Friday, September 12, 2008

Australian Common Reader

Interest in readers and reading continues to grow, supporting a number of superlative book-length studies, such as Jonathan Rose's The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (2001) and databases such as Britain's Reading Experience Database. Contributions to the field have also come from Australia with a number of studies in the various volumes of the History of the Book in Australia, Martyn Lyons and Lucy Taksa's survey, Australian Readers Remember, and the very impressive database Australian Common Reader.

This last is of most interest to digital humanities because of the access it gives to the reading habits of ordinary Australians in the nineteenth century. Using data extracted from the library records of various schools of arts and mechanics' institutes, users are able to search for particular titles and observe the lending patterns at each library, including the identification and description of borrowers. For example, if you were to search on Joseph Conrad's Typhoon you would find that the novella was borrowed by five men and two women at the Rosedale Mechanics' Institute and that their occupations were tailor, teacher, home duties, doctor, accountant and surveyor. For each of the identified borrowers one click will bring up their entire borrowing record, providing a comprehensive listing of the reading habits of Australians according to occupation. General conclusions from this limited dataset must be cautious, but it shows a potential map of Australian reading habits that will become richer and richer as more library records are added.

Australian Common Reader also provides a search facility for two extensive nineteenth century diaries, Annie Baxter Dawbin (1834-1868) and William Bunn (1830-1901). These features will be enhanced in the future with a new section that proposes to address the impact of newspapers and magazines using Toni Johnson Woods' list of fiction serials in Australian periodicals.

Australian Common Reader welcomes contributions to the database from researchers across Australia. They are actively seeking records from the following sources:
  • Australian Mechanics Institutes, Literary Institutes, and Schools of Arts
  • public libraries
  • commercial subscription or circulating libraries
  • private libraries and collections
  • book clubs
  • booksellers records
  • newspapers and magazines
  • diaries or letters
Anyone holding such records or those with research projects on these institutions would benefit from a close look at the Australian Common Reader.

Tim Dolin's essays (usefully hosted by the web-site) demonstrate that Australian readers were more interested in British fiction than in the emerging writers of Australian fiction. But such evidence helps us to better understand how Australian writers, readers and publishers positioned themselves in a nation filled with imported books and magazines.

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