History of Reading, 1750-1835
I recently completed a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship to allow me to complete work on my second monograph, which focuses on the readership of historical texts between 1750 and 1837. 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 am currently developing plans for a third 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. Future plans include teaching and research resources, and a major collaborative research grant application to fund the development of an open access digital platform that will bring together surviving data derived from the holdings and borrowing records of libraries across the Atlantic world in the eighteenth century.
An edited collection arising from the 'Community Libraries' Network is contracted with 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 am also co-editing 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. 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.
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 reading, libraries and print culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (especially the period 1750-1820), or the Enlightenment.
I currently supervise or co-supervise 3 postgraduate research students:
Lee Atkins (Duncan Norman PhD studentship, 2014- , "The Representation of Childhood & Cultural Encounters in the Victorian Periodical Press")
Sophie Jones (UoL Changing Cultures Research Theme PhD studentship, 2014-, "Loyalism in New York")
Julie McColl (PhD student, Part-Time, 2011-, "Mad Jim, the Missionary Martyr")
The following completed PhDs under my supervision:
Dr Nick Bubak (PhD student, 2013-17, "Imperial identity and the early Scouting Movement")
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
- Architecture and Society in an Age of Reform
- ‘The Historical Age’: Audiences for History in Britain, 1750-1835
- Reading History in Britain, 1750-1837
- Community Libraries: Connecting Readers in the Atlantic World, 1650-1850
Using Primary Sources
JISC-funded Open Access student textbook
North West Early Modern Seminar
Regional seminar series
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
Community Libraries Research Network
+85 scholars from institutions across Europe, Australia and the Americas.
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