History of reading tutorial 1: Finding evidence of reading in the past
History of reading tutorial 1: Finding evidence of reading in the past

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History of reading tutorial 1: Finding evidence of reading in the past

3 Using UK RED to understand reading in the past – collating the evidence

If all the types of evidence described in this tutorial are potentially unrepresentative or hampered by a particular bias, then the best and perhaps only way we can truly recover common reading habits and tastes in the past is by collating the evidence: using them together, comparing and contrasting the type of reading they describe.

UK RED is built in such a way as to make collation seamless. Searches using set criteria return records from all sources. Over time, as the records in UK RED continue to grow in number, we should be able to run searches which reveal patterns of reading in the past. In other words, by putting these qualitative sources into a database with set values within fields, we might be able to apply quantitative methods in order to exploit their potential to the full.

Activity 4

First, open the UK RED search [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] (right-click on the link to open it in a new window or tab). Use the advanced search functions to fill in the table below. In the second column, fill in the number of entries that the database contains for each century (in the advanced search, tick the century only then click submit). Next, combine searches for entries relating to specific half centuries with each subject category (for example, select 1800-49, and then under genre/subject, select fiction), and record the number of entries. For the third column, ‘religion’, make sure you tick ‘sermons’, ‘religious texts’ and ‘Bible’ to cover the range of this category.

Next, you will need to arrange your results to demonstrate the proportion that each category of reading represented for each half century. Click on the button to calculate the percentage share of each category.

What patterns do you see appearing in the table? Click the button again to see my results when I did the exercise in January 2011.

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Looking at my tables, I was surprised by the extent to which the data in UK RED confirmed the grand narrative. Poetry does decline over the course of this period; at the same time fiction is on the increase. Religious reading also declines, but I was also interested to see how prominent it remained in people’s experiences.

I hope that exercise was useful and illuminating. But quantitative analysis does have its limits. It may be that the exercise we just completed tells us more about the available sources for the history of reading than about actual reading in the past, and therefore we should not be surprised that it confirms some previous scholarship.

To be used effectively, quantitative history should not be applied in isolation. For example, we could use UK RED to count the number of people in each decade of the Victorian period who read Charles Dickens’s books. This search, however, would not tell us how many of those people enjoyed reading Dickens, or how many found that one of his books had a decisive impact on their lives. The individual records of reading need to be looked at as well and assessed alongside the bare lists of results. And the sources which provide the data need to be analysed, and compared, to determine the value of the evidence offered.


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