generally had been little researched since Paul Kaufman in the 1960s. Some PhDs had been completed, but usually by librarians, without their own graduate students to inspire. And so, although Scotland has a mass of useful sources (library borrowing records, evidence of book ownership etc.), its reading and book history was largely little researched when I started my PhD in 2003.

Of course the downside of having a big gap is that there’s always a chance someone else will come along and fill it. During my PhD there was a panic moment, when I learned of another PhD student, Mark Towsey at neighbouring St Andrews, looking at many of the same sources, with a very similar PhD topic. We met up, and established our respective approaches. We still had overlaps, but not enough to jeopardise getting our PhDs. And we both completed successfully.

That was some years ago, but more recently reading history has become more popular among Scottish researchers, almost fashionable to an extent. And in the last few years I’ve watched with interest new PhD students starting to work on Scottish reading habits, for example Maxine Branagh-Miscampbell looking at childhood reading in 18th century Scotland, and Jill Dye studying Innerpeffray Library and its borrowers. It’s a slightly strange feeling seeing the field come alive like this, but in a rather wonderful way. And it’s always exciting to see new researchers approach things differently, in terms of their theoretical framework and methodologies, and in terms of the core research questions that they explore.

I’m very much looking forward to seeing the results of these and other upcoming Scottish PhD projects in the next few years. It’s exciting to see these developments, if still rather strange at the same time!

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So often as an academic historian I’m asked to explain my research interests. It’s rather broad. I typically say I’m a social, cultural, urban and reading historian, with particular interests in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. But of these my main focus is the late 18th and early 19th century – part of the so-called long 18th century – and I was musing on how I got to that.

My first academic history study at university was a 16th century course with the Open University. Then this was followed by a 19th and 20th century course on family and community history, also with the Open University. And then two classical studies courses completed my Open University BA(Hons), on Homeric poetry and archaeology, and the early Roman empire. But although I was interested in all of these periods, none of these completely grabbed me.

I suppose the 18th century beckoned with my subsequent postgraduate taught Masters course in Cultural and Urban Histories 1650-1850. This course was led by Professor Charles McKean, and focused in particular on the 18th century, and the cultural changes that happened, and changes in towns, particularly throughout Scotland and Britain, but also overseas, for example in Europe and North America. And I found it fascinating, particularly from an intellectual viewpoint. It was a period of such change, but also such influence on later times. And it was a period rich in historical evidence to allow it to be studied. Of course I retained my interest in other periods. In particular my Masters dissertation looked at late 17th century court records for the Melrose area, although this was partly because of this being something I could work on easily from home, using largely transcribed records. I was very much not a specialist in that time period.

Then my 18th century interest, and early 19th too, grew further for a year as I worked as a research assistant on a pilot study looking at the cultural development of small Scottish towns. The pilot study looked at the towns in Angus, former Forfarshire, and it was my job to work through a mass of records for the various burghs. This was followed years later by a larger study of small towns Scotland-wide, which has led to a book which is about to be published. But my MS-like illness had progressed too much for me to work on the main project. My year on the pilot study was glorious though. I learned how towns grew and changed in 18th century Scotland and Britain, and how the cultural and social facilities were transformed. Again fascinating, intellectually.

And then my history PhD built on this, again focusing on circa 1750-1820, but this time looking at reading habits. And again there were intellectual challenge reasons. It was a period of huge change in the print trade and growth of reading venues, one of the biggest reading revolutions Scotland, and indeed Britain, has seen. Studying reading habits was more of a needle in a haystack hunt than studying urban history, with far fewer sources to work with, and more need for efficient use of those you could find. But in a way that made it even more fun.

So I suppose I am a specialist now in the 18th century, though I still have much to learn about it. And I still retain my interests in the other periods. For example I am preparing an academic journal paper based upon my Melrose 17th century court research, and still tinker with the 19th century. And, taking things even further forward, my SHARP 2014 book history conference talk looks at the TV series Doctor Who and its fanzines in the late 20th and 21st centuries – quite a challenge for me given my past record. But fun!

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I’m a keen reader of books, and have been since a young age. So it made a lot of sense that for my history PhD I studied reading habits in Scotland in the past. But it was often a case of searching for a needle in a haystack, with reading habits largely invisible and typically unrecorded. So when I found any record of what someone had read, or what reading meant to them, it was important to make the most of it, both for that single reader, and what it told us more widely.

So in that spirit, here’s a post recapping on my own reading over the last year. Oh if only I had something like this for more of my historic readers! I have in the past blogged about books I’ve finished each month, at my LiveJournal blog, but will probably discontinue that now, in favour of an end-of-year update. So this may be the first of more to come in future.

I record my reading progress in Goodreads, and so far in 2013 I’ve completed 72 books. Most of these were read on my Kindle, which I can manage much more easily now than in print, due to the brain damage and significant reading problems it causes.

Generally I read last thing at night, before sleep, sometimes for up to an hour, but more usually for half an hour. So it can take me quite some time to finish a book. I also like to have multiple books on the go. Typically I will be concentrating on one novel, but also have various collections of short stories on the go, and non-fiction works. Most are on my Kindle, so I can easily flit between them as the mood takes me, and carry them around, for example to coffee shops, easily. I’m long-term ill, with a very nasty neurological disease, which can mean that often for days or even weeks I’m too weak to read at all, even for a short time. So my reading lapses at times, but then when I’m stronger again I pick it up again.

In terms of genres my reading is quite varied. I like fantasy a lot, and horror, and mysteries. I’m less keen on hard science fiction, or too realistic crime. I’m also not generally a fan of literary fiction. Oh and I like historical novels a bit, and like steampunk a lot, and also graphic novels, which I find generally to be really easy to read, and rewarding.

I’m a member of an online book club. The book club members take turns choosing the book to be read each month. We have quite similar tastes in many ways, but throwing open the choice like this throws up some surprises for us as well.

In Goodreads I rate books finished on a 1-5 scale. 5 means it is the very best of all; 4 I enjoyed it a lot; 3 I enjoyed it but with reservations; 2 significant problems stopped me enjoying it; and 1, well I can’t go any lower than that.

I’m pleased to say that only 2 books this year rated 1: Alan Moore’s Nemo: Heart of Ice graphic novel, which was barely coherent for me, and Eoin Colfer’s First Doctor e-short for the anniversary Doctor Who short stories by children’s authors – bad for me, because the Doctor’s characterisation was so off. Another 4 books – including 2 more of the e-shorts – rated 2/5. And 16 were scored 3/5, moving into the enjoyable territory. And 32 at 4/5, i.e. very enjoyable.

18 books were rated the very best of all. These included Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, which I hadn’t read before, but was finally able to, because it was available for the Kindle. A much older book that I rated just as highly was Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop, a mystery set in Oxford, and a rollicking good read. A third memorable book was The History of the Beano: The Story So Far. It’s a history of the long-running children’s comic, and is full of old strips, as well as articles and other information about Beano history. I borrowed this book from the local university library, but was able to pick up a bargain copy for £5 at the Edinburgh Book Festival (RRP £25), so have my own copy to keep.

Another book that lingered long in the mind was Whitstable by Stephen Volk. This is a fictionalised tale of Peter Cushing encountering a real-life horror, and was wonderfully written, very moving, and quite powerful stuff. Thoroughly recommended. Likewise I hugely enjoyed Keith Miller’s 2-volume collection The Official Doctor Who Fan Club, which tells the story of this 1970s fanclub and its accompanying fanzines, including lots of facsimile reprints of the latter.

It’s been a good year for reading for me, and hopefully 2014 will be likewise. Again I expect to read mainly on my Kindle, but I’d also like to make an inroad into my academic books backlog. And if my paper is accepted for the SHARP conference in Antwerp I will also have some preparatory reading to do for that.

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Two of my history journal papers recently went online freely under green open access rules. Prompted in part by that I thought I’d look back on the first of those.

Entitled “Glimpses into a Town’s Reading Habits in Enlightenment Scotland: Analysing the Borrowings of Gray Library, Haddington, 1732-1816”, this paper was published in the Journal of Scottish Historical Studies in 2006. At the time I was about half-way through my part-time history PhD. Every year the Economic and Social History Society of Scotland runs an essay prize for postgraduate students, with a money prize, and the winning paper published in their journal, the Journal of Scottish Historical Studies. History postgraduates at Dundee were encouraged in my time to enter. I wrote up my then research, but didn’t complete it in time for the competition deadline because of being particularly ill at the time, causing a delay. But I sent it in anyway. The then editor, one of our Professors, asked me if I’d like him to hold it back for the competition in nearly a year, but I said no, please just consider it as a journal paper submission now. With my life-threatening condition I was keen to get on with things sooner rather than later, and a delay would not help.

My paper was accepted without any revisions, which is rather rare in academic publishing. With hindsight I think it gave me an unrealistic impression of journal publishing as an easy thing to do! I’ve certainly found it harder since, not least as I’ve aimed for more and more ambitious journals. But it at least gave me confidence to try more publishing, and it was a delight to see my research in print, only halfway through my PhD. I remember how thrilled I was to hold the print issues. Even the digital PDF was exciting. I had earlier co-authored publications from my computer science time, including some published after I had to leave that full-time PhD as my neurological illness struck. But this was the first time I had a sole-authored history journal paper, and it was a huge achievement.

The paper was based on research I was doing as part of my PhD on Scottish reading habits. In particular it looked at the borrowing records over 80 years or so of a free town library in Haddington, East Lothian. It was very unusual to have a free library at that time, and one that was open to the whole inhabitants of a town. It opened up all sorts of possibilities for contextualising the borrowings, and also researching the borrowers further.

The core part of the research involved transcribing the Haddington library’s borrowing registers and building up a database of library borrowings. For this I used the relational database system MySQL, drawing on my computer science degree and training. I had three linked tables: one recording the details of borrowers, one recording books in the library, and a third table linking the two, recording details of borrowings. And then I could write SQL queries to interrogate the database, and quickly produce answers to different questions.

For the borrowers, about 700 of whom could be identified, I researched in other local records to find out more about them. Parish registers, both Church of Scotland and other denominations, were useful, as were tax records, wills and inventories, later census returns, and so on. For this I was able to draw on my skills as a genealogist, used to working through such records, and was able to discover significant new information on over 240 of the known borrowers.

This extra information, such as occupation, age, family connections and so on together with the relational database allowed me to analyse the borrowings in a number of different ways. A simple analysis was to look at the numbers of borrowings over time, or, having categorised the library books roughly by subject, the changing subjects borrowed by the library users. Another analysis let me pull out the most popular titles, borrowed the most frequently, in specific decades. But I could also analyse the borrowings of specific occupational groups, or, for example, young girl borrowers. All were easy to pull out using the database structure I had built, allowing queries that would be impossible otherwise.

Results, such as differences between male and female borrower choices, could be compared with findings of other scholars elsewhere. And because I knew so much about many of the borrowers I could also write meaningfully about them. For example I was able to identify a watchmaker father and his daughter borrowing books together. As an added bonus this pair were my own direct ancestors.

I was able to show borrowers working through a multi-part title in sequence, getting hold of successive volumes as best they could, and clearly reading them. Clearly there was often competition for different volumes in the same sequence, but I could trace readers trying their very best to borrow the next volume they needed, and this wasn’t an isolated example. Some other book historians, particularly those associated with the Reading Experience Database, are sceptical about the use of library borrowing records as evidence of reading. But I would argue that the records I studied, with their clear evidence of reading sequentially like this, are very much evidence of that, and should not be dismissed so readily. Significantly they also cover a very sizeable local population, which permits a much greater range of analysis than a single isolated reading reference can.

Another nice thing that the Haddington library records showed was the extent of female reading. Many other Scottish reading institutions at this time were restricted in their membership, and often dominated by men. But the Haddington library was open to all genders, and asked borrowers to indicate when they were borrowing a book for someone else. So there are many loans recorded for female readers, allowing a comparison between male and female borrowing choices – and there was quite a difference – and, as noted already, a study of young female readers, who seemed to congregate in the library, particularly on Saturdays.

Overall I’m very proud of the paper, and still think that the research it presents stands up to scrutiny. I’m also pleased that I was able to use my computer science training in building up the databases that it relied upon. And although it gave me perhaps an overly optimistic view on academic publishing, I think without its experience I probably wouldn’t have gone on to do so much more.

The open access PDF copy of the paper is available from my publications page in my personal website.

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I’m a member of SHARP, the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing. Basically a bunch of book historians. They hold an annual conference each year, and I’ve been to two in the past: Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 2005, and Dublin, Ireland, in 2012. Next year’s conference is in Antwerp in Belgium, which is terribly exciting from a print history viewpoint, being such an important early centre for printing, as well as a fun tourist destination.

I hope to be there. It depends on how I’m doing health-wise at the time. I’m long-term ill, with an MS-like illness, and my condition fluctuates quite a lot. But I’ve booked flights – cheap at the moment – and have sorted out a wheelchair-accessible hotel. I wouldn’t be using my wheelchair all the time there – Antwerp is a very cobbly old city – but would want it some of the time, and especially when at the conference talks.

A few months ago a fellow SHARP member on Twitter was toying with the idea of proposing a Doctor Who panel. In the end she decided she probably couldn’t make the trip over to Antwerp from America, but it raised ideas in my mind, that have been rumbling away ever since. And I think I might be going to propose a paper. The conference theme is religion, but also covers cult books and related publishing, and that’s a way in for Doctor Who, perhaps the most cult-ish TV programme ever, with rather an interesting relationship with publishing history.

My topic would be Doctor Who fanzines and their relationship to the programme, on air, then off air, then on air again. It also ties into the print versus digital debate. And fanzines are an interesting form of ephemeral publication that usually fall through the cracks. I have so many ideas for things I could talk about in a 20 minute talk. Back in July when I first had the idea I brainstormed ideas on my iPod touch, in an audio recording, so have that to refer to too.

On the downside this is well outside my specialist area 🙂 I’m a book historian, but my PhD, which looked at reading habits in Scotland, focused on the 18th and early 19th centuries. My postgraduate Masters dissertation was even earlier, looking at local court records from the 17th century. I’ve never looked formally at the 20th century or 21st century. But I think I could do this well, if only I can familiarise myself enough in time with the relevant secondary writings.

The SHARP 2014 Call for Papers closes on 30th November 2013. That gives me time to think over my options and do the necessary reading. Obviously if I do submit a paper proposal it would then be a question of whether the conference organisers accept it. But I’ll do my best, if I do decide to go ahead with a proposal. Another goal for Academic Writing Month!

If my SHARP paper is accepted I’d also turn up to my talk with a lot of fanzines to pass around the audience to let them see what I was talking about.

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I spent an enjoyable day today at the first day of the Economic and Social History Society of Scotland conference at Inverness. Sadly due to my neurological illness I was only ever able to contemplate attending the one day, but am very glad I managed what I did.

The conference theme is a two parter: on the one hand economy and society in rural Scotland, and on the other a tribute to the late historian Malcolm Gray. I regret to say that I wasn’t as familiar with Gray’s work as I should have been. But now, largely thanks to the keynote opening talk by Eric Richards, I know more, and plan to read more of his work. I also discovered that I need to reference him in a journal paper I am working on at the moment, even if it concerns a very non Highland location.

There were eight other talks today. Another that I particularly enjoyed was Alistair Mutch’s talk, very much a work in progress project, about architecture of north east Scottish home farms in the 18th century. He used as some of his reference material the architectural guides written by my former supervisor Charles McKean, which was nice.

Another talk that related more closely to my work was Elizabeth Ritchie’s paper about Gaelic and English literacy and teaching, and the consequences for reading and wider life. My history PhD looked at reading habits in Scotland at the same period, but regrettably with rather a blind spot when it came to Highland, let alone, Gaelic reading. So it was eye opening to hear Elizabeth’s research into this, and I look forward to reading the resulting published article.

Yesterday in Leakey’s secondhand bookshop in Inverness I bought Haldane’s classic history of drove roads in Scotland. So it was timely to hear David Taylor’s paper about the cattle trade, on a gigantic scale, in 18th century Badenoch. Trying to visualise now remote hills covered with thousands of cattle was a challenge!

My own talk was to be last, but we rejigged the order a bit, so I was the penultimate speaker. I was also the only person on the day speaking about southern Scotland, talking as I was about my postgraduate Masters dissertation research into 17th century local court records in the Melrose area of Roxburghshire. I was really worried whether I would be strong enough to speak by the time my time came. Last time I spoke at a conference I was very weak, due to my illness, and struggled to talk, even with a microphone to help. This time I had no microphone, so had to project my voice. But adrenaline or something got me through, my talk came in on time, and the audience laughed at the appropriate moments and seemed to enjoy the topic. I also, not to plan, dropped in terms like “CSI Melrose” and “Murrrdddeerr” as in Taggart! My conference talks are always rather improvised and unpredictable, and that was certainly the case here. I had some good questions at the end, and also got a good reference to a relevant work which will help me improve the paper I am working on based on the research, which I am targeting – with a revise and resubmit offer already in place – at an eminent British-wide history journal. So all good.

It was also an enormous help that the conference organisers allowed my husband to attend free as my helper. I was using my wheelchair for most of the time there, to keep me going for as long as possible, and would have struggled with the doors and things without him to help. So thank you very much.

My only regret is that I can’t be there tomorrow. But I had a wonderful time today, and am having a lovely visit to Inverness.

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I really enjoyed this blog post by writer Michael Jecks, in particular what he wrote about ebooks. Most of all: “Because the most important thing about books is not, really, whether they are on paper, an electronic screen, or carved with care into blocks of granite. The important thing is, that they are read.” which echoes so strongly with my own views.

writerlywitterings

Writing books is a funny way to try to earn a crust. Authors are expected to be slightly odd characters (and most of us can live up – or down – to that), with peculiar insights which can be gained only by using illegal drugs or by excessive quantities of legal ones. I tend to the second.
But being a writer, for me, was a way not so much of earning a living, but of continuing my delight in and with books.
I have always loved books. I find it deeply, humiliatingly, hypocritical still, to be telling off my son for reading under his bedclothes, when I can still remember doing the same thing myself at his age. And, oddly enough, reading the same William books as he is now. Exactly the same in most cases, since the thieving little brute has filched my ancient hardbacks.
Books have accompanied me…

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