17 Mar 2011

Open University unlocks reading experiences from five centuries

Ever wondered what other authors thought of Jane Austen, or how generations of readers have responded to Robinson Crusoe? The Open University has just re-launched the UK Reading Experience Database (RED), which provides fascinating insight into the habits and practices of British readers during the period from 1450 to 1945.

This rich resource is freely available to anyone interested in how and what readers in the past read, and how they reacted to what they read. Mark Twain, for example, was no admirer of Jane Austen: “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice”, he said, “I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone!” The Victorian novelist Anne Thackeray Ritchie disagreed, describing Austen as the “friend who has [...] charmed away dull hours, created neighbours and companions for us in lonely places”.

The RED project started in 1996, and was awarded a major grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) over three years, from 2006 to 2009. Extra funding from the AHRC under the Digital Equipment and Database Enhancement for Impact Scheme in 2010 has enabled further collaboration between the UK RED and partner reading experience database projects in Australia, Canada, the Netherlands and New Zealand.

Professor Bob Owens, Lead Investigator and Professor of English Literature at The Open University, explains that RED defines a reading experience as “an engagement with a text beyond simple possession of it, and the evidence for the engagement could be in the form of comments in diaries or letters, or even marginalia scribbled in books themselves”.

Many famous readers are included in RED (such as Charles Dickens, Jane Austen or Robert Louis Stevenson), but the experiences of ordinary readers are equally valuable to the project. The collection has over 30,000 entries, making it possible to find out, for example, what servants in the eighteenth century were reading, or what people read during World War Two.

“The information in UK RED will help to uncover broader trends or patterns in reading practices as well as allowing us to chart the reception of famous books and authors through history. It also makes it possible for readers of today to compare their own reading to that of people in the past,” Professor Owens concluded.

UK RED is free to access and is committed to building and sharing knowledge. Contributions from members of the public are encouraged. For further information, please see link (right).

Editor’s Notes
1. The research team is led by Professor Bob Owens. Other researchers from the Faculty of Arts at The Open University are Dr Rosalind Crone, Dr Shafquat Towheed and Dr Edmund King. Researchers from outside The Open University who have contributed to the project include Professor Simon Eliot, University of London; Dr Stephen Colclough, Bangor University; Dr Katie Halsey, University of Stirling; Dr Mary Hammond, Southampton University; Professor Alexis Weedon, University of Bedfordshire.

The external research partners are: Griffith University, Queensland, Australia; Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, Canada; University of Utrecht, The Netherlands; Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

2. ‘Developing an International Digital Network in the History of Reading: collaboration between the UK Reading Experience Database and international partners’ has received £100,778 from the AHRC under the Digital Equipment and Database Enhancement for Impact (DEDEFI) scheme. The 12-month project started on 1 March 2010. Details available at:

3. The Open University climbed 23 places to 43rd in the UK’s last Research Assessment Exercise (RAE 2008), securing a place in the UK’s top 50 higher education institutions. Results showed that more than 50% of the University’s research is internationally excellent (3*), with a significant proportion world-leading (4*).

The Open University is the UK’s largest university and the world leader in distance education, and celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2009. It has more than 200,000 students in over 40 countries. Of these, some 1,300 are postgraduate research students.

The latest edition of the Open University’s Research Highlights brochure can be downloaded from:

Open Research Online (ORO), the University’s freely accessible repository of research publications, is available at: ORO has around 35,000 visitors from over 170 different countries each month, and is currently ranked the fourth best higher education repository in the UK by the Registry of Open Access Repositories (ROAR).

4. The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC): Each year the AHRC provides approximately £112 million from the Government to support research and postgraduate study in the arts and humanities, from languages and law, archaeology and English literature to design and creative and performing arts. In any one year, the AHRC makes approximately 700 research awards and around 1,300 postgraduate awards. Awards are made after a rigorous peer review process, to ensure that only applications of the highest quality are funded. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK.

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