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Unearthing forgotten fiction for new readers


The Readerships and Literary Cultures 1900-1950 Special Collection is a collection of 1000 early editions of popular fiction that provides a scholarly and community forum for research and personal development. It stemmed from research within the Humanities Research Centre into popular fiction, readerships and hierarchies of literary taste. The public engagement programme of the Special Collection has preserved and opened up to the public a neglected cultural and material heritage, created a community of readers who critically review popular fiction and has co-produced research with community readers.

Our research

Light is thrown onto the past, books are unearthed and read once more, a community that would never seek to identify itself as one is created and flourishes.
Reading 1900-1950 blogger

The research programme brought together an interdisciplinary group of researchers who shared an innovative focus on the operations of literary hierarchies in British culture 1900–1950. Prof Hopkins and Drs Baxendale, Brown and Grover were also active in the Middlebrow Network, an AHRC-funded project that provides a focus for research on the disreputable term 'middlebrow' and the areas of cultural production it purports to represent. 'Middlebrow' novels are broadly categorised as popular novels that are not trashy (low brow) but do not seek to be unduly challenging to the reader (highbrow).

The Special Collection itself was first envisaged as a further outcome of the network, providing a permanent and physical collection of middlebrow and popular fiction. The decision to build public engagement into special collection activity was itself a result of research findings about the ways in which many kinds of widely-experienced popular and middlebrow texts and reading experiences have been excluded from being studied, valued, preserved and remembered.

The impact

The establishment of the Readerships and Literary Cultures 1900–1950 Special Collection has pre-served and opened up to the public this neglected cultural and material heritage. It also offers a scholarly and community forum where the material can be researched and is a focus for cultural and personal development. Beneficiaries are principally life-long readers of fiction in Sheffield and the local area; it has brought into being or supported various public groups: Friends of the Special Collection; three public reading groups; Reading Sheffield community history group and the Reading 1900–1950 blog community.

Through regular well-attended public events about collection authors and a monthly reading group at the University, the researchers have engaged a new regional community of readers who enjoy reading popular fiction from the past in a critical way. As well as meeting to discuss the novels, the reading groups have become co-producers of the research. During the meetings they gather data (such as references to taste, popular or 'highbrow' authorship) from the novels, and these are then added to the library catalogue records. Reading group members also produce book reviews for a dedicated 1900–1950 readers' blog, widening the knowledge of these forgotten books for a national and international audience.

The Special Collection also supports the Reading Sheffield oral history group, which has recorded 60 oral reading-histories from a systematic sample of Sheffield citizens who became adults in the city between 1945 and 1960, actively producing new research material.

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