Working at a university, I’m bound to think libraries are pretty useful. In my year on maternity leave, I’ve been reminded of their value not only to gather books and information, but also as spaces for children among many other people at different times of life, doing different things. I’ve taken my baby to the singing group at my local library, and on rainy, tired days, the library is there to dive into, where my oldest child loves digging out books for us to read on the carpet. More than just getting through the day, we encounter a whole lot of books we wouldn’t otherwise have come across, opening our minds to new stories, to new ways of thinking and imagining and new kinds of knowledge. And that’s all before we’ve even borrowed any to take home.img_1069-2

These trips to the library have been reminders of our project, and when I’ve had a moment I’ve sometimes listened to the interviews and book group discussions carried out over the last two years. Many of the readers point out that it’s through their library-based reading groups that they encounter books they’d not otherwise have known about or got around to reading, and that these have been enlightening, surprising, enjoyable, providing experiences beyond one’s own very limited world. We’re keen to begin to make use of the insightful and fascinating things people have said, and with the closure of many public libraries, and the threatened closure of many more, it seems important to prioritise this issue. We’re keen to support the campaign for libraries, to help make a case for why libraries matter.

As the interviews illustrate, libraries are not just places where you borrow books. Nowadays, with so much to read on the internet, with cheap books on Amazon, it’s easy to imagine they’re becoming redundant, but while the availability of books continues to be important, libraries also serve many other purposes and needs. One point that comes across again and again in the interviews, is how libraries provide a space for people to spend time in, browsing, sitting, thinking, reading, away from everyday concerns. When Jane moved to London as a child, for example, she says she was ‘saved by Roehampton library’, where she spent much time reading. Reading has provided an escape, helped to fill empty time and to evade loneliness. As for many others, books have become ‘old friends’. Ferelith would spend hours in an Edinburgh library discovering a great range of books, which surely led to her career as a childrens’ librarian. For Julie and others, school libraries were ‘fantastic’, providing access to a wealth of reading material and helping to educate. Libraries provide spaces for discovery, for relaxation, a time for quiet, for opening your mind.

Beyond individual lives, libraries are home to numerous reading groups, providing a social space where people can talk about books and forge new communities. Jane has felt welcomed to her reading group, which she finds ‘very very caring’ and a great community to be part of. For Audrey, her local reading group introduced her to the local library and has made a great difference to her life. She never used to go out on her own and is now more confident, also making new friends.

The interviews provide a wealth of material that illustrates the importance of libraries. This blog post does not do justice to the words of Jane and the others. We look forward to the next stages of the project, which include plans to make the interviews themselves more fully available. For now, for a sample of extracts from an interview containing a passionate account of libraries and library groups, please click here.

We will also be organising a series of public talks in libraries in 2017. Watch this space!


Update and conference report

Just a quick post to explain why it’s been quiet around here lately: two members of the project team, Shelley and Amy, are on parental leave. We look forward to returning in December (Shelley) and February (Amy).

In the meantime, here’s a report on the recent Oral History Society conference, ‘Beyond Text in the Digital Age? Oral History, Images and the Written Word’, which the AHRC and Memories of Fiction project helped support. Some great papers from Mary Grover, Sarah Pyke (another project team member), and others on oral histories of reading, and also a wealth of other talks and topics responding excellently to the conference themes. Thanks to all involved.

Fully funded PhD studentship available – apply now

The Memories of Fiction project is delighted to announce a fully-funded 3-year postgraduate research studentship at the University of Roehampton, and based in the English and Creative Writing Dept. Proposals that can link in with the Memories of Fiction project are particularly welcome. Such proposals might relate to one or more of the following areas: reading, memory, oral history, life writing, voice/writing, book studies.

Full details and info on how to apply can be found here
Please note that the deadline is 31st August.

Find out more about English and Creative Writing at the University of Roehampton here.

Listen Now: ‘Experiments in Rereading: Childist Criticism and Bibliomemoir’, Dr Alison Waller

This month we kicked off the new year in style, with the first Reading, Writing and Memory Research Seminar of 2016. Roehampton’s own Dr Alison Waller spoke on ‘Experiments in Rereading: Childist Criticism and Bibliomemoir’. You can listen to Alison’s talk below.

Alison is Senior Lecturer at the University of Roehampton and member of the National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature (NCRCL). She has research interests in adolescence and young adult fiction, and her first book was Constructions of Adolescence in Fantastic Realism (Routledge: 2009). She has also written articles on Robert Cormier, JD Salinger, and Philip Pullman, edited the New Casebook on Melvin Burgess (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and recently co-edited a special issue on Margaret Mahy for The Lion and the Unicorn (2015). She was involved in organising the AHRC-funded Memory Network project at Roehampton and is on the advisory board for the Memories of Fiction project. She is currently writing a monograph called The Poetics of Rereading Childhood Books, which investigates adult memories of early reading.

‘When Hugh Crago mused in an article in Signal in 1979 ‘whether it could be useful if I, and some others, were to set down what we do recall about our reading habits in childhood’ he was a relatively lone voice representing an interest in autobibliography in the field of children’s literature. In the years following, autobibliography – or bibliomemoir – has become an increasingly visible and valid methodology for exploring questions about childhood reading, with critics and popular writers examining their own youthful reading histories from a variety of perspectives and for multiple purposes. In this paper, I focus particularly on the practice of rereading in autobibliographical criticism and in the boom of contemporary bibliomemoirs, exploring what adult voices can tell us about early reading experiences by reflecting on childhood books they have returned to later in life. This alternative ‘childist criticism’ raises new issues and reflects a range of assumptions about children and their personal reading, and in this paper I will set out some of the patterns of ‘compliance’ and ‘resistance’ that can be observed in accounts of rereading such as Francis Spufford’s The Child that Books Built (2002), Rick Gekoski’s Outside of a Dog (2009), and Patricia Meyer Spacks’ On Rereading (2011).’



Our first Reading Group meeting

The reader of novels differs from those who immerse themselves in a poem or follow the course of a play. Above all, he is alone, unlike the member of an audience, but also unlike someone reading a poem. The former has subsided into the crowd and shares its response, while the latter is willing to turn into a partner and lend his voice to the poem. The novel reader is alone and remains so for a good while. Moreover, in his solitude he takes possession of his material in a more jealous and exclusive way than the other two.

When Walter Benjamin wrote these words in the Ibizan spring of 1933, the spread of popular reading groups was sometime in the future.[1] It is estimated, for example, that in 2015 there are at least 10,000 reading groups in libraries in England and Wales alone. There are even online sites such as that can help identify local groups for those seeking to join in the fun. Last week two of the Memories of Fiction (MoF) team met with members of one of those library reading groups While Amy had met most of the participants before, this was my first chance to begin to get to know the readers behind MoF.

What an interesting bunch they turned out to be. And what a great start to the second phase of our project.


Members of the Reading Group were not keen on Science Fiction or Fantasy

Our research depends on the enthusiasm and willingness of people not only to take part, but also to actively contribute their ideas. Therefore, the first thing to say is a large thank you to the nine who came along and spoke so passionately about reading. This was our first venture in working with a group of readers and it has provided the MoF project with some rich insights.

Researchers almost always base a study on a hunch. Sometimes we might already know the answer, but often we only have a vague idea of what questions we might ask. All right, we try to build on earlier research and winning a grant from a research council (thank you again AHRC) involves a great deal of reading, preparation and thought. However, in trying to find something new and using novel methods to do the work takes a bit of faith that it will all turn out all right. As researchers, we also need to be open to refining and in some cases rethink our initial research questions and hypotheses. This is a roundabout way of saying that new research is scary. However, working with the group last week was not only pleasurable but also illuminating.

The areas that we now know that we can explore include how people recall past group interactions and individual contributions. The ways in which particular books seem to stick in memory while others are almost forgotten. We were particularly interested in hearing not only how people bring their experiences and cultural perspectives to a group, but also the ways in which discussing reading provides individuals with new personal resources. Then there are the memories of reading group tastes and how they are negotiated and changed.

How much pleasure these readers are having when they emerge from their solitary reading and meet together to remember their absorption. I strongly suspect that Walter Benjamin would have approved.

Graham Smith

[1] Thanks to George Severs for kindly bringing this piece to my attention. Benjamin originally published it in the Frankfurter Zeitung under the pseudonym Detlef Holz. Republished as ‘By the Fireside’ in the New Left Review, November/December 2015, 53-57.

Project news and call for papers

A quick update with the latest, to say that having carried out all the interviews, the summaries are now also complete, and we’re in the process of putting them on the University of Roehampton project website.

We’re also looking forward to the next project event at the Institute of Historical Research at Senate House, London, where we’ll be giving our talk on ‘Memories of Fiction’ and gendered reading in ‘100 Families’. All welcome, and more information here.

Finally, for now, we want to publicise the call for papers currently out, for the Oral History Society conference we’re involved in organising, ‘Beyond Text in the Digital Age? Oral History, Images, and the Written Word’. Proposals for papers are very welcome – please submit an abstract of 250 words or less by 18 December. We’re especially keen to hear about oral history and reading… Please spread the word!

Project news

Having started the oral history interviews last October, we’ve now met with seven reading groups from the Wandsworth area from whom we’ve talked with a total of 25 people. We wish to thank all the reading groups for making us welcome and for fascinating discussions and insights, and especially those who have volunteered to talk further. Each person agreed to be interviewed twice so we’ve gathered a great range of in-depth conversations about reading, and many of these interviews are now being made available on the University of Roehampton project website. I wish to thank Amy for all the thought and work she has put into carrying out the interviews with great skill, and the two excellent archive administrators, Alison Chand and Haley Moyse Fenning, who are completing interview summaries, listing all authors and books mentioned, for example, which are also available on the website to help navigate the interviews.

We are also involved in organising the next Oral History Society conference, to be held at the University of Roehampton 8-9 July 2016, entitled ‘Beyond Text in the Digital Age? Oral History, Images and the Written Word’. The Call for Papers is now available for which proposals for papers, panels, presentations, workshops, posters and displays are very welcome. We’re delighted to have the following keynote speakers offering talks at the conference: Mary Larson (Oklahoma State University), Alessandro Portelli (University of Rome), and Anne Valk (Brown University).

In other news, we’re happy to have been invited to speak about the project for the Oral History Society seminar series at the Institute of Historical Research on Thursday 5 November, and at the University of Bournemouth on Wednesday 11 November. Our talks for both occasions will be entitled ‘“She used to get lost in a book”: Approaching gendered reading through two archives (Memories of Fiction and 100 Families)’. For these talks we will introduce our project and discuss the article we’ve been working on, aimed at the Oral History journal. For this article we’ve revisited a large oral history project on which Graham Smith was a major contributor in the 1980s, called 100 FamiliesIn contrast to our project where we are seeking out people with a clear interest in reading (members of reading groups), these interviewees rarely identify as ‘readers’ and give us a chance to explore how reading plays a role across a range of generations and social classes. The topic of reading is a relatively small part of the 100 Families interviews: just a few of the many questions concern reading – eg. asking whether there were books in the house as a child and whether parents read to children. We’ve used NVivo to analyse these interview transcripts and will discuss how such a programme can be used to analyse such material, with a focus on reading and gender as a detailed case study.

Listen now: Podcast by Dr Gill Partington, ‘Taking it Literally: Mae Brussell and the Misreading of Fiction’

We were delighted to welcome Dr Gill Partington (Birkbeck, University of London) to speak as part of our Memories of Fiction seminar series in March this year. Gill is a member of Birkbeck’s Material Texts Network and has co-convened various network symposia, including most recently Perversions of Paper (2014).We’re very happy to say that Gill’s paper, ‘Taking it Literally: Mae Brussell and the Misreading of Fiction’ is now available to listen to here in full.

“On 16th March 1979 the radio talk show host Mae Brussell recounted reading a book whose contents provoked a violent, visceral reaction, making her nauseous and faint. The book in question was Alternative 3, an exposé of a sinister global plot at the highest levels. It was also, however, a spoof: a work of fiction, whose contents she misrecognised and quoted to her listeners as factual information. This talk examines her retrospective accounts of reading, concentrating on how her interpretations of Alternative 3 and other texts negotiate a complex and shifting boundary between fiction and non-fiction.”

 * Please note that the recording level is low in places so it is advised to turn your speakers up to full volume.


Listen now: Podcast by Dr Shafquat Towheed, ‘Evidence from the UK Reading Experience Database’

Dr Shafquat Towheed is Director of the Reading Experience Database (RED), an open access database and research project housed in the English Department of the Open University. It is the largest resource recording the experiences of readers of its kind anywhere. UK RED has amassed over 30,000 records of reading experiences of British subjects, both at home and abroad, and of visitors to the British Isles, between 1450 and 1945. On 8th February 2015 Dr Towheed presented a paper on the work of RED at the University of Roehampton, as part of the Memories of Fiction seminar series. We’re delighted to offer this talk as a podcast here, in its entirety. See below for an overview of Shaf’s paper.

‘Synchronous vs. remembered reading: evidence from the UK Reading Experience Database, 1450-1945 (UK RED)’
With over 31,000 records, the UK Reading Experience Database, 1450-1945 (UK RED) is the world’s largest single dedicated repository of the experiences of readers in the past. It catalogues the experiences of British readers at home and abroad (and visitors to Britain) over five centuries. Within the database there is considerable recoverable information about when a reading experience and also when it was recorded. While much evidence of reading is recorded at the time or soon after, significant sources rich in evidence of reading (such as memoirs, edited travel journals and autobiographies) are by their very nature, retrospective accounts of remembered reading.  This talk is in two parts: the first half explains how members of the Reading Experience Database team gather data, how we structure and record a ‘reading experience’, and how it is displayed. Specifically, I will be focussing on the ‘when’ of reading: when did the reading take place and how can we capture, record and display this? The second half of my talk looks at some of the methodological and interpretative issues around remembered reading vs. reading that’s recorded at the time or immediately after. We have the full spread of reading evidences in UK RED – from synchronous records of reading at the time they were taking place, to reminiscences of childhood reading many years later, but we have never scrutinized or categorised this chronological variances in records – or whether indeed, they should be thought of as two different types of evidence/reading experience. Pulling out some examples from the project, I will ask whether reading at the time and remembered reading are distinct evidential categories, requiring their own tools for investigation and analysis.

PhD scholarship opportunity at the University of Roehampton

We are delighted to announce a new fully funded PhD scholarship in addition to the two PhD students already enrolled as part of this project. The successful PhD project would relate in some way to the ‘Memories of Fiction’ project. Although it could be indirect, the connection would involve at least two of the following topics: memory, reading, oral history, life stories, emotion, book studies. For more information on this and other Vice Chancellor’s Scholarships at the University of Roehampton, and for contact details, please go to and follow the link for Department of English and Creative Writing.

Deadline: midnight 5th May 2015. Please note that the competition requires details of the proposed project, so allow plenty of time to complete.

For the other PhD projects see

Possible projects may include an investigation into crossovers between oral history and literature, for example, and/or may make use of the oral history archive being created for Memories of Fiction. We will be very happy to discuss your ideas.

For enquiries and to discuss proposals please contact Dr Shelley