Author Archives: shelleytrower

Rehearsal time

Guest post by Director, Laura Bridges:

Yesterday was the first day of rehearsals for ‘The Living Library’ performance, celebrating the research from the ‘Memories of Fiction’ project.

This point in process is always exciting, and a bit scary: knowing that in 3-4 weeks time, all these people will be coming to be entertained and moved and interested in something that right now doesn’t exist, won’t exist fully until it is (a)’live’ on the night.

In rehearsals, my pleasure is watching fragments emerging, slowly fitting them together to a coherent story. It was lovely to see the words from interviews months past, talking about memories years or decades past, coming alive now as images and actions created by our dancer, Patricia Suarez.

I look forward to posting more as our rehearsals progess.

Until then…. Here are some photographs from our day.

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The Living Library

When we started dreaming up the Memories of Fiction project about five years ago, there wasn’t the tiniest inkling that a theatrical production could result from it. This wonderful development is now becoming very real! In one month from today, on 9th April, Lord Graham Tope (Chair of the Libraries-All Party Parliamentary Group) will be launching The Living Library.

This live art event is based on the Memories of Fiction interviews, and will be at the Omnibus Theatre, Clapham (South London), from 9-13th May. It comprises a series of storytelling, dance, sound art and participatory artworks spaced throughout the building’s theatre and common areas. Audiences will explore individually as well as sharing group experiences, choosing what they are interested in, just like a library (which the Omnibus theatre once was).

This new work is by Seadog Theatre, a Newcastle-based company who make visually and spatially inventive and interactive work for specific audiences. Director Laura Bridges is collaborating with artists from London and the North East, including acclaimed set designer Eleanor Slade, sound designer Lucy Harrison and choreographer/performer Patricia Verity Suarez. The artists hope this experience will reinvigorate audiences’ appreciation for reading and for their local library, underlining libraries not merely as containers of books, but as live spaces where people come together to imagine.

For performance times and to book, please visit the Theatre webpage.

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Call for papers: seeking articles on Interviews and Reading

A key publication arising from the Memories of Fiction project is to be a Themed Section of the journal Participations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies. We are seeking proposals for articles to contribute to this collection.

Call for Papers: Interviews and Reading  (for a longer version click here.)

This themed section of approximately ten articles will bring together recent and current work which uses interviews to investigate reading (including books, newspapers, and comics, in social and individual contexts). It will bring together a series of investigations which foreground readers’ narratives.

Since the turn to ‘the reader’ in literary theory and criticism in the 1970s, scholars have increasingly used interviews to engage with the narrated experiences and memories of ‘actual’ readers. Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance (1984) was among the first studies to use interviews to undertake an ethnographic investigation into romance reading in a Midwestern US town. Around fifteen years later Jonathan Rose reused oral history interviews from the ‘Edwardians’ project (carried out in the UK in the 1970s), along with life writing, in his research into autodidactic reading for The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (2001). In more recent projects, including ‘Scottish Readers Remember’ (2006-9), ‘Reading Sheffield’ (2010 ongoing), and ‘Memories of Fiction’ (2014 ongoing), collecting oral histories has grown in importance as a way of researching readers and reading.

In their use of interviews and engagement with ‘everyday’ readers, researchers of reading have participated in the wider use of interviews across reception studies, in many cases as part of an ethnographic approach to audiences, including viewers, listeners, and cinemagoers. Yet the significance of interviews in the study of reading – and indeed more widely in reception and audience studies – is rarely discussed, a gap which this themed section of Participations will address.

This themed section will discuss what can be gleaned from different approaches to collecting and analyzing readers’ talk about reading. We want articles to offer case studies that illustrate the advantages and limits of particular interview-centred approaches in collection and analysis, and which could help to inform how interviews are used broadly across reception and audience studies. Suggested topics include:

  • Reuse of interviews intended for other purposes
  • Interviews as spoken dialogue and collaboration
  • Self-reflexivity in interviewing
  • Diverse models of interviewing – e.g. interviews by email; group interviews
  • Use of interviews alongside written documents / mixed methods
  • Memory
  • Intersubjectivity
  • Materialities of text
  • Everyday reading

Co-edited by Shelley Trower (University of Roehampton), Amy Tooth Murphy (Royal Holloway), Graham Smith (Newcastle University)

Please submit proposals of between 300-500 words, along with a one page CV (including relevant publications) by Friday March 23rd, to the editors via Shelley.Trower@roehampton.ac.uk

The final publication date will be November 2019

Theatre library

I’m delighted to announce our next event to take place this coming May: We’re going to take over the Omnibus Theatre building in Clapham, with a ‘library’ of varied performance spaces, all relating to how vitally libraries and reading shape our lives. The material will come from the oral histories created with reading group members about what they remembered and valued about reading. One of the key emerging themes was the importance of libraries as unique cultural and social spaces, offering ‘comfort, discovery, self-definition and salvation’. So to get the messages out there, we’re going to use the text and audio material as the basis for all the pieces, all in different forms, to give people a variety of theatre experiences (storytelling, monologues, video pieces, etc), just like books with different genres.

Outside-of-building-New-Cropped1It’s being produced by an experienced and inspiring producer and director, Laura Bridges, and will be part of the theatre’s storytelling festival. As an old library, the Omnibus Theatre is the perfect space for it! More information will become available as the project develops, but for now if you’re interested please take a note in your diaries: 9-12 May 2018.

 

 

“Standing in front of the adult shelves”: LGBTQ adults’ memories of libraries

A blog post by Sarah Pyke

“Living opposite the library saved me”, Carol tells me in our first interview, “completely saved me.” A clever, working-class girl growing up in 1960s South London, Carol read partly to escape an unhappy home life: “I read my way out of insanity […] to keep it together really.” As a child, she visited the library “literally every day.” For Jo, the library was a place of “comfort”: it had “a carpet. Colours. Comfy chairs” as well as “lots and lots and lots and lots of books.” Amy remembers the mobile library van that visited her rural Scottish primary school in the mid-to-late 1980s and early nineties. “That van had a lot of promise,” she explains. “It was very exciting […] Like, what can I find in here?” [1].

Carol and Amy identify as lesbians, and have done since young adulthood; Jo is a bisexual transwoman in her mid-sixties who came out in late middle age. Their recollections are just three examples from the oral histories of books and reading I’ve gathered from self-identified LGBTQ adults, in which the library figures as a crucial site of refuge, exploration, self-definition – even salvation.

Dulwich Library

LGBT section, Dulwich Library, 2017. Image credit: Sarah Pyke.

The library has historically fostered specific pleasures – and frustrations – for the LGBTQ reader. On first hearing “lesbian” as a teenager in 1945, Sandy Kern “ran to the library … and looked up the word lesbian and I felt so proud of myself” [2]. Some sixty years later, I circled two small shelves in my local library, then carefully labelled “Lesbian and Gay”. Eventually, I plucked up the courage to pick up a book, then to take one out. For the curious and questioning, those bent on carrying out what Doris Lunden refers to in another oral historical account as “the research that I think has been done by so many lesbians throughout history”, the library is a vital portal [3].

The “comfort” of the library can also be derived from its rules and systems, an ordering of the otherwise chaotic or unstable. Another of my narrators, Mary – a gay woman in her mid-forties – recalls her bafflement, on the cusp of adolescence, “standing in front of the adult shelves, going how do you decide what to read? How do you negotiate it?” At a similar age, Carol, like the teenage protagonist in Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), “started at the As and worked my way through.”

Yet for my narrators, and for other LGBTQ readers, this negotiation of the “adult shelves” can be a particularly delicate or risky business. Looking up “homosexuality” in the dictionary for the first time, Vince Mancino, interviewed by Kath Weston, “took the book and brought it into my room and I hid the dictionary”. For Mancino, there is something dangerously revealing about the circulation of the term “homosexuality” in print; “it was as if”, he says, “I had been found out […] as if I had always known the definition; now I knew the term” [4].

Not only are issues of sexual self-definition and textual definition often bound together, but reading is inescapably a social act. To read – particularly in a public library, subject to the scrutiny of others – is also to be read. “Friends of mine from an earlier generation who were interested in investigating sexuality and sexual identity”, commented Johanna Drucker during the AHRC “Books and the Human” debate held at Central Saint Martins, London, in December 2015, “were timid about going to the section of the library where the books were stored on the shelf.” For the LGBTQ reader, the relations between books and bodies, both so often socially and culturally circumscribed, can be peculiarly charged.

After watching a TV adaptation of Quentin Crisp’s 1968 memoir The Naked Civil Servant aired in the mid-1970s and experiencing “really strange feelings”, Tony, interviewed for the Hall-Carpenter archive of gay and lesbian life stories, “had to read that book. It became an obsession.” Locating it in his local library, however, he “found that it was on the reserved stock list. So it became impossible to get out […] Because it meant I would have to ask for it”. For Tony, his sexuality was – quite literally – unspeakable. “In the end”, he explains, he “wrote a little note to the librarian” and passed it, in silence, across the counter.

To read Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928) as a teenager in 1950s America, “you had to go to the locked room in the college library and explain why you wanted it”, says science fiction writer Joanna Russ – “a requirement”, she points out, “that effectively prevented me from getting within a mile of it” [5]. Kath Weston recalls her own “raid on the college library” during which she “uncovered” a copy of Violette Leduc’s 1966 “boarding school romance” Therese et Isabelle. “Hands shaking”, Weston checked out the book with “a borrowed library card” [6].

The_Well_Of_Loneliness_by_Radclyffe_Hall_-_Permabooks_P112_1951

The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall (Permabooks, 1951), via Wikimedia Commons.

A few years after his hesitant encounter with Crisp’s memoir, Tony also turned his attention to Hall’s notorious novel. Once again, the book was on the reserved stock list, but this time he requested it without embarrassment. “It had last been taken out in 1953. This is in a local library, in Salford,” he explains. “And, I mean, I’m talking now about 1983 or ‘84, so it’s thirty years since anybody had ever had The Well of Loneliness, from that particular library.” Brought into suggestive conjunction with the body of the reader, Tony’s phrasing invites a consideration of the book as an object to be touched and held.

Andy, a gay man in his fifties, remembers during a conversation with me “the yellowed pages and the smell of library books and where I was when I read them”; these are tactile, sensory objects, invitingly material things of paper, ink and glue. While Tony conjures the last imagined reader who “had” The Well of Loneliness, “some lesbian who lived in Swinton in the fifties”, for Andy too, libraries create moments of community and connection with other bodies, other readers: “going into [the library] and getting [the book] and reading it, and knowing other people had read it, and being able to look at the date stamps and see approximately when they’d read it.” These are the “intimacies”, as Leah Price observes, established “even between strangers who handle the same piece of paper, unbeknownst to one another” [7].

“When the book was put back,” Tony continues, “they put it back on the shelves, not in the reserved stock list.” The new positioning of Hall’s novel is both a significant political act in its own right, and a metaphor for Tony’s own ‘coming out’, as the object of the book and the subject of the reader overlap and mesh. In, as he triumphantly puts it, “liberating Radclyffe Hall” – making the book visible, accessible and public, bringing it out of the ‘closet’ of the reserved stock list and onto the general shelves – Tony reflects his own increased confidence in living openly as a gay man.

In carrying out this research, it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that libraries hold stories which proliferate beyond the classified and shelved: stories of confusion, fear and shame, yes, but also stories of connection, community, resistance, affirmation, recognition. For every locked room, reserved stock list or borrowed library card, there are those committed to upholding the library as a democratic, free, civic space – the “heroic librarians” recalled by poet Sophie Mayer in Ali Smith’s Public Library and Other Stories (2015), who displayed work by queer authors in the “small suburban library” of her childhood “even after the passage of Section 28” [8].

Oral histories provide a unique opportunity for these stories – many of which may otherwise have remained untold – to be heard, and, importantly, to be amplified to policy-makers and politicians. In the current climate of austerity, perhaps listening to, sharing and preserving what library users have to say is more necessary than ever. Silence in the library is one thing, but as the UK’s public libraries continue to be subject to punishing funding cuts, staff layoffs and local branch closures, we must not remain silent about them.

Sarah Pyke

Notes

[1] Quotations from Carol, Jo, Amy, Mary and Andy are taken from oral history interviews I carried out with them during 2015, as the PhD researcher on the Memories of Fiction project.

[2] Sandy Kern, in The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader, ed. Joan Nestle, (Boston, MA: Alyson Publications, 1992), p. 56

[3] Elly Bulkin, “An old dyke’s tale: An interview with Doris Lunden” in The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader, ed. Joan Nestle, (Boston, MA: Alyson Publications, 1992), p. 110

[4] Kath Weston, “Get Thee to a Big City: Sexual Imaginary and the Great Gay Migration.” GLQ, vol. 2, no. 3, 1995, p. 258

[5] Joanna Russ, “Introduction,” in Uranian Worlds: a reader’s guide to alternative sexuality in science fiction and fantasy, ed. Eric Garber and Lyn Paleo, (Boston, MA: Hall, 1990), pp. xxxiii–iv

[6] Kath Weston, “Get Thee to a Big City: Sexual Imaginary and the Great Gay Migration.” GLQ, vol. 2, no. 3, 1995, p. 259

[7] Leah Price, How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain, (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012), p. 12-13

[8] Ali Smith, Public Library and Other Stories, (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2015), pp. 75-6

Remembering children’s books and libraries – a report

It was a privilege to participate in two recent events at Putney and Balham libraries on 31 May and 7 June 2017 as part of Wandsworth Heritage Festival.

Pic of book display left

Some of the books displayed from Wandsworth’s Children’s Books collection

At Putney, it was delightful to see the range of early children’s books selected by children’s librarian Ferelith Hordon, from fairytales to Enid Blyton and many, many more. Ferelith is a font of knowledge on children’s books and also shared some of her own memories, while it was also very interesting to hear memories and comments from the audience. Special thanks to Ferelith and to Diane Norman who brought in a few of her own books, such as Heidi (see image below). It was also a good chance to talk about the memories we’ve gathered through the project’s interviews, of children’s books ranging from The Hungry Caterpillar and Alice in Wonderland to Blyton’s (the most frequently recalled books, by about half of the people we talked to, were Blyton’s). In particular, I talked about how people remember scenes of reading at least as much as the content of what they read, as where Alison Barton remembered her dad theatrically reading Alice, and Sandra Newnham recalls sitting on the bus with her nana and a board book. We also took a look at Strewwelpeter (translated Shock Headed Peter), a book recalled by Johanna Williams, who rightly describes it as ‘very gruesome’: its moralistic stories include the boy who sucked his thumbs and had them cut off.

Pic of Heidi

Diane Norman with Heidi and photograph of herself as a child with the book.

At Balham there was much enthusiasm for libraries! We have found that people value libraries as public spaces as well as sources of books (as reported in earlier blost posts on this website; see below). Libraries have helped people to get through difficult periods of childhood, for example, while they provide places to study, enabling older children and young adults to get the grades and opportunities they hoped for. They provide spaces for individuals to have some quiet time to think but also social spaces for reading groups to meet, and our discussion led into Alison Barton’s (librarian and book group facilitator) wonderful observations about reading groups, not least how different people experience books very differently according to their life experiences, and how peoples’ initial reactions to a book can be completely changed by what others say about it. It was also fantastic to hear the discussion amongst everybody who came along, to hear a range of memories and thoughts about libraries, including Pat Kahn’s childhood memory of living across the road from a library which offered her a hugely exciting sense of independence, freedom and discovery.

I will next be writing a post to contribute to the Libraries Taskforce website (now posted here). We are keen to use all this material to help support the case for libraries and to inform how libraries continue in future.

Thanks again for all your contributions, and also to those who have commented on various posts.

 

 

Libraries

Just a quick post to thank all who came to the events at Putney and Balham library. The discussions were very enjoyable and informative indeed.  Just back from a trip to Victoria in Canada to the annual conference held by the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing, and now about to go on annual leave for a week, so I haven’t a chance to report further right now but look forward to doing so in a couple of weeks!

Wandsworth Heritage Festival

Looking forward to participating in Wandsworth Heritage Festival with the two Memories of Fiction talks on 31 May and 7 June 2017:

(1) Memories of Children’s BooksWe invite you to discuss your memories of children’s books, especially as material objects: their covers, their smell, their feel. Led by Ferelith Hordon (Children’s Librarian) and Shelley Trower, and accompanied by a display from Wandsworth’s collection of early children’s books.

(2) Our Lives in Libraries. A discussion of our memories of libraries and what they mean to us, ranging from childhood to the present, from book groups to cuts and hopes for the future. Led by Alison Barton (librarian) and Shelley Trower.

The full festival programme is now available, with talks and walks and much more. Hope to see you there!

Public discussions and archive launch

Happy to announce two events this coming May and June 2017: public discussions on the topics of ‘Memories of Children’s Books‘ and ‘Our Lives in Libraries‘ as part of Wandsworth Heritage Festival in South London. The events are free, refreshments provided, and all welcome!

We’d also be delighted if you have any memories of children’s books, or libraries, to share (at the event, or in the comments below). Could you name a book you remember reading in childhood? What do you remember about that book? Can you describe a memory you have childrens_libraryinus
of visiting a library, from childhood or more recently? Can you remember any of the books you encountered there?

Also pleased to report that Memories of Fiction interviews are now available on the University of Roehampton’s project webpages (click on the ‘Archive’ tab). Thanks again to all the interviewees for their thoughts, memories, and insights into reading experiences… We look forward to further discussions in Putney and Balham libraries soon!goya_y_lucientes2c_francisco_de_-_woman_reading_to_two_children_-_google_art_project

Libraries and reading groups

It’s time to begin to foreground what readers have to say about libraries and especially their reading groups. The people we’ve interviewed have provided wonderful accounts of the rich and varied ways in which libraries can benefit our lives. We’re in the process of making more of the audio recordings available, but with our interests in reading it also seems pertinent to read, as well as listen to, what people have to say. First stop, is an extract from Jane’s interview about her library group (which was somewhat buried in the previous post):

  • Because I don’t live with somebody, and I don’t have a partner, and even when I did live with somebody, he wasn’t a reader… everything I read, I don’t discuss it with anybody. And when I was really lonely in my teens, I would read and read and read and read… I would have dreams where I was talking, I was talking about books and talking about what I was reading, and I just was so, starved of anybody to discuss what I was reading, or comment on it, or, so, I think reading for me has become just a very, very solitary thing, which is why the book group amuses me immensely. I love it, I just love it…  I’ve palled up with a couple of the people, just in a quiet way, but that’s a sort of nice way of meeting people, and you kind of, you listen to what they’ve got to say about the books, and I just think it’s really, a really nice thing to do… and people are very caring. There’s an elderly lady who’s very ill, and people are very very caring, and trying to see if they can get her in the car to get her to come, and they always make sure she’s got the book, and people obviously help each other…
  • I’d fight on the barricades to keep the libraries open, but there’s rumours they’re going to knock that one down… Libraries are now the only free places that people can go, aren’t they. I mean where else can you go? You can’t go anywhere else that’s free. Nowhere. Shopping malls. That’s all… The main Battersea library has got the most beautiful reference library, and now, at this time of year, every – with the lovely old desks – it is chock-a-block with students revising… I think people should know that, that young people, who haven’t got room to study in their flats, I mean it is absolutely packed at this time of year.

Anonymous:

  • [Asked about her reading group:] It kind of reignited my interest in reading, because I hadn’t really read properly apart from magazines and stuff for maybe years… I love, I just love the bond that we have… and I think that it would be hard to leave, I think we still enjoy reading, so we enjoy it all. That’s something that’s important for me anyway, and that’s my date, you know… I have to be there regardless, unless I’m going on holiday or something, I’ve got to be there.

Audrey Bishop

  • Though I go to the library now, I never went to the library before I joined the reading group, not very often anyway… I was at work full-time, so for a long time I didn’t go anywhere very much. And as I say, until I was 74 I never went to the cinema on my own. I never went anywhere on my own. And it’s actually the knitting group [also at the library] and the reading group have made such a difference to me. I’ve made friends with people.

For the full interview with Audrey click the following link (the extract is around 1 hour 27 minutes into the first interview): www.roehampton.ac.uk/research-centres/memories-of-fiction/archive/audrey/

We’re in the process of tidying up and making more interviews available online.

We will continue to bring together experiences and memories of libraries, not least for a discussion at Wandsworth Heritage Festival in late May or early June which is in currently being organised. More soon!