Panel 3 Discussion
Thank you for these interesting papers. Christine, I was particularly struck by your focus on the question of agency in relation to libraries and reading more generally. The push and pull between institutional constraint and individual agency is often at the forefront of Mechanics' Institute libraries - which were often the main source of reading material in Australia, especially in rural and regional areas, well into the first half of the 20th century. The Lambton Institute was established by the mining company which was the principal employer in the town, and in a context of a high degree of industrial conflict. There's a fair bit of discussion around the aim of such libraries being to educate/pacify the workforce. But library members (largely working-class) could make suggestions about accessions (in 'suggestion books') and at Lambton at least such suggestions seem to have been taken into account where they could be, and the result was reading which we might think of as less educative/pacifying and more entertaining. However I would note that accessions and borrowing remained overseen and regulated by library committees that were primarily middle class.
It's such an important point that these institutional/political factors underlie the possibility of the choices that we often read as unfettered in relation to borrowing habits and circulation records.
I also think there's a continuum between Vivian G. Harsh's reading lists and bibliographies as a form of political agency and the reading lists that I've seen circulating online (on twitter and instagram, and probably more so on the platforms that people younger than me use) in the Australian context over the past couple of years, especially in relation to feminism and racial justice.
Hi Julieanne, so sorry not to get together face-to-face for this, but glad to be in touch! Your mention of the the Lambton Institute in Australia put me in mind of an anecdote my mother told. The Lambtons were Earls of Durham, as I'm sure you know, and owners of collieries in County Durham, in England. My mother was born (in 1910) and grew up in a Durham colliery village--not in fact owned by the Lambtons, but it did have a miners' institute. As a child my mother loved to read, but there was no public library in the village, and certainly no money for books in her family. In desperation (aged about 12 or 13) she went to the miners' institute, which miners' families could also use, and where there was a collection of books. She found nothing to interest her and she left in disgust, but it illustrates that the users of miners' (and mechanics'?) institutes might not only be the stereotypical adult male that we imagine. My mother told me that when the public library started to send a van to the village sometime in the 1920s, it was "like heaven."
@cpawley that's a wonderful story! I expect your mother would have had a bit more luck at the Lambton Institute on the other side of the world. 30% of the loans there were by women, and some of them borrowing in ways that suggest they were reading or lending on to children. I've had some wonderful conversations with students over the years by asking about what and how their parents read - it is such a good way to open up points of connection or distance in how we approach our own reading and research.