Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Connected Readers: Reading Practices and Communities across the British Empire, c. 1890-1930

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posted on 2021-11-15, 05:26 authored by Liebich, Susann

The thesis is a study of reading practices and communities across various sites of the British Empire between 1890-1930, a period marked by near universal literacy levels and affordable, mass print production. It draws on the extensive archive of Fred Barkas (1854-1932), an English-born New Zealand resident, whose reading and writing has left a uniquely rich record of reading practices over a forty-year period, and the records of other individual and group readers in Canada, Britain and Australia. As a social history of reading, the study explores how reading shaped personal relationships, fashioned individual and collective identities, and contributed to the processes of community formation, locally and across space. The remarkable depth of Barkas's records allows an examination of how a reader situated in a provincial centre on the outskirts of empire could be at the "centre" of a British reading world. Barkas's records are supplemented by library records, by the minute books and scrapbooks of the Canadian reader Margaret McMicking (1849-1944) and the Victoria Literary Society, B.C., and by the publications of the National and the Australasian Home Reading Union, active in the British Empire between 1889 and 1930. Like Barkas, McMicking and members of the Home Reading movement participated in a social world of reading that was simultaneously defined by local specifics and by imperial connections. The study considers reading within a variety of spaces, times and social environments. The discussion leads from an exploration of local reading networks in Timaru which connected in a number of spaces, to a particular place of reading: the Timaru Public Library. Reading, and writing about reading, was central to Fred Barkas‘s relationship with his daughter Mary. Mary lived in England for most of her adult life from 1913; the lengthy and detailed correspondence between Fred and Mary provides a basis for the exploration of reading in a family intimacy spanning space and time. Group reading cultures are discussed through Barkas's involvement with several reading and discussion groups in Timaru, and McMicking's membership in the Victoria Literary Society in British Columbia. These local reading groups were embedded in existing associational cultures and constituted important spaces for sociability within prevailing notions about class and gender. The empire-wide Home Reading movement addressed concerns about the right kind of reading, stressing in particular the importance of reading in circles. The Union extended the debate about reading to notions of citizenship of nation and empire, a responsibility especially emphasized during World War One. During the war, civilians in different sites across the empire used their reading for information as well as escape, and reading turned into a mechanism to cope with heightened anxiety. A diversity of reading practices is evident across these spaces and included reading that was variously entertaining, recreational, productive, instructive, informative, social and solitary. Connections to other readers influenced the choice of reading material and reading practice. Reading alone and silently, reading out loud at group meetings or with friends, taking notes, reflecting on reading in writing, re-reading texts, and discussing one's reading in writing or talk with others all contributed to reading cultures that were highly social. The thesis argues that in order to understand the place of reading in specific localities and in the wider British Empire in this period, we need to train our gaze simultaneously on the local and on the imperial, and move beneath and beyond national histories of reading. The readers in this study connected to places outside their local communities, and to a larger reading world not only through what they read but how they read. Recent scholarship on the new imperialism has emphasized the notion of the British Empire as a "web" – a set of networks facilitating the flow of people, goods and ideas across the empire. Print and other forms of the written word formed an important part of this movement and exchange. Reading material and suggestions for reading flowed back and forth, books were bought and shipped as commercial goods, were sent as gifts in private mail, or lent to other readers within existing networks. Across the lines of connections, discussion about reading flowed profusely in newspapers, journals, NHRU magazines and letters. This study offers insights into the ways in which reading and reading practices operated across the webs of empire.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations


Macdonald, Charlotte; Shep, Sydney