Libraries, Reading Communities and Cultural Formation in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic


Posted on: 9 October 2019 by Professor Mark Towsey in 2019 posts


7-12 October is National Libraries Week 2019 – a time to celebrate the power of libraries to change lives through reading. The theme this year is how libraries engage communities through technology, building skills and encouraging participation. It’s fitting, therefore, that this week also marks the launch of a major new digital humanities project funded by the AHRC exploring the history of libraries, led by Professor Mark Towsey from the Department of History at the University of Liverpool.

Working in collaboration with leading experts from the UK, Australia and the United States, the three-year project will investigate how libraries contributed to social, cultural and political change in eighteenth-century Britain, Ireland and North America, showing how library books helped readers to navigate a rapidly changing world marked by revolution, global encounters and social change.

The project’s main aim is to create a unique open-access database providing the largest collection of data relating to library holdings, membership and usage ever assembled, while also enabling contemporary debate about the value of libraries through better understanding of their historical roles in the formation of reading communities.

Here, the project’s newly appointed Postdoctoral Research Associates tell us more about their hopes and expectations for the project:

Dr Sophie H Jones

My research focuses on the socio-cultural development of loyalism in colonial America, and asks why individuals chose to support the British – rather than the American – cause during the American Revolution. I am especially interested in the role that British social and material culture played in shaping identities and helping Americans to feel part of a wider British-Atlantic community. This included reading popular books and novels that were being published in Britain, following the London fashions, or discussing the latest British news with their peers at the dock-side coffee-house.

Libraries formed an important part of eighteenth-century social and public life. In New York – which was a loyalist stronghold and the focus of my doctoral research – the ‘Society Library’ (founded in 1754, and one of our Project Partners) was a symbol of the city’s new-found refinement, a place where New Yorkers could meet with and share texts with likeminded individuals. Importantly for my research, it was co-founded by William Smith Jr., who would later become a notorious loyalist.

The Libraries project will enrich our understanding of urban development in colonial America, shedding light on mercantile connections between British printers and provincial American towns, and showing connections between the books that people read and their subsequent political opinions. I look forward to working with librarians at the modern-day Society Library to shed further light on this fascinating transatlantic history, and to explore how New York’s library users compare to those in other loyalist strongholds in Revolutionary America.

Dr Max Skjönsberg

I am an intellectual and political historian of the eighteenth century, with particular focus on the Anglophone world. Most of my research to date, including my forthcoming Cambridge University Press monograph and most of my published articles, concentrates on political parties, in theory and practice.

As a historian of political thought, I am not just interested in texts and ideas in abstraction, but also their contexts broadly understood and their reception and afterlives. For this reason, I have become increasingly excited by the possibilities offered by the history of libraries and reading. Intellectual historians sometimes assume the significance of specific works by looking at the importance of their arguments, canonical status, or with casual references to sales figures. The history of reading and libraries has the potential to be more concrete and insightful, enabling us to think about historical change in a broader and more meaningful way.

The shift from what was written to what was read and how was it read can be seen as an attempt to take intellectual history beyond the so-called Cambridge School’s emphasis on authorial intentions, which are essential but do not necessarily need to be the sole focus of study.

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