Erica Brown works on the ‘Readerships and Literary Cultures 1900–1950′ Special Collection, a collection of fiction which reflects popular and ‘middlebrow’ literary tastes during the period 1900-1950. It currently holds over 1150 novels by about 250 authors. Many of the elderly readers whose oral histories were collected by Reading Sheffield have donated books to the collection. The aim is to create a research resource to support the study of popular fiction. It is important to preserve the physical books as the paratextual elements inform our understanding of readerships, production and reception. These novels are not systematically preserved elsewhere – university libraries have never held them, and public libraries discard novels as they fall out of fashion.
Erica has also been working with community volunteers who come to monthly reading groups at the University. They read books from the collection, discuss them, fill in a detailed cataloguing form and write book reviews. The data collected is held on Sheffield Hallam’s library catalogue and is all searchable.
The reading groups and the public events are opportunities to share knowledge and memories of reading: many of those who attend had read novels in the collection when they were young, or remember their parents reading them.
The experience of the coming to the reading groups and the process of completing the catalogue form and review have changed how the volunteers read and talk about fiction. Over the two years Erica has been running the reading groups the discussion has become steadily more analytical and informed.
A reader commented: ‘completing a catalogue form means that I am far more focused and analytical’. Another said she comes to the reading groups: ‘To have a deeper and wider discussion about the books, for example, thinking about an author’s development, the historical context and how readers at the time responded.’
One of the questions they regularly return to is: why was this book remembered or forgotten?
The project formed part of a REF Impact Case Study ‘English Popular Fiction 1900-1950 and the Reading Public’.
Erica is now planning to apply for funding to write a book using the Reading Sheffield oral histories and the Readerships Collection. She would like to work on the oral histories to combine memories of reading with detailed accounts of the production and reception of the novels they discuss.