Category Archives: Project News

Living Libraries

My last blog post for Memories of Fiction was just over a year ago, and reported that our bid for a follow-on project, Living Libraries, was successful. So we got very busy with new oral histories from the summer of 2019 to early 2020, all about public libraries across the UK. Due to the pandemic, we then shifted our planned talks and sound trails to online outputs, including soundscape collages, an audio documentary, a policy pack, and a virtual library, finishing up with a takeover during Libraries Week of Soho Radio. Thanks to Sarah Pyke for all her brilliant work on the project and to everyone else who contributed so wonderfully. If you haven’t already, I recommend a visit to


Publications and follow-on project

Among recent Memories of Fiction developments I am pleased to report our publication of an edited Themed Section, ‘Interviews and Reading’, of Participations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies 16: 1. This includes an Introduction and a selection of seven further articles about using interviews to investigate reading, including our own article about reusing interviews from the 1980s for insights into reading in families. Such reading can involve the avoidance of cleaning, cooking, and children. We are pleased that this Section forms part of a mammoth edition of Participations, as another Section, edited by Danielle Fuller and DeNel Rehberg Sedo, is all about reading and digital media. So I’d encourage you to take a look, to find a wealth of material to read about reading!

In addition, I have an article accepted for Book History: ‘Forgetting Fiction: An Oral History of Reading’. This is based on the interviews we carried out with reading groups in South London, and explores how many of us remember our experiences of reading (the enjoyment of reading, on a bus or in a library, with a parent or on one’s own, for example) rather than books themselves. It will be published next year.

Finally, I am excited that the bid for a follow-on project, ‘Living Libraries’, was successful, and so we will be embarking on further interviews in September, at five libraries across England (Falmouth, Peterborough, Chester, Newcastle, and Colliers Wood), archived by National Life Stories at the British Library. Activities will also include further Living Library installations and performances; and an audio documentary. One of the main aims of the project is to increase public awareness of the value of libraries and to improve understanding of recent changes in library provision.

Looking back and what’s next?

The Memories of Fiction project came to an end of its funded period this summer, so it seems time to reflect on some of its highlights, and to look forward to what’s next.

One of the most delightful aspects of the project was the participation of many others beyond the project team, without whom it could not have taken shape in the ways it has. We want to thank again the seven reading groups who welcomed and talked to us (at Balham, Battersea, Putney, and Roehampton libraries), and especially all those who took part in the interviews. The archive provides a wonderful wealth of reflections on reading and we are sure will continue to be of interest in years to come.

We are also very grateful to the advisory group, who contributed to the project throughout. Martyn Lyons kicked off with a seminar about the Australian Readers Remember project and ‘why we (still) need need an oral history of reading’, which provided an ideal launch. Other excellent talks were given by Shafquat Towheed, Gill Partington, and Alison Waller (podcasts here), and also at the conference organised jointly by the Oral History Society and Memories of Fiction, ‘Beyond Text in the Digital Age?’, by Mary Grover and her Reading Sheffield team. The librarians and book group facilitators Ferelith Hordon and Alison Barton also contributed brilliantly to talks about memories of children’s books, and libraries, at Putney and Balham libraries, as well as being interviewed for the project.

We are continuing to work on publications. As well as individual articles, our proposal was accepted for a Themed Section of Participations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies, to consist of approximately 8-10 articles about using interviews to investigate reading, which will be out next Spring. Literary scholars, and historians of books and reading are increasingly using oral history and other kinds of interviews, and having received many excellent proposals in response to the Call for Papers, we are optimistic that this issue of Participations will be a valuable resource for considering the methodologies of interviewing and its great potential for research in the field.

Memories of Fiction2 (CFletcher)

As well as informing the project’s talks and publications, the interviews provided the basis for the theatre production, The Living Library. This wonderful production, at London’s Omnibus Theatre in May 2018, consisted of a series of sound installations, dance, storytelling, and audience participation events. For each showing, the library first opened to allow audience members to browse the sound installations. These included a collection of children’s books, including those by Enid Blyton (most often remembered by the people we interviewed), which when opened played extracts of readers’ memories of those books. At another installation headphones allowed audience members to listen to people talking about the importance of libraries in their lives, while browsing library catalogue cards and using a library stamp to mark the titles they remembered reading. After around twenty minutes browsing in that Living Library area, the audience was ushered through to the theatre space, where, first, a dancer enacted relationships with books (such as escaping through reading) to the sound of interview monologues that gradually turned into music. It was moving to hear two stories in particular, that testified to the power of reading, in one case making it possible to survive difficult times. Finally, moving on from the individual relationships with books, the audience gathered in groups to ask each other questions (provided as prompts) over tea and biscuits, recalling reading groups and the interview situation itself.memories of Fiction6 (CFletcher) The project’s research informed the production through the interviews, and also through key themes, including the importance of reading and libraries in peoples’ lives (also reflected for example in a post for the Libraries Taskforce), how reading is remembered, and how reading is a social as well as a private activity.

I am now submitting a funding bid to the AHRC for a follow-on project, ‘Living Libraries’. If the project is funded, it will create oral histories at five libraries across England, archived by National Life Stories at the British Library; further Living Library installations and performances; and an audio documentary aimed at BBC radio. One of the main aims of the project is to increase public awareness of the value of libraries and to improve understanding of recent changes in library provision.

So I am pleased to report that Memories of Fiction is continuing in various forms, including publications and hopefully ‘Living Libraries’.

Story time

Guest post by Director, Laura Bridges

In preparing for The Living Library, I’ve spent months reading transcripts and listening to interviews with people talking about how reading has shaped their lives.

It feels like a real privilege actually to hear how profoundly books and libraries have helped different people. “Reading literally saved my life” sounds like exaggeration; to hear it said in earnest is quite a thing. I am struck again by how powerful reading is, how lucky I am to have the opportunity to read.

As a self-confessed bookworm and through my work as a Creative Associate for The National Centre for Children’s Books (Seven Stories), I know the benefits of reading for pleasure. Yet, as the interviews highlight, it can be difficult find time for reading. I certainly don’t read as much as I did when I was younger. An unexpected boon for me working on this show is that it’s given me a reason to read again. It’s like being fed something for which I didn’t realise I was even hungry.

Books that have awakened and informed me, books that have charmed and impressed me, books I’ve rediscovered I once loved in forgotten times and places.

I hoped that through the show, we would inspire people to reconnect with books. I didn’t realise it would be me! Maybe, it will be you too. Do you have time for story time?


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.

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.


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

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, 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


[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

A tale of two libraries

It is striking how different book groups organise themselves. Take, for example the two that meet in Putney and Roehampton public libraries. They seem to be alike. Both are in the London borough of Wandsworth; they are about a mile and a half apart; within walking distance of one another. They meet monthly, are overwhelming female in membership and both have professional librarians making reading suggestions and facilitating discussion. There similarities end.

Readers in the Putney Library group follow the standard practice of picking a book which they all read and then discuss. The books chosen for deliberation are usually those that have attracted positive press reviews and include novels short-listed for major literary prizes. The discussions that follow are reminiscent of university seminars. In contrast, members of the Roehampton Library group each individually select a novel to read and then discuss their choice with a view to convince fellow members that their choice of book is worth reading. Roehampton readers are much less likely to restrict themselves to fiction endorsed by recognised literary critics and commentators. While Roehampton’s reading would include science fiction, horror and historical family sagas, Putney’s would not.

Individual interviews with members of both book circles provides evidence of important variations in their past lived experiences. The Putney group are in the main retired from occupations that involved critical discussion and most recall working in some capacity or another as professional readers, including teaching. In contrast, most of Roehampton’s members have been employed in a range of unskilled or semi-skilled occupations with periods of unemployment. Some remember coming late to literacy and then making up for lost time by voraciously reading later in life.

Putney Library

Attribution (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) Mark Pack, Putney Library, 2010.

The individual life histories are in tune with statistical surveys undertaken in the Borough. Putney’s library sits at the centre of East and West Putney, with East Putney being one of the more affluent wards in England. Roehampton in contrast houses the much less well off.  Since the inter-war years Putney’s residents have been traditionally drawn from the higher professions, including today’s elite of bankers, entrepreneurs and footballers.  E.M. Forster and Nigel Williams are on the area’s long list of former and current notables. While Putney has retained its open green spaces, and remains popular with runners and cyclists, Roehampton’s once similar landscape underwent dramatic change in the twentieth century. The ward claims one of the earliest council housing developments in Britain, now called Dover House Estate as well as one of the largest housing schemes, the Alton, with 2,000 flats on 100 acres. Built by the London County Council in the 1950s, it provided the bleakly dystopian backdrop for Francois Truffaut’s 1966 film adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.[1] Thirty-two years later English Heritage awarded the scheme status and more recently the estate that still dominates Roehampton has been praised as a fine example of the British Modern Movement – or ‘New Brutalist’ school of architecture – mainly by people who don’t live there. Roehampton library sits at the edge of the estate.

Roehamption Library

Attribution  (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) Graham Smith, Roehampton Library, 2016.

The two localities are also dissimilar demographically. Published government statistics, suggest that Putney’s residents are much more likely than Roehampton’s to have been educated to a higher standard and have either retired from or continue to enjoy more secure, interesting and better paid jobs. The same source suggests that the people of Putney are also much more able to defend their public services than those living in Roehampton.[2] Unsurprisingly, in their group interviews, Putney’s readers were keen to discuss their concerns about reductions in their library provision. At the time of the interviews, the Roehampton circle were meeting around a table in the middle of the library, with other readers wandering past. This was an arrangement put to and successfully resisted by Putney’s group and instead their meetings had been relocated to the library staff’s common room.

However, it isn’t just occupation and environment that provides contrast between the two adjacent wards. The population of Putney have long enjoyed much better health than those living in Roehampton. By the second decade of the twenty-first century, official statistics were recording significant differences in life expectancy. This amounted to an additional average of 6.8 years of life for females and 8.9 years for males in least deprived areas of Wandsworth compared to the most disadvantaged.  Such variances are amongst the widest in London for both men and women, with the two most frequent underlying recorded causes of death in the under 75s being cancer and circulatory disease; mobidity patterns more prevalent amongst the less well off. [3] Little wonder that members of the Roehampton group frequently observed that ‘life’s too short’ to read a novel that cannot hold the reader’s attention; regardless of the praise it might have received from literary critics.

1969324_447325358732738_791772825_nAt a time of continuing austerity, public libraries are in danger of being perceived by politicians as a luxury. Yet, the social value of libraries and their buttressing of the public good are recurring themes in our research. No matter the groups we worked with, our libraries remain significant in the everyday lives of both the better and the less well off. As community resources in localities as diverse as Roehampton and Putney, public libraries provide space and most importantly the expertise of librarians helping in turn to promote discussion. Readers understand libraries as places where civic society can flourish. Libraries continue to be important in the production of informed citizenship. But libraries are under threat. One final point: the risk from cuts and resulting diminishment is greater to libraries in places such as Roehampton, despite the population’s more obvious need for resource and thirst for reading

Graham Smith

[1] See here for a scene from the film set on the Alton (last accessed 8th July 2017).

[2] Extracted from the Index of Deprivation are available from the UK Government Website English indices of deprivation 2015 (last accessed 8th July 2017).

[3] Wandsworth, Key messages 2014: Health inequality, (last accessed 8th July 2017).