Readerships and literary cultures 1900-1950

Archivist Nancy Fulford reports back from the first of the University’s ‘Archives and Texts’ seminars. For information on the rest of the series, see

‘Readerships and literary cultures 1900-1950’ was the first in this autumn’s series of Archives and Texts seminars; this session was given by Dr Erica Brown of Sheffield Hallam University. Erica has established an archive of popular fiction 1900-1950 at the university library, largely built on donations from the public – from single copies of books to chunks of private library collections. A dedicated group of volunteer readers are regularly tasked with reading books from the collection and completing a questionnaire to give details on plot, genre, literary and cultural references, in addition to any mention of writers, books, plays and films. These regular surveys are building an interesting and useful database of intertextual information. Bookplates, inscriptions, and the owners and donors of books are all noted. Information from the reader questionnaires is used to enhance the catalogue record, allowing researchers to search in a variety of ways, far beyond standard book cataloguing. So far the greatest numbers of literary references are to the bible and Shakespeare, closely followed by Dickens.

These books, aka the ‘middlebrow’ novel, were popular then, but largely not re-published or in print today. This collection thus forms a whole chunk of reading/publishing history. Having read reams of these novels, Erica says she is sometimes amazed that these were once topping the bestseller lists as it is hard to find anything to appreciate about them! Authors range from the well known such as Elizabeth Taylor, Daphne Du Maurier and John Galsworthy, to the obscure – including Kitty Ritson, who wrote a series of pony books, and Willie Riley, whose novel Windyridge inspired copycat naming of homes up and down the country.

In addition to completing the cataloguing questionnaires, readers are also writing reviews of the books which you can read on the Reading 1900-1950 blog. Some of these reviews suggest the books in question wouldn’t have fared well with today’s readers. Publishers usually have a reader or group of readers, often in-house, who read manuscripts submitted for publication, writing a report on their thoughts on the proposed book: plot summaries, whether they think it is right for the market and a suggested recommendation to ‘accept’ or ‘decline’. Several of our collections in our own Archive of British Printing & Publishing contain these reader’s reports, which can give insight into what the publisher was and wasn’t looking for, what might not be accepted by the general public at the time or what was published because of a well known name rather than a well written read. At yesterday’s seminar it was suggested that any existing reader’s reports on these books could provide an interesting comparison with these recent reviews. We might be seeing Erica back in our reading room to take a look…

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