Photo of Professor Mark Towsey

Professor Mark Towsey MA (Hons), MLitt, PhD, FRHistS

Professor of the History of the Book History


    History of Reading, 1750-1835

    My most recent monograph focuses on the readership of historical texts between 1750 and 1837 and was funded by a prestigious British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship. Whereas previous studies have focused on writers and their ideas, this is the first book to approach historical books from the point of view of their original readers. Although this is a period popularly associated with the rise of the novel, histories sold in unprecedented numbers across the English-speaking world. By examining readers' responses to these texts, I reveal why history books were so widely read - showing how they were used by readers to help cope with a rapidly changing world marked by social upheaval at home and revolution abroad. In doing so, I emphasise that reading history was never a purely private activity. Reading about the past helped eighteenth-century Britons negotiate their own place in the present, but their responses were constantly shaped, tested and challenged by other members of the 'imagined community'. These broader dimensions of the meaning of literacy, both to personal self-understanding and to wider processes of community formation, were taken up in the public engagement programme of my Fellowship, which built on my existing external engagement with the public and private library community and advocates of a contemporary 'reading revolution'.

    I also have a long term interest in women's reading in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, emerging from a number of published case studies on the vexed figure of the female reader. I still have much more to say on the topic, and (when my commitments to other projects allow the time) I have plans for a monograph provisionally entitled 'Family, Friendship and a Lady's Life of Reading'. This project will focus on the negotiation of gender in eighteenth-century print culture, assessing women's engagement with Enlightenment thought and contemporary 'separate spheres' ideology through reading. My monograph will move the lens away from the reading habits of well-known 'Bluestockings', thinking instead about how less articulate women responded to print - both in private study and in collaboration with each other.

    Community Libraries before the Public Libraries Act of 1850

    In 2014 and 2015, I held an international research networking grant from the AHRC on 'Community Libraries: Connecting Readers in the Atlantic World, 1650-1850', which explored the role of libraries in promoting literacy, civility, mental health and well-being, and 'imagined communities' in the Atlantic World, in collaboration with partners at Queen Mary University London, Dr Williams's Library, London, the Newberry Library, Chicago, and Loyola University Chicago. Attracting over 85 scholars from four continents and a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds, the network's events are archived on the Community Libraries website. The 'Community Libraries' Network helped me to put together the team for an ambitious collaborative grant application to the AHRC which was successful in 2018. Libraries, Reading Communities and Cultural Formation in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic aims to collect and make available in a single open access database contextualised bibliometric data on book holdings, membership and book usage at subscription libraries in Britain and North American in the years 1731-1801. The project team - involving four researchers at the University of Liverpool together with Co-Investigators from organisations in the UK, USA and Australia - will use this database to investigate the contribution of books to social, cultural and political change in the 18th century.

    An edited collection arising from the 'Community Libraries' Network was published by Brill Academic Publishers, entitled 'Before the Public Library: Reading, Community and Identity in the Atlantic World, 1650-1850' (edited with Dr Kyle B. Roberts, Loyola University Chicago). I have co-edited the first Minute Book of the Liverpool Athenaeum, a subscription library and newsroom founded in 1797 (with David Brazendale) for the Record Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, and am under contract to co-edit early administrative papers of the Bristol Library Society (with Dr Max Skjönsberg) for the Bristol Record Society, marking the 250th anniversary of the Library Society's foundation. I was previously editor-in-chief of the international peer-reviewed journal Library & Information History (2012-2016).

    My expertise in the history of libraries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led to me collaborating with the Victoria Gallery & Museum, the Liverpool Athenaeum and the Liverpool Medical Institution on the exhibition Knowledge is Power, which introduced gallery visitors to the role of libraries in the dramatic growth of Liverpool in the long eighteenth century.

    PhD supervision

    I would be delighted to hear from anyone who is considering applying for postgraduate research or pursuing postdoctoral research in any aspect of the history of the book, reading, libraries and print culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (especially the period 1750-1820), or the social history of the Enlightenment.

    I currently supervise or co-supervise 7 postgraduate research students, five at Liverpool, one at Keele and one at Western Sydney University, Australia:
    Dominic Bridge (AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Partnership studentship, 2018- , "Music Publishing in Britain, 1750-1850", with the British Library)
    Michelle Girvan (AHRC-funded NWCDTP Collaborative Doctoral Award studentship, 2019- , "Charity, Piety and Commerce: Liverpool’s Bluecoat School and Pragmatic Politeness in the First Half of the Eighteenth Century", with Bluecoat Arts, Liverpool)
    Synthia Hynes (2021- , "The English Ambassadress in a Cosmopolitan World: Women, Diplomacy and Politics in the Long Eighteenth Century")
    Brittani Ivan (external supervisor for Western Sydney University-funded scholarship on the "Early History of the State Library of New South Wales", 2020-, with the State Library of New South Wales)
    Hannah Kelly (AHRC-funded NWCDTP PhD studentship, 2018- , "Colonial Readers in Eighteenth-Century India: The Book Trade, Empire and Scenes of Reading")
    Amy Solomons (AHRC-funded NWCDTP Collaborative Doctoral Award studentship, 2019- , "Books for Everyone? National Trust Libraries and their Reading Communities in the Long Eighteenth Century", with the National Trust)
    Emma Stanbridge (external supervisor for AHRC-funded NWCDTP Collaborative Doctoral Award studentship, 2020-, "Samuel Johnson, Lichfield Literary Culture, and Life Writing, 1775-1835", with Keele University and the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum)

    The following completed PhDs under my supervision:
    Dr Lee Atkins (Duncan Norman PhD studentship, 2014-19, "The Representation of Childhood & Cultural Encounters in the Victorian Periodical Press")
    Dr Nick Bubak (PhD student, 2013-17, "Imperial identity and the early Scouting Movement")
    Dr Sophie Jones (UoL Changing Cultures Research Theme PhD studentship, 2014-18, "Loyalism in New York")
    Dr Julie McColl (PhD student, Part-Time, 2011-18, "Mad Jim, the Missionary Martyr")
    Dr Phillip Sargeant (AHRC PhD studentship, 2013-17, "Administration of Sir Robert Walpole")
    Dr Jack Webb (AHRC PhD studentship, 2012-16, "The Spectre of Haiti, 1804-2007")

    Research Group Membership

    Research Grants

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


    October 2019 - September 2022

    Architecture and Society in an Age of Reform


    May 2017 - January 2020

    Reading History in Britain, 1750-1837


    January 2015 - December 2015

    Community Libraries: Connecting Readers in the Atlantic World, 1650-1850


    April 2013 - April 2015

    ‘The Historical Age’: Audiences for History in Britain, 1750-1835


    October 2008 - September 2011

    Research Collaborations

    Community Libraries Research Network

    Project: Director
    External: Various

    +85 scholars from institutions across Europe, Australia and the Americas.

    MEDIATE: Understanding the literary system of the 18th century

    Project: Advisory board
    External: Radboud University

    MEDIATE is an ERC-funded digital humanities project, based at Radboud University (The Netherlands), that seeks to study the circulation of books and ideas in eighteenth-century Europe by drawing on a unique database of 2000 - 3000 eighteenth-century private library auction catalogues.

    Mapping Print, Charting Enlightenment

    Project: Advisory board
    External: University of Western Sydney

    Reinterpreting Eighteenth-Century European Culture through Historical Bibliometrics and Digital, Spatial and Textual Analysis

    Using Primary Sources


    JISC-funded Open Access student textbook

    North West Early Modern Seminar

    External: Various

    Regional seminar series

    Literary Commerce

    Project: Invited speaker
    External: University of Edinburgh

    RSE/AHRC funded colloquium on new perspectives on the literary culture of Enlightenment in Britain.

    Networks of Improvement

    Project: Invited speaker
    External: University of York

    Leverhulme Trust-funded project grant on Literary Clubs and Societies, c.1760-c.1840

    Reading Communities: Connecting the Past and Present

    Project: Project partner
    External: Open University, LJMU, University of Bedfordshire

    AHRC-funded Impact and Public Engagement Programme