Monday musings on Australian literature: the Australian Common Reader

The Australian Common Reader is, says its website, “a world-leading database of digitised reading records” which “contains thousands of records of library borrowers between 1860 and 1918.” Initiated by Western Australia’s Curtin University professor Tim Dolin in 2008*, it was acquired by ANU in 2013, and is managed by its Centre for Digital Humanities Research. It was officially launched two weeks ago on June 18 – a fact which was brought to my attention by Bill (The Australian Legend.) Thanks Bill.

The libraries whose circulation records are in the database include:

  • Collie Mechanics’ Institute (WA)
  • Lambton Mechanics’ and Miners’ Institute (Newcastle, NSW)
  • Maitland Institute (Yorke Peninsula, SA)
  • Port Germein Institute (regional SA)
  • Rosedale Mechanics’ Institute (Gippsland, Vic)
  • South Australian Institute (Adelaide, SA)

These are all, I understand, mechanics’ institutes (about which I’ve written before), and are mostly located in mining towns and farming communities. Although these institutes were set up to support worker education and recreation, members of the public could also join.

The database is publicly accessible, making it a rich resource, surely, for all sorts of researchers. Certainly, Dr Julieanne Lamond, who manages the project, argues that we are lucky to have it.

The database has been designed, she says, to facilitate researchers sifting through pages of records to create a picture of Australia’s borrowing and literary history. You can search the database on:

  • Borrower occupation
  • Borrower gender
  • Book title
  • Book author
  • Borrower name

This means, Lamond said, that “you can see what the local doctor or politicians were reading, what books and authors were popular, and a library’s most prolific borrowers”. As a result “we can see that doctors were borrowing more books than solicitors and butchers were reading more than engineers.” (Hmm … I’m feeling quite glad that I’m not a big library user right now! Seriously though, this is pretty fascinating.)

Charles Dicken, c1860

Dickens, c. 1860 (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Stephanie Convery, writing for The Guardian Weekly, reported on the launch and says that the records tell us, for example, that:

Australian butchers in the 19th century preferred to read thrillers, miners loved novels about horse racing, while the most popular author among doctors – and the Adelaide working class in 1861 – was Charles Dickens.

Lamond points out that the records include Mathew Charlton, one of the earliest leaders of the Australian Labor Party. He was, she says, “quite an avid reader, making a total of 264 loans over a 10-year period” and “his favourite author appears to have been Edward Phillips Oppenheim, an English novelist known for writing thrillers.” Oppenheim is, in fact, the second most borrowed author in the database.

She said that the website shows Australians were diverse in their reading habits. They read Dickens, for example, but they also read the latest magazines. They read Australian fiction, as well as overseas authors. And, probably just like now, some were avid readers, while others would “borrow the same book over and over again.”

The records show that male borrowers far exceeded women, but Lamond argues that this is probably due to the sorts of libraries they were. Interestingly, she says, the data “shows that men and women read very widely across all these kinds of genres that now we think of as being quite gendered.”

Nonetheless, the data does show some different favourites. The most popular book for women was On the wings of the wind by Welsh author Anne Adaliza Puddicombe who used the male pen name of Allen Raine. She was one of the bestselling authors of the time, apparently. Woo hoo, though, women reading women! In fact, their research shows that four of the top five works borrowed by women were written by women!

By contrast, the most popular reading for men was a weekly magazine – Household Words which was edited by Charles Dickens (and about which I have also written before.) It was specifically aimed, as I quoted in my post, at “the masses” and it intended to both entertain and “shape discussion and debate on the important social questions of the time”. I love discovering that it was, indeed, popular among the people it was created for.

Overall, Lamond, quoted by Convery, says that

“People’s reading was very diverse, much more diverse than I think most of our reading is now. These people just read incredibly widely. They were reading sporting novels and political thrillers, they were reading George Eliot and Jane Austen at the same time.”

(Hmm, is she basing this comparison regarding diversity today on any evidence? Anecdotally, and defending my era, I’d say there’s a lot of diversity in today’s reading today!)

Convey makes a few other observations, including that:

  • miners were the most abundant profession represented in the data, making up nearly 13%, with the most prolific borrower being a South Australian miner named John Pellew, who borrowed 877 books from the Port Germein Institute.
  • fiction was, overall, more borrowed than non-fiction.
  • the most popularly borrowed author was Cornish Christian novelist Joseph Hocking, reflecting, perhaps the preponderance of Cornish and Welsh miners in the borrowing communities.

Lamond hopes to obtain funding to digitise more records to broaden our insight into reading habits of the past. She notes that they don’t have good data about metropolitan reading, and that these records are not really in existence:

“The stars have to align for these kinds of records to survive because often they were run by volunteer management committees, and they sat in boxes in people’s attics; they threw them out; they burnt down – a lot of historical library records have gone up in smoke, literally.”

Don’t you hate hearing about the destruction of records?

A little example

Anyhow, of course, I had to have a little play in the database myself, so I looked at the Borrower by Occupation. They are listed in order of quantity, starting with Miners (5,666 borrowings) and ending with six occupations represented by 1 borrowing, including “Authoress” and “Tea merchant”. However, it looks like the occupations were entered “free text” and that the ANU has not tried to concatenate them in any way, so, for example, there are State School Teachers, School Teachers and School Masters (and maybe even more permutations).

Using the “visualisation” option, I found state school teacher, Frances Cairns, who borrowed 326 books, of which 318 were fiction. The author she borrowed most was Scottish author and minister, George MacDonald, but I was delighted to see that she also borrowed a book by the cheeky Australian author Elizabeth von Arnim. One of the eight non-fiction works she borrowed was Daniel Crawford’s Thinking black, which, says Wikipedia, “was recommended reading for those Europeans who wanted to work in partnership with, rather than over, Africans.” I wonder what was behind this? The visualisation option was fun, but probably more useful is the fact that you can also download spreadsheets of your searches to do further analysis.

And here I will close on this fascinating project, but do have a play if you are interested,

* Another report says that the database commenced in 2001! Who knows? Maybe both are right, and it’s a matter of defining “start”?

10 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: the Australian Common Reader

  1. Thankyou for the mention. I can’t claim much credit, the article was sent to me by a friend. I hoped you would enjoy it both as a librarian and as a delver into records. I see what you mean about privacy, the publication of these records is quite intrusive. One point about gender, I imagine that quite often there was only one membership per family, don’t you think.

    • Yes, that’s a good point about membership too, Bill.

      And yes, re privacy… Glad you got my implication. I wonder whether government library records come under archives legislation? If they do ours would, technically, be available well within our lifetimes.

  2. Re your point about contemporary diversity: surely libraries today would know which books and genres are borrowed most often, even without attaching that data to individuals. Here in Victoria all catalogues are digitally linked through Library Link (see and I guess there would be something similar in other states. It would guide their purchasing policies.
    Users can search the db using ZPortal for any title and find out holdings across the state. I use it to borrow books my library doesn’t have but I suspect that librarians can use it for lots of other data gathering as well. But even a casual user can see e.g. that there are heaps of libraries with popular titles, whereas there may be only two or three that have an older, more obscure title. (I’m thinking of A Horse of Air by Dal Stivens. It won the MF in 1970, but I borrowed it from the Campaspe Library… one of only three to have it in Victoria, and all three in regional libraries not in Melbourne.

    • Oh yes, you’re right of course, Lisa, the borrowing stats are part of what librarians use in their selection process. And, I think, when they choose their circulation/catalogue databases, the stats/info they can produce behind the scenes are an important criterion.

      Presumably some of these databases will become more “fully” available to researchers of the future?!

  3. I must have a look because this sounds fascinating. Interesting the comment about the diversity off reading matter. As you say, there is no real evidence given but remember that in the UK a hugely preponderant amount of fiction that is read (consumed?) is crime fiction. A lot of this stuff is very good but it is also a bit of a reader’s rut.

    • Thanks Ian … interesting point regarding reader’s rut. I hadn’t thought of it that way but there’s an element of truth there. I guess reading ruts are sometimes comforting when other parts of life are hard but for me variety is more interesting.

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