The Reading Experience Database provides a timely home for important textual details like marginalia that reveal “a recorded engagement with a written or printed text—beyond the mere fact of possession” (“What is a ‘Reading Experience’?”). The scholarly allure of such details lies in their uniqueness; they represent the social life of texts. Whether inscribed directly onto the texts themselves or recorded elsewhere, the RED seeks to collect subjective engagements with journals, paper fragments, and individual book objects that can reveal important insights into the reading habits, moral sensibilities, and daily concerns of readers in various historical contexts. Although the RED has had an online presence since 1995 through The Open University, its purview had been restricted until recently to materials from the United Kingdom between 1450 and 1945. This past February it expanded internationally, launching partner projects in Canada, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and Australia.

In many ways, this expansion could not have arrived at a better moment. Because most mammoth digitization projects like Google Books scan only one “clean” copy of any given text to supplement their online collections, they are effectively effacing many of the physical traces of reading that are crucial for scholars working in areas like print culture and literary history. They are not destroying books after they digitize them, of course, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for scholars to gain access to older texts that have already been made available in some form online. Many old or valuable texts are preserved in Special Collections, but not everything qualifies for inclusion in these collections, particularly materials published after 1923 that are still in copyright. Further, the vast majority of books that contain marginalia and other extraneous user-data are cheap, mass-produced copies that have little value from a librarian’s point of view. As shelves continue to fill up, more and more of these cheaper, low-circulation items are being locked away in off-site storage locations, which are harder for users to access. At the same time, scholars are beginning to increasingly utilize online databases like Early English Books Online (EEBO) and 18th Century Connect for their research needs. Without databases like the RED, these interrelated developments of digitization and scholarship would soon ensure that the physical traces left by the readers of millions of books in many different countries over hundreds of years would become invisible to online search queries—and, increasingly, to more labour-intensive stack-searching in circulating collections.

The RED seeks to provide a repository of transcribed scribbles, notes, court records, memoirs, letters, diaries, and other materials that can support research into “what…people read, where and when they read it and what they thought of it” (“Reading Experience?”). Documents like these provide a glimpse into the history of reading that is not available through the “lending records from libraries, or sales records from publishers and booksellers,” which only convey information about the history of the book (Crump 28). Although currently the four partner projects are still in their planning phases and UK RED is the only fully operational database, their eventual goal is to interactively display comparative search results between the five repositories to enable scholars to, among other things, “chart the reading tastes of individual readers as they travel to other countries, and consider how different environments may have influenced their reading habits” (“Welcome to RED”). This functionality will be invaluable for scholars working in areas like transatlantic modernism and diasporic literatures, and will also dovetail nicely with other well-established online thematic research collections dedicated to internationally renowned and emulated figures, such as The Walt Whitman Archive.

Because of the extraneous nature of its targeted content, the RED, unlike many other databases on the web, encourages volunteers to record and submit primary materials. Various user-driven initiatives through online scholarly communities like NINES have been slow to get off the ground, but this attempt to attract user submissions appears more likely to succeed than previous initiatives, partly because it appeals to individuals both within and beyond academic circles. The RED represents a unique opportunity to share and ensure the preservation of materials such as obscure research notes and relatives’ journals that would otherwise sit dormant in private filing cabinets. NZ RED’s first project, “Reading in WWI,” for instance, strikes a familial, patriotic chord by aiming “to collect and analyse reading experiences by and about New Zealanders, at the front, in the trenches, on the troopships, and at home” (NZ RED). In addition to submitting more labour-intensive details about specific documents, users also have the option to contribute to RED’s wiki page, where they can make suggestions about what should be digitized.

This emphasis on user-driven submission is evident in the UK RED site’s user-friendly functionality. Next to the familiar “Browse” and “Search” options there is an “Explore” button, which provides several examples of past scholarly works that have utilized evidence from the RED, as well as a series of tutorials outlining some of the various ways one might interact with the database’s materials oneself. Browsing is clearly routed through “Readers” and “Authors,” and although there is obvious overlap, the options are distinct: if I want to see what Katherine Mansfield thought of Virginia Woolf’s short story collection, Night and Day, for example, I would “Browse by Reader” and select Mansfield. Conversely, searching for Mansfield under “Authors” reveals among other things, Woolf’s opinion of Mansfield’s story, “Bliss,” and so on. In addition to the browsing function, the basic and advanced search features from the main page provide users with both simple and highly detailed options for directing search queries.

As is, the site has two main limitations, one more pronounced than the other. The smaller limitation is that, while browsing, there is no built-in way to search or sort through the entries on any given page, besides the search function in the browser. With figures like Woolf, who has quite a few entries, this inability sometimes results in a monolithic single page of information that can only be manipulated through vertical scrolling. The larger limitation is that the content available through RED consists entirely of transcriptions; it does not provide actual scanned and OCRed images of its materials. Instead, everything is flattened into superficially coded HTML descriptions. As a result, scholars interested in visual and contextual framing details (exact location of marginalia, size and appearance of script) have to rely on the user-submitted details, which, though extensive, remain explicitly mediated. However, these weaknesses aside, and despite the fact that the usefulness of the RED will vastly increase once the four partner projects begin digitizing, UK RED already provides an invaluable resource that addresses an important niche, both in academia and the United Kingdom more generally.

Ben Gehrels
Simon Fraser University

Works Cited and Consulted

Bradley, Michael. “The Reading Experience Database.” Journal of Victorian Culture. 15.1
(Spring 2010): 151-153. Web.
Crump, M.J. “The Reading Experience Database.” Library Review. 44.6 (1995): 28-29. Web.
“Welcome to RED.” RED. 18/10/11. Web.
“What is a ‘Reading Experience’?” RED.
18/10/11. Web.
NZ RED. 18/10/11. Web.