Reading: Harvard Views of Readers, Readership, and Reading History by Harvard University Library Open Collections Program

Gabrielle Kristjanson


Reading: Harvard Views of Readers, Readership, and Reading History. Harvard University Library Open Collections Program. Harvard Lib. 2011 Web. 1 May 2011.


Reading: Harvard Views of Readers, Readership, and Reading Historyis an easy to navigate, fairly user-friendly website and online collection of historic materials related to reading discourse and reading habits from the late 1800s and early 1900s. The site is divided into four sections (each with further subsections): Learning to Read, Reading Collectively, Reading on One’s Own and Collection Highlights. For a quick overview of what the site has to offer, Collection Highlights is the best place to start. This section features 15 selections from the collection that cover the major points of interest that Reading offers, including The Fonetic Furst Redur (1878), William Wordsworth’s Library Catalog (1829) and the manuscript of John Hancock’s Commonplace Book (1687). The majority of texts available through this collection are published in English, but there are a few published in other languages, like French, Spanish or German. However, if your interest is in texts published in languages other than English, this would not be an adequate source. Despite the limited linguistic variety of the collections, the historic relevance of texts available within this site and the sheer oddities it contains keep one clicking through each section and subsequent subsection. 

Learning to Read is further divided into three smaller sub-sections: Historic Textbooks, The Science of Reading and Missions to Native North Americans. Historic Textbooks provides links to historic grammars, primers, readers, reading instruction manuals, spellers and textbooks used for reading instruction. This collection would be of value to any scholar interested in an historical approach to the instruction of reading on a number of levels. Through the available links, anyone interested can gain access to textbooks that range from beginner to advanced levels. In the next subsection, Reading transitions from the history of reading to its psychology. The Science of Reading focuses on the discipline of psycholinguistics and the psychology of reading; this page links to a selection of 20 texts emphasizing the analysis of different reading practices, including June E. Downeys’ A Program for a Psychology of Literature (1918) and William A. Smith’s The Reading Process (1922). The final subsection, Missions to Native Americans, is a collection of documents related to the practice of reading instruction to the Native Americans (restricted to the Dakota tribe). The documents available include commentaries and official reports from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions but no actual teaching materials.

The Reading Collectively section contains subsections on Choosing Books, Book Clubs and Associations and Using Libraries. The Choosing Books section contains materials associated with the surge of publications in the US and Europe. Many of the texts are in response to an emerging mass reading public and are intended to guide this new group of readers toward good reading choices that coincide with the moral values of the time. A number of the links within the text are interesting but poorly represent the site they connect to – I was particularly intrigued and then disappointed by the link to dangerous books that connects to only one Spanish text, Novelistas Malos Y Buenos (1911). However, at the bottom of the webpage, there are valuable links to a collection of texts on the topic of best books to read, prohibited books and the art of reading. The Book Clubs and Associations section, similar to that of Choosing Books, contains a number of recommended reading lists, but these lists are geared toward specific groups of readers, such as women or schoolchildren. It also contains official records from book associations as well as those from the Cambridge Book Club – a list of some 700 readings. Using Libraries takes on a much more formal tone than the other subsections, most likely since much of this page is dedicated to the founding of the John Harvard library which later became Harvard College. Yet, Harvard Libraries are not the only focus of this page; it also includes information and catalogues from private, circulating and subscription libraries. Some of these materials include historical records for certain libraries as well as professional material for librarians and user-guides for readers. A number of famous and notable authors are listed in the charging records from Harvard library, including John Quincy Adams and Theodore Roosevelt. From this spotlight on collective reading practices, Reading shifts focus to the individual reader.

Reading on One’s Own contains some exciting documents. The Commonplace Books subsection includes links to commonplace books that belonged to a number of notable authors in which they recorded their ideas, arguments or notes on a variety of topics. Any researcher of one of these authors would find these texts a valuable resource. The collection can be browsed by period – seventeenth, eighteenth or nineteenth century – language – English, French, German, Icelandic or Latin – or by whether the text was published or is an unpublished manuscript. The Marginalia subsection contains texts that provide even more personal insight than the commonplace books. A user can browse the collection of texts that contain marginalia written by the following authors: Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, John Keats, Herman Melville and Hester Lynch Piozzi. Not only does this section provide access to the marginalia of these authors, but it also indicates which texts these authors were reading and which they found interesting enough to comment on.

As with any new resource, and particularly given the relatively new state of online scholarly materials, the site is both extremely valuable and open to improvement. Although much of the personal collections are hand-written and sometimes illegible or deteriorated, which is to be expected, the materials available are full-text, which is a luxury in the world of online catalogues. Some parts of the site are much more limited than they initially seem. For example, while some portions of the site include works from the seventeenth, eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, the majority is restricted to a fifty-year period between the late 1800s and early 1900s. However, as an online resource, Reading can and will no doubt continue to expand and develop in various ways. Despite these minor difficulties, the site strives for overall usability. Each sub-section provides a description of the topic with links to the historic collection at the bottom of the page. While the links allow one to browse the collection, there is no search option within these links. The lack of a search option can be rather inconvenient since some of the collections contain upwards of 200 results. But, for those interested in sifting through online material and leafing through pages of scanned historic texts, Reading contains 250,000 pages of hidden treasures waiting to be clicked.

Overall, Reading, in its attempt to make materials that would otherwise be inaccessible or difficult to access widely available, provides a valuable historical resource with particular emphasis on materiality, process and context, especially appropriate for contemporary students, teachers and scholars of print history. Further, the historical focus combined with online presentation connects past and present, crossing the boundary between print page and web page in a way that could interest many scholars of comparative literature or more general literary studies. Notably, by covering the nature and processes of reading as well as the personal collections of canonical authors, the shear breadth of material emphasizes the close relationship between everyday and elite acts of reading, a relationship that is sometimes neglected in academia. 




Gabrielle Kristjanson is an MA Candidate in the Comparative Literature Program at the University of Alberta. Her research includes contemporary children and adult's literature with specific focus on the genres of horror and fantasy. She is particularly interested in  representations of mortality and criminal identity in didactic literature, wherein discourses of monstrosity and innocence serve a rhetorical function.



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