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King, Looking Back on the Reading Experience Database, 1450-1945

Edmund King
The Open University

Conceived by Simon Eliot in the early 1990s and launched as a digital resource at the end of 1995, The UK Reading Experience Database, 1450-1945 (UK-RED) is one of the oldest continuously existing digital projects in book history and with 34,000 records, the largest single source of evidences of reading. We could perhaps see its journey from a collection of completed paper forms in a filing cabinet, to Access database, to open internet resource in 2007, to (finally) its impending ingestion into a successor database (READ-IT) as exemplifying the life cycle of the successful DH project. Over the course of this life cycle, it has become a widely used tool in book history pedagogy with a compelling “impact narrative” in the terms set out by the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF).

Yet, behind this surface layer of continuity, a constant series of technical developments, staffing decisions, institutional collaborations, and funded projects (along with a great deal of volunteer labour) have been necessary to keep UK-RED running. This paper will offer a retrospective analysis of UK-RED’s first 25 years, focusingon its achievements as a pioneering project in humanities crowdsourcing, as well as some of its technical challenges and limitations. What lessons can we learn from RED that could potentially inform the next 25 years of digital research into reading history?