Project using What Middletown Read

Vertical Seminar in the Humanities

This article about the seminar in digital humanities at Washington University in St. Louis features a project that makes use of the What Middletown Read database.


Writing 410 Book History Conference

On Tuesday, April 15, and Thursday, April 17, members of our class will present their research projects in a class conference. The projects are varied and interesting, and represent not only a great deal of thinking and research on the part of the writers, but also some really interesting and innovative uses of primary materials: online databases, individual records of reading, bestseller lists, etc. Each writer’s abstract is provided below.

April 15, 10:00-11:30 a.m.,USB 2230

Abby Schultz, Using the What Middletown Read Database to Explore Women’s Dictionary Reading

Dictionaries are mediums, which contain a variety of information, from proper pronunciations to popular cultural and scientific information, but in the nineteenth century dictionaries did more than simply educate those who used them. In order to discover their significance in this century, I analyzed the results of the search for “dictionary” from the What Middletown Read database. More specifically, I paid special attention to the occupational ranks of all individuals, the gender distribution of the readership, as well as the occupations and occupational ranks of females specifically. In doing so, it became evident that dictionaries played a role in improving one’s occupational rank during the nineteenth century. This went beyond occupational rank, however, as the overwhelming number of female readers suggests that there was a greater significance of reading dictionaries for female readers. As the “Cult of Domesticity” was a popular ideal of the time, females were able to read these dictionaries in order to educate themselves and move away from being occupationally defined by their husbands and fathers. Since higher education was seen as a negative for females during this period, dictionaries were one of the ways females could educate themselves and ultimately open doors for improvements in higher education for women.


Brie Winnega, Virginia Woolf and Suffrage: A Dialogue between Writer and Readers

Although some scholars have questioned Virginia Woolf’s participation in the suffrage movement by citing her as “ambivalent” (Park 120), her influence on the matter was at times indirect, but nonetheless impactful. Her essay Three Guineas is wrought with suffrage ideas and calls to action, the consequences of which can be seen in the collection of letters to Woolf from readers as well as the reviews from periodicals and scholarly journals. Evidence of the polarizing effects of Three Guineas suggests that Woolf managed to ignite an important conversation about women’s rights, bringing to light important issues and creating a sense of community amongst readers to implement Woolf’s ideas in the world.


John Donnell, The Fall and Rise of Moby Dick

Through my research I am hoping to better understand the rise and fall of Herman Melville and Moby-Dick’s fame. I am looking at sales figures and reviews of MD in Melville’s life, but my focus is primarily to clarify the period between his death and his sudden boom into literary success. This will include famous academic articles and writers who supported Melville and his work. My research has revealed that the following all contributed to the resurgence of Melville and Moby Dick: Melville’s death, the reprint of his work after his death, the admiration of his work by famous writers such as JM Barrie, and ultimately influential 20th century praises of his genius. Ideally, I would like to be able to conclude which of the four was most important to the success of Moby-Dick after Melville’s death.


Thursday, April 17 10:00-11:30 a.m., USB2230

Tim Rhein, Reading the Evidence of a Teenage Girl’s Reading on Library Thing

Access to a reader’s experience is often limited to historical characters in the past, who have left substantial records of their reading. Finding a contemporary source for such analysis is difficult, therefore limiting its implications and uses in understanding current cultural trends. Thus the reading collection of Dominica Rhein, a 15-17 year old girl in Clarkston, Michigan, is a useful source for study, as it allows us access contemporary culture through the lens of a teenager. Book reviews, ratings, and lists make it possible to examine how books are used and experienced by a given person, and what implications this might have for the wider context. I have used this data to show how the activity of recording reading changed over time for Dominica, how she can be characterized as a book-critic, and what assumptions we might draw from her proclivity for Christian Romantic Fiction. Having recorded ratings of 799 different titles, Dominica is by no means a “normal” reader. However, while this study focuses on an individual reader, its methods could be carried over to conducting analyses of popular cultural feedback such as user ratings, which give a unique lens into the everyday cultural engagement of people around the world.


Ira Brandon, Bestselling Horror Novels and Book Length: What We Can Learn from Correlations

Throughout many authors’ careers, there are many ups and downs, triumphs and failures. While there are Pulitzer, Nobel and other awards for texts, being a member of an annual bestseller list is no easy feat. Analyzing the best seller list of and, there are a number of books that surface on the list. There are common names like Stephen King, Dean Koontz and Charlaine Harris, for example, which any horror reader would expect to see on the list. But there are other names that the average reader might be confused by also. The purpose of this research project is to look deeper at the sciences behind the best seller list. Is there a magic number that reflects an author’s probability of success in the book market? Is an authors’ success directly related to an increase in book length? Looking at the number of appearances in a correlation with average page length, the results show a very low correlation between the two. Although this is the case, there are a number of patterns that arose from the data that shouldn’t be looked over. In summation the patterns show a direct relationship between the authors that appear the most and longer books and lesser appearing authors and shorter books.


Jeffrey Stehlin, John Seeley’s Expansion of Empire and Victorian Travel to India

In 1883, English historian John Robert Seeley published The Expansion of England, a series of lectures compiled at the University of Cambridge that detailed the growth of the British Empire. At the same time as the English mentality of expansion was cultivating, so too was the movement from England to India increasing. Historically, Seeley maintains a legacy as a particularly motivational speaker; however, in this paper I looked to test more concretely the influence of his writing on the movement of people between England and India. In order to make such a correlation possible, I analyzed a series of texts, including The Expansion of England, reading records of The Expansion of England, charters of enrollment at Cambridge between 1883-1885, and travel logs of movement between England and India. In cross-referencing these four sources, I was able to generate a list of individuals who both attended The University of Cambridge between 1883-1885, and traveled to India in the late 1880s. Such a connection suggests the influence of Seeley’s lectures and writing on British action, affirms the phenomenological nature of the human reading process.

What is a scholarly blog entry?

Blogging has become a legitimate scholarly activity, and a popular one!

Many bloggers, who are also scholars in various fields, attest that blogging provides them with an important platform for engaging in scholarly conversation with their peers and also for informally publishing their research. For instance, this article, “Why do academics blog?” from The Guardian (UK) reports the results of a study that found academics blog mainly about academic culture and about research, and mostly for their colleagues.

By analysing and categorising the content of these blogs, we determined that 41% largely focused on what we call academic cultural critique: comments and reflections on funding, higher education policy, office politics and academic life. Another 40% largely focused on communication and commentary about research. The remainder covered a diverse range, from academic practice, information and self-help advice to technical, teaching and career advice.

The vast majority of blogs studied used informal essay formats and straightforward reporting styles of writing, but a significant proportion (40%) also used a formal essay style, not dissimilar to academic journal articles but with less intrusive referencing. Interestingly, given the rhetoric around blogging, 73% of the content we analysed was geared for other academics, while 38% was designed for interested professional readers.

As a means for having informal discussion about scholarly topics, a blog seems like a very good medium. One blog post by Melanie Schlosser from the OSU libraries blog identifies four main reasons to blog:

  1. impact–blogs can increase the impact of a person’s work by making it accessible (through Google) to those who don’t read academic journals, which is most of us. And its informality allows a writer to tell the story behind the research, humanizing it.
  2. engagement–blogs are findable, and that means that small communities of people interested in the same topics can coalesce around blogs. Their informality can encourage friendly and helpful back-and-forth.
  3. freedom–blog posts allow a person to try out weird ideas in a low-stakes environment.
  4. improvement–improvement in writing, that is. Writing in another style and medium can improve other forms of scholarly communication.

So, those are some of the reasons scholars blog. I like to read blogs because they feel a little more human and a little more practical, offering the interested reader the opportunity to see the relevance of scholarship to life. They also seem to require less commitment than a longer article or book–they allow me to decide if I need to read the more formal version. (Often, I do!) And, finally, they allow me to interact with the blogger, to ask questions, provide feedback, or share additional resources.

So, given that blogs are an important force in academic writing, how do you write a good academic blog entry?

1. Take an inquisitive stance. Blogs are great opportunities to be exploratory and so asking questions–and attempting to answer them based on the research available to you–is a perfectly acceptable strategy in a blog entry.

2. Embrace the medium. Blogging is a visual medium and a linking medium. Your entries can take advantage of this fact by using videos, photos, and images (credited, of course!) and by linking to your sources and other interesting, related websites. You can also reblog (see my previous entry for an example).

3. Stay focused. Blog entries aren’t papers or journal articles; keep them focused and fairly short.  Saying something really interesting about a narrow topic is better than rambling over a lot of territory.

4. Open the door. Either by being very exploratory, very provocative, or simply very invitational, encourage your readers to respond to your entry with their own thoughts in the comments.

If you’ve already read a lot of scholarly blog entries, I’d be curious to know: what do you think makes for an effective scholarly blog?

Summary of Adams and Barker, “A New Model for the Study of the Book”

This blog entry, written by David J. Gary from CUNY, summarizes Adams and Barker’s article in which they present a “new model” of the communications circuit in response to the one created by Robert Darnton in his famous essay, “What is the history of books?” Gary provides a summary of each stage in the circuit: publishing, manufacture, distribution, reception, and survival. His blog, as a whole, provides summaries of some important book history texts, book reviews, and some entries on original research as well. Might be worth having a look at, to see what contemporary scholars of book history are up to.

Function Follows Forme

Thomas R. Adams and Nicolas Barker published this important article in the edited volume, A Potencie of Life: Books in Society; The Clark Lectures, 1986–1987.  It was written in response to the schematic model of the history of the book presented by Robert Darnton’s 1982 article “What is the History of Books?”  While Darnton focuses on people first and the artifact second in his trajectory of book history, Adams and Barker invert this and put the book as object at the center of their model of book history.  They focus on society’s impact on the book and not the book’s impact on society.

Instead of Darnton’s six stages (publishers, printer, shipper, bookseller, reader, author), Adams and Barker argue there are five events in the life of a book (publishing, manufacture, distribution, reception, and survival), which they place at the center of their model, and four…

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