UK Reading Experience Database

Bethan Ruddock reports from the launch event for the UK Reading Experience Database, held at the Betty Boothroyd Library, the Open University, Milton Keynes, on 24 February 2011.

I was invited down to the Open University (OU) Betty Boothroyd Library in Milton Keynes for the launch of the UK Reading Experience Database (UK RED) [1]. I had been asked to attend to talk about the LOCAH Project and Linked Data, but I was also looking forward to learning about the RED Project.

This was the first of two launch days, and was designed for librarians, archivists, and information managers. A second launch day for teachers in Higher Education was to be held in London the next day.

What Is UK RED?

The tagline for UK RED is 'the experience of reading in Britain from 1450 to 1945', and the database brings together reading experiences, making them both searchable and browsable. What is a reading experience? It is evidence of anyone alive between the mid-15th and 20thcenturies having read and interacted with a book or other piece of writing, such as magazines, newspapers, letters - even playbills and advertisements. Ownership alone is not enough; there must be something to show that the person in question actually read the work or at least part of it.

This information can be found in a number of places - a printed book review would be an obvious example. The RED team also find many entries in diaries. Such entries can range from simple lists of books that someone has read over the course of a year, to detailed descriptions of when and where they read a particular book, and how they felt about it. Often diary entries are not actually about the book; it is mentioned in passing and in the context of a number of other activities.

While the owner's name on the flyleaf is not itself enough to justify a 'reading experience', annotations to the text are, as they show that the person has actually interacted with the text. Of course, you then have to consider whether the person whose name is on the flyleaf is the same as the person doing the annotating!

RED is much more than a list of 'people who have read books'. The database aims to bring out as much information as possible about the reading experience. The interface to submit a new entry allows you to specify where the reading was taking place, all the way down to a particular room in a particular house. It also aims to identify if the reading was silent or aloud, alone or with other people; whether the book was owned by the reader, a library book, borrowed, or even stolen. All these data are then used to build up a rich database of information on who was reading what (and how!) in Britain.

UK RED is not just concerned with reading experiences within Britain: team members also look at the reading experiences of citizens abroad. Edmund King, Research Associate, Reading Experience Database, OU, told us that, as a consequence, there are fascinating examples of what captured British soldiers were reading in prisoner-of-war (POW) camps as well as examples of what they were not allowed to read. Books in Welsh and Pakistani were banned, as well as atlases and anything about the Russian revolution. I do not know if there are corresponding records for what prisoners in UK POW camps were forbidden to read, but it would be very interesting to find out.

The Relaunch

Bob Owens, Director of the RED Project, gave us some background. RED started in 1996 as an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project. It surpassed all AHRC targets, and gained funding to hold an international conference on the history of reading, as well as to update the software and make it available to international partners. As a result, there are (or soon will be) databases focusing on reading experiences in Australia [2], Canada [3], the Netherlands [4] and New Zealand [5].

Rosalind Crone, OU, talked about the technical aspects of RED. It started out as an access database, then moved to SQL to enable searching on any of the 160 fields. The new version (version 3) has a PHP front-end backed up by a relational SQL database, running on Linux and Apache. The RED team wanted to ensure that all of the software it used was open source, and would be available to regional RED teams. v.3 of the RED database has some new database fields, including paths to allow for the future inclusion of video and audio content.

Figure 1: Rosalind Crone demonstrates the new UK RED Web site. Copyright Shaf Towheed

Figure 1: Rosalind Crone demonstrates the new UK RED Web site. Copyright Shaf Towheed.

The new version also allows for regional differences, as each version of RED will be slightly different, to cater to local demands. There is little point, for instance, in coverage in the Australian database going back to 1400; while the Canadians are looking to include material that goes past the current cut-off date of 1945, and are pioneering how to handle the data protection issues surrounding more recent data (the current arrangement for UK RED means that contributors are unable to supply information about their own post-1945 reading experiences). The Canadian database will also accommodate entries in English and French.

Where Do They Find Evidence?

Archives are one of the most common sources for evidence of reading experiences but that does not mean it is easy to find! Authors and literary figures may be expected to record their reading, but what of ordinary people? Their reading experience may be mentioned half-way through a source such as a handwritten diary - without reading that entire source, how is anyone to know it is there?

Edmund King talked about some of the challenges involved in finding this information. While a lot of it can be found in archival material, he made the point that, traditionally, archivists have not recorded the presence of this reading experience information in their finding aids. This means that RED researchers have to extrapolate and guess at what might be valuable sources.

Books themselves are another valuable source of information: while librarians shudder to see their books being written on, flyleaf inscriptions and marginalia can provide evidence of a person's interaction with the book. You do have to evaluate the depth of interaction with the book: Edmund gave an example where a reader's younger brother had written his name all over a book. Does that count as having a reading experience?

Once the information is found, it might not always be easy to handle, for any number of reasons. Readers may have been vague in their recording; diaries might note that the reader had enjoyed 'a book about birds'; or they might contain very rich information, but in a shorthand or notation of the reader's own creation.

There may also be intellectual property issues. Edmund reported that he found a lot of World War One (WWI) reading experience information in the Australian National War Memorial archives in Canberra; however, under Australian law, all manuscript material is in perpetual copyright until it is published.

Evidence can be in the most obvious, yet obscure, places. Take, for example, 'a Transcription in Elizabeth Lyttelton's hand of John Donne, A Hymne to God the Father' [6]. Does transcription imply reading? If the transcriber is literate, then of course it does. But it is unlikely to be the first port of call when you think of places to look for evidence of reading.

Adding Data to RED

After lunch we were given the chance to try adding data to the RED database ourselves, led by Non Scantlebury and Nicola Dowson, OU. Anyone can contribute to UK RED, and volunteers are especially important in populating the database. These volunteers are often postgraduate students who are researching a particular author, and who enter information into RED in the course of their research. Author societies are another big source of volunteers the Robert Louis Stevenson Society was cited as a major contributor.

The online form for submitting evidence of a reading experience to the database contains 19 questions over 3 sections; however, only the first three questions are compulsory, meaning you can contribute by providing only your contact details and basic evidence of the reading experience and source. If you want (and are able!) to provide further information, there is an opportunity to state the exact date of the reading experience; the socio-economic group and religion of the reader; the time and place of the reading experience; and the provenance of the text.

We were given some example experiences to enter, and I was pleased to see that the first one came from the diaries of Gertrude Bell. Bell was a late nineteenth-century traveller and archaeologist, who has been described as 'the female Lawrence of Arabia', and the description of her papers represents one of our favourite records for the purposes of demonstrating the Archives Hub.

Figure 2: The hands-on session. Copyright Shaf Towheed

Figure 2: The hands-on session. Copyright Shaf Towheed

Many of Bell's diary entries have been made available online by Newcastle University Library [7] , and we were asked to look at the entry for 8 August 1895, and record the reading experience mentioned in it. The mandatory fields could be filled in from that diary entry alone, but to add the supplementary information we needed to do a bit more research. This involved looking at previous diary entries to see where Bell was and finding sources for biographical information. While the information required a little investigation, using the submission form itself was straightforward, and I could see myself submitting reading experiences for real in the future! At the moment the reward for contributing is the knowledge of a job well done and your name in the list of contributors. However, the RED team is looking at ways to make the acknowledgements more publicly accessible and available for linking in order to encourage dissemination. It is hoped this will in turn increase the visibility of the project, and so encourage others to contribute.

RED and Linked Data

While I really enjoyed hearing about the RED database, and having the chance to do some hands-on work with it, I was really there to talk about bibliographic Linked Data. I am working on LOCAH (Linked Open Copac and Archives Hub) a JISC-funded project to expose Copac and Archives Hub data as Linked Data [8]. Also funded under the 'jiscEXPO' stream is the LUCERO Project [9], and Owen Stephens and Mathieu D'Aquin from LUCERO were there to talk about bibliographic Linked Data and the RED Project, and how this can be used to support innovative enquiry in the digital humanities.

Linked Data offers a number of approaches to joining up disparate information sources, and enabling researchers to uncover new links and relationships. I spoke about the potential for links between RED and the Archives Hub/Copac data. One of the RED reading experiences is that of Thomas Kitching who read Peril at End House by Agatha Christie while imprisoned in the infamous Changi POW Camp [10].

As RED stands now, you can look at the full record and click links to find other instances of Christie as author, and of Kitching as reader, in the RED database. If this were linked to other data sets, you might be able to click links to see a description of Agatha Christie's papers from the Archives Hub, and copies of Peril at End House on Copac. I know that the Archives Hub has a description of the Papers of Agatha Christie, so I was able to make that connection, and go and look them up - Linked Data could link researchers to the description of the archive even without their needing to know that the archive existed.

With Linked Data you could look at the Archives Hub to see whether Changi is mentioned (it is, there are several collections whose originators were also imprisoned in Changi). You now have links between these people, which you did not know about before. Looking at these records on the Hub shows us that Brigadier George Wort wrote 1st Battalion, The Malay Regiment while in Changi, 1942-1945. Might this include an account of Kitching, and his fondness for books?

We have a very specific date for this entry for Thomas Kitching: '24 Dec 1943'. Using SPARQL (the query language for Linked Data), you could send a query out to all the other Linked Data sets to which you were connected, to find out if anything else happened on that day. As one of the data sets is Dbpedia [11] (the linked data version of Wikipedia), you can see that lots of things happened births, deaths, even the release of a film called Midnight in Vermont. If you were then linked in to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) [12] you could look up Midnight in Vermont, and find out that audiences in the US were watching Gloria Jean and Ray Malone while Kitching was reading Christie.

In another RED entry, Margot Asquith, Countess of Oxford and Asquith (1864-1945), mentions re-reading her own diaries, and finding them 'not only full of Cabinet secrets but jerky, disjointed and dangerously frank' [13]. Linked Data could take you to a description of her papers on the Archives Hub, where you find that her diaries are held by the Bodleian, along with her correspondence perhaps even the letter to Henry James from which this quotation originates. You could then go along and read the diaries, to find out if your reading experience matches Margot's.

Mathieu gave us a preview demonstration of how the LUCERO team is using Linked Data to enhance the RED experience. The team has a demonstrator which pulls together information about a person from the RED database with information about that person from DBpedia. This can bring out some really interesting links. I was particularly interested in one of Mathieu's examples - Virginia Woolf, who appears in RED as both author and reader. One of the categories in DBpedia under which Woolf appears is 'bisexual writers', and the demonstrator allows you to see who else in the RED database falls into that category. One of the named people in it is Colette. This especially interested me as the 'on this day' tweet that had gone out from the @TheUKRED channel earlier that day was 'On this day in 1937: Virginia Woolf reading Colette & Molière'. This was just a small example of the serendipitous links to be found when you open up data.

Mathieu's blog from the day includes a link to the demonstrator [14].

Some delegates did express a reluctance to use data from DBpedia, as they see data from Wikipedia as untrustworthy and likely to be inaccurate. Mathieu and Owen had one answer for them: if you find an error, go into Wikipedia and fix it!

Education and Volunteers

Shaf Towheed, OU, spoke on how UK RED is being used in learning and teaching at the OU. They aim to embed use of the database into postgraduate teaching, and have essays and tutorials available [15]. The History of Reading module is designed so that students can either just read the essays, or can start to explore the RED database themselves, in a very guided manner. Shaf pointed out how useful it is for students to gain an appreciation of writers as readers themselves, as well as seeing first-hand contemporary responses to the writers they are studying.

Postgraduate students who have been introduced to RED during their studies might go on to become RED volunteers. Volunteers are a vital part of the RED workflows the RED team have had funding for researchers, but the sheer volume of information means that the more people involved in adding data to RED, the better. Volunteers also act as advocates and champions: Shaf showed us a video of an interview with Sophie Bankes, who speaks about her experiences of being a RED volunteer [16]. Sophie talks convincingly about the value she gains from being part of the RED project.

More volunteers are always needed, and the RED team have a 'wish list' of authors that they would like people to start work on [17]. The team know that the closed, historical nature of RED can put some people off from volunteering, and consequently they are using social media spaces such as Flickr, Twitter and cloudspace to encourage public engagement and collaboration with new user communities.


The day finished with a glass of wine or two to celebrate the launch of UK RED. Unfortunately, I had booked an early train home, so could not stay to toast the launch. I wish I could have stayed; I had enjoyed an informative day learning about a really interesting resource from a passionate group of people.

I will certainly be using RED in any reading/writing related research I do in the future, and will keep my eye out for evidence of reading experiences I can add to the database. It's a fantastic resource, and deserves the support of the community. I'll end here with a repeat of the appeal from one of my final tweets of the day:

'Librarians! Archivists! Look out for evidence of reading experiences while you're #cataloguing, and let @theukred know :)'


  1. The UK Reading Experience Database home page
  2. The Australian RED Project home page
  3. The Canada RED home page
  4. The Netherlands RED home page
  5. The New Zealand RED home page
  6. RED entry for 'Transcription in Elizabeth Lyttelton's hand of John Donne, 'A Hymne to God the Father''
  7. Gertrude Bell Archive Newcastle University Library
  8. LOCAH Project blog
  9. LUCERO Project home page
  10. RED entry for Thomas Kitching reading Peril at End House, Record Number:25599
  11. DBpedia home page
  12. The Internet Movie Database (IMDb)
  13. RED entry for Margot Asquith's Diaries
  14. LUCERO blog about the RED Project
  15. Open University History of Reading module
  16. UK RED 'becoming a volunteer' Web page
  17. UK Red suggestions for future research

Author Details

Bethan Ruddock

Content Development Officer
Library and Archival Services
University of Manchester


Bethan Ruddock works as Content Development Officer for Copac and the Archives Hub, at Mimas. She is also a member of the Voices for the Library team, the SLA Europe Board, and the LIS New Professionals Network. Bethan's interests cover social media for personal and professional development, library advocacy, user engagement, and supporting new professionals. She is editing a LIS New Professionals' toolkit, to be published by Facet in 2012. Bethan is working on the JISC-funded LOCAH (Linked Open Copac and Archives Hub) Project with colleagues from Mimas, UKOLN, EduServ and Talis. The LOCAH Project blog is . Bethan blogs at and can be found on Twitter as @bethanar.

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Date published: 
Monday, 4 July 2011
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