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The hidden history of reading – new research project opens up Europe’s book habits

From Gulliver’s Travels to Harry Potter, Pride and Prejudice to 1984 – what people have been reading for the past three centuries is under the microscope, with a new €1 million research project involving The Open University.

Revealing Europe’s reading history

21st century digital tools – including an online database and smartphone app – are being developed to uncover and analyse exactly what books readers across Europe from the 18th century to the present day have been opening. The team will uncover readers’ reviews and responses, revealing a hidden history of reading – and their findings will be available for today’s bookworms to see.

Dr Shafquat Towheed, Senior Lecturer in English, and UK Principal Investigator for the Reading Europe Advanced Data Investigation Tool (READ-IT) project, explains why reading habits from the past are relevant to today:

“We can only really understand current reading habits if we have a comparison. Changes throughout history, for instance the introduction of electricity and the advent of the internet, will have influenced and shaped how people consume books and what their responses are to them. Reading is often a shared experience – it makes you part of a group, a mind-set and a community – tens of thousands of people could be reading the same book as you at any one time, and having the same feelings that you are feeling.”

New digital tools to examine texts and artwork

The project will develop a suite of digital tools including an Open Access database, a Smartphone App and a personalised, interactive tool where people can share their own reading experiences.

The project will harvest data from existing sources including the OU’s Reading Experience Database, as Dr Towheed explains:

“The new READ-IT project builds on the success of our Reading Experience Database, which has over 34,000 records of what British readers have been consuming over five centuries. We’ll be examining the reach of different types of reading across the continent – for example was a particular author popular in one country, and not another? Was a particular genre preferred in one area of Europe? It’s going to be fascinating to uncover Europe’s reading habits from centuries ago right up to today.”

New machine learning tools will sift through millions of pages of digitised texts – including letters, biographies and memoirs – from across the continent to extract responses from readers.  The project will also develop a visual image machine learning tool, which will look at works of art to identify readers and reading activities within them.

About the project

Over the three-year period of the project, the READ-IT team will organise a range of events across Europe to test the new digital tools. The project’s funding is from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Joint Programme Initiative for Cultural Heritage.  Led by Le Mans Université (France), READ-IT brings together humanities, social sciences and information technology researchers to uncover the rich wealth of information about readers and reading across Europe from 18th century up to today. Other collaborators are: Universiteit Utrecht (Netherlands), Institute of Czech Literature of the Czech Academy of Sciences, CNRS-IRISA (France) and a specialist developer company, IN2.

Associate Partners in the UK (Queen Mary University of London), Germany, (Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz), France (Université François Rabelais, Tours) and Italy (Università degli Studi di Milano) will also be running free public engagement events.

Find out more

Read more about Dr Shafquat’s research into books.

Study arts and humanities with The Open University

Explore our free resources on Open Learn


About Author

Kath works in the Media Relations team within the Communications Unit at The Open University. She is a skilled communicator with more than 15 years’ experience working in both the public and private sectors. She has a BA (Hons) English and American Literature from University of Warwick and specialises in stories from the Faculty of Social Science, Faculty of Education and Language Studies, BBC programmes, and student stories. In her spare time Kath enjoys touring the country in her hand-painted camper van, Trevor.

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