Proceedings of the 11th International Conference on Conceptions of Library and Information Science, Oslo Metropolitan University, May 29 - June 1, 2022
Critical studies of reading: consolidating an emerging field of research
Anna Lundh, Åse Hedemark, and Linnéa Lindsköld
Introduction. This paper introduces an emerging area of research, critical studies of reading, that has been identified and developed by the authors.
Approach. Seven features of critical studies of reading research are introduced and the paper argues for how this type of research can shed new light on historical and current reading practices and reading activities. Examples of studies with such features within library and information science, as well as neighbouring disciplines are presented.
Conclusions. Future directions for critical studies of reading research are outlined, highlighting the possibilities, as well as the challenges for this emerging area of research.
Topic areas: The social values of reading and literature; Information literacy and related literacies
This paper presents an area of research that we call critical studies of reading. While reading is a longstanding object of study within library and information science, in comparison to objects of study such as information seeking and information use, reading is still relatively under-theorised within the discipline. Similarly, reading is also somewhat under-theorised within library and information science compared to how reading and related concepts such as literacy are theorised in other disciplines such as the educational sciences and literary studies. (See Dolatkhah, 2011; Talja and Hartel, 2007 ).
This lack of intradisciplinary theory development in relation to reading in library and information science, paired with a plethora of varying conceptualisations of reading as an object of research in other disciplines means that there are no obvious theoretical and methodological foundations for library and information science reading research. This paper addresses this situation and aims to articulate and explicate a set of theoretical and methodological starting points for library and information science reading research.
The background to the paper is our joint work in a project on the history of the politics of reading in Sweden (e.g. Lindsköld et al., 2020 ). Through this work, we came to realise that we as library and information science researchers with backgrounds in user studies, cultural policy studies, and literacy research – often using discourse analytical tools – had a particular approach to the study of reading. However, while this approach draws inspiration from previous reading and literacy research, it has not yet been articulated and presented coherently. In this paper, we therefore consolidate and present an area of research that we call critical studies of reading, and thereby highlight that it is possible to identify a library and information science perspective on reading in which reading is conceptualised and studied in particular ways.
A note on the “critical” in critical studies of reading: reading is a practice that various institutions have as their mission to teach, support, and measure. Reading and literacy are also politically charged practices. It is therefore important to be mindful and clear about how reading is conceptualised when doing reading research, as such conceptualisations cannot – and should not – be taken for granted. As will be further developed below, we propose a direction of research in which reading is studied as it takes place, but also where the foundations that make certain ways of understanding reading possible are critically examined. It is against this background that “critical” in critical studies of reading should be understood. It does not mean that we are critical towards reading as a practice, towards reading promotion, or towards other possible ways of understanding reading; it means that we employ an analytical approach that includes examining taken for granted “truths” underpinning understandings of reading practices and reading activities – including those of the critical studies of reading research area itself (see Bacchi and Goodwin, 2016).
In this paper, we list seven features of critical studies of reading as an area of research and provide examples of previous studies with such features. This list is inspired by Alan Prout’s and Allison James’s seminal A new paradigm for the sociology of childhood? (1997) in which they summarised six features of an “emergent paradigm” for the study of childhood, elsewhere often described as the new sociology of childhood, a research tradition which has been highly influential in how children have been researched in disciplines such the social and educational sciences (see Tisdall and Punch, 2012). While we cannot and will not make any claims to be writing a seminal text that will be highly influential, the genre is that of introducing a newly established area of research that we see ourselves as working in. Thus, the paper should not be seen as an “objective” literature review, but rather as a platform from which future studies on reading practices and reading activities can draw on. The paper concludes with a discussion on possible ways forward, as well as the challenges for this emerging area of research.
Features of critical studies of reading research
In this section, we present seven features of critical studies of reading as an area of research.
1) Taking sides with the reader
This area of research is based on the attempt to take sides with the readers and understand their reading activities without applying any deficit models to these activities. It entails the questioning of ways in which readers and non-readers are described and aims to understand the consequences of discourses about reading, as well as the participation and non-participation in particular reading practices and activities.
2) Understanding reading empirically
In this type of research, reading is understood and studied as a socially, materially, institutionally, historically, and politically situated practice. Therefore, critical studies of reading research does not seek to find a universal definition of reading, but studies reading as it is described and takes place in various contexts. How reading is understood and practiced in a particular historical era and a particular setting becomes an empirical question.
3) Employing a non-evaluative approach to reading activities and reading practices
Research in the field of critical studies of reading applies a non-evaluative approach to reading practices, reading activities, reading promotion activities, reading instruction, and/or readers. Furthermore, it does not build on normative assumptions about what reading is or what reading should be, for example, in terms of contents or formats.
4) Understanding reading as neither good nor bad
Refraining from normative assumptions about reading, as well as from evaluating reading and readers also means that reading is not seen as something inherently good or bad. Studies in this area of research seek to critically examine why certain reading practices, reading activities, reading promotion activities, types of reading instruction and/or readers are constructed as more desirable than others.
5) Investigating contemporary and historical reading practices
In this area of research, the history of reading is seen as including contemporary reading practices and activities. Whilst some ways of reading can appear as being novel, they are best understood in relation to historical reading practices.
6) Understanding the interplay between reading practices and reading activities
The research area of critical studies of reading seeks to understand both societal understandings of reading and local reading activities and the interplay between these. The analytical interest is to critically examine the understandings and assumptions that make the rhetoric and the practice of reading possible and/or to understand reading activities as reasonable given the context in which they are carried out.
7) Drawing on methodological pluralism
In this field of research, there is an interest in both the rhetoric and practice of reading. This means that critical studies of reading research works with different units of analysis. Thus, methodologies and methods will vary.
Examples of critical studies of reading research
In the following seven subsections, we present studies – from library and information science and neighbouring disciplines – that include several or all of the seven features presented above. It will be obvious to the reader that the majority of the studies presented stem from the Nordic countries. This is not by chance. Political and critical perspectives on cultural practices and cultural institutions and their governance have been part of Nordic library and information science research since at least the 1990s (Limberg, 2017 ; Mangset, 2020 ). However, our ambition is to illustrate how a critical approach to the study of reading can be useful in various empirical settings, and thus not only relevant to circumstances in the Nordic countries.
1. Taking sides with the reader
To attempt to take sides with the user is a longstanding tradition within library and information science, perhaps especially within the field of information needs, seeking and use and its predecessors (Case and Given, 2016; Talja and Hartel, 2007). This tradition has also influenced library and information science reading research where people’s reading activities are researched and understood as reasonable, given the social, material, and historical practices in which they take place. For example, McKenzie and Stooke (2007; 2012) and McKechnie (2016) have investigated children’s reading practices in relation to libraries with an emphasis on children's perspectives on this topic. Hedemark (2021), as well as Hedemark and Lindberg (2018) have conducted studies of groups of readers, young adults and elderly people, with the explicit aim of understanding literacy practices and reading experiences as they are described by the study participants.
Taking sides with the reader can also entail examining how readers and so-called non-readers are described in policy documents, in the media, and in professional and public debates. Lindsköld et al. (2020) and Hedemark (2020) describe how political and historical understandings of the reading practices of the Swedish population have changed and how these changes influence contemporary policy. Results from these studies illustrate how the reading of literature, especially print books, holds a special value in policy texts as reading the “right” kind of literature is seen as a vehicle for transforming people into ideal citizens. Non-readers, on the other hand, stand out as problematic – they are cast as the opposite of ideal citizens, as they run the risk of becoming illiterate and non-participants in the democratic society. Similarly, Kann-Rasmussen and Balling (2015) discuss how the non- reader becomes a homogeneous subject category that is ascribed negative characteristics and is constructed as a category that needs political attention.
Another aspect of non-participation in reading activities and reading practices is that of exclusion. While it is possible to argue that people have the right to abstain from reading in manners suggested and mandated by, for example, educational institutions and libraries, it is equally important to highlight when people are prevented from reading activities they want to engage in and the effects of this. As a political object, reading can be described as “an obligation” and as “a right” (Lindsköld et al., 2020, p. 264). The latter description brings questions about both access and censorship to the fore.
Being able to access and read documents of various kinds is fundamental to numerous activities in schools, workplaces, and in people’s private lives. To take sides with the reader includes examining and highlighting when the reader is prevented from reading because documents are inaccessible for some reason. Examples of such studies are those of Harpur and Loudon (2011) and Lundh (2022), which illustrate how students who are blind or vision impaired are being disabled by the lack of study materials in formats that they can read.
Another reason for documents being inaccessible is censorship, something that has been practiced as long as there have been documents for reading (Erlanson et al., 2020).
Thus, being on the side of the reader involves trying to understand the position of the reader and the conditions for reading rather than – as in some research on information needs, seeking and use (see Talja and Hartel, 2007) – the psychology of the reader. This is related to the understanding of reading as a socially, materially, institutionally, historically, and politically situated practice, which will be discussed next.
2. Understanding reading empirically
The imperative to create understandings of reading through empirical work, rather than to start from predefined notions of what reading is and should be stems from the pioneering work conducted in the field of New Literacy Studies, not least that of Brian Street (1984) and David Barton (2007; see also Barton et al., 2000; Gee, 2015 ) . The New Literacy Studies tradition highlights the importance of studying literacy as a situated practice – that is tied to specific social, material, institutional, historical, and political practices – rather than a set of decontextualised and neutral skills. This research tradition also highlights and problematises that some literacy practices are more highly valued than others and the effects of this (Hamilton, 2012).
Following this tradition, research in the field of critical studies of reading seeks to understand how reading is described in a particular (part of a) society, and how reading activities are tied to specific circumstances – and in order to do this, discourses about reading and actual reading activities need to be studied empirically. However, this area of research takes an analytical interest in reading – that is, the activities and practices around textual artefacts – rather than the broader concept of literacy. Furthermore, unlike New Literacy Studies, research in the field of critical studies of reading is not based upon the aim of understanding human cognition and learning, or the underlying purpose of improving how literacy is taught in educational institutions. Rather, this area of research seeks to understand reading as a societal practice and activity worthy of study in itself.
A plausible starting point for studies in this area of research is therefore to ask questions along the lines of “what is/was reading in this particular setting?”, “how is/was reading practiced here?”, “what has made this understanding of reading possible?”, or “to whom is it important that reading is defined and practiced in a particular manner?” (see Lundh et al., 2013). These types of questions do not imply that everything could be defined as reading, but at the same time they do not presuppose how reading should be defined or practiced.
One example of a study where definitions of reading are made an object of study is that of Lundh (2022) where people who are blind or vision impaired are interviewed regarding whether the use of audio-based tools for reading can be regarded as reading. This study takes controversies surrounding the discussion of this topic as a point of departure and highlights the importance of involving the users of such tools in these discussions. Another example is the study where Hedemark and Lindberg (2018) explore library programs supporting the development of literacy among babies . This study focused on what was communicated and expressed both verbally and physically in the interaction between librarians, caregivers, and babies during activities in different library programs – for example, through storytelling, rhyming and singing – thus defining the concept of reading (or literacy) empirically.
In summary, research in the area of critical studies of reading takes an interest in examining normative assumptions about reading, as well as in trying to understand reading as it takes place in various settings, during various historical periods. This field of research also necessitates a non-evaluative approach towards reading activities and reading practices which is discussed in the next subsection.
3. Employing a non-evaluative approach to reading activities and reading practices
Tied to the features of taking sides with the reader and studying reading empirically, is that of employing a non-evaluative approach in studies of reading. As explained earlier in the introduction of this paper, reading is a politically – and also economically – charged activity and practice. Both historically and in contemporary societies, institutions and other actors have wanted to/want to influence and assess people’s reading in various ways. An important task for critical studies of reading research is therefore to approach empirical settings and materials without the aim of trying to assess, evaluate, or change the settings and materials studied based on standards or other normative assumptions about reading practices.
The non-evaluative approach also means that studies in this area of research do not necessarily need to involve the study of the reading of fiction and/or of print books, which sometimes is presupposed, as well as both idealised and romanticised (see Price, 2019). For example, research in the field of critical studies of reading can focus on informational reading (Lundh et al., 2018) or reading by listening (Berglund 2021; Lundh, 2022; Pennlert 2020; Tattersall Wallin 2021; 2022; Tattersall Wallin and Nolin, 2020).
A non-evaluative approach in studies of reading can also be employed to critically examine how normative, moral, or ideological assumptions of reading might affect the reader. Three recently published doctoral theses (Andersson, 2020; Borsgård, 2021; Sundström Sjödin, 2019) illustrate how both policy documents and quantitative surveys have been prominent tools in forming the ideal reader in Swedish public discourse in which reading is seen as a means to educate democratic subjects, for personal and cognitive development, and for maintaining good health.
Again, by taking a non-evaluative approach in reading research does not mean that “anything goes” or that, for example, reading promotion activities cannot be improved. However, reading as an activity is often constructed as something that is inherently positive which makes it difficult – but therefore very important – to conduct non-evaluative reading research. This will be discussed further in the next subsection.
4. Understanding reading as neither good nor bad
Paired with a non-evaluative approach to reading, is the attempt to map and analyse how reading, as a politically charged activity and practice, is connected to strong moral positions. Reading is often constructed as something desirable and connected to positive or almost holy values, or is constructed as something bad or even evil that needs to be forbidden or possibly punished.
The former becomes visible in studies that critically examine how certain reading practices and certain types of readers are understood as inherently good. Magnus Persson (2015) uses the concept of “the literature myth” to capture how positive effects of reading literature are taken for granted in professional and public debate. This concept was coined in Harvey Graff´s (1979) groundbreaking study of literacy in 19th-century Canada and gave rise to a questioning of the notion of literacy as something essentially “good” in a society.
To analyse reading practices and activities that are loaded with “goodwill” can be challenging. Contemporary political discussions tend to attribute a long list of positive outcomes to the reading of fiction, such as people becoming more democratic, better at school or at work, or becoming more empathetic and adjusted in society (Lindsköld et al., 2020; Steiner, 2012). Literacy projects aimed at families in suburban areas of exclusion can be seen as an example of how cultural policy and social policy aims are merging through reading promotion (Lindström Sol and Ekholm, 2021). Research in critical studies of reading is therefore inspired by cultural policy studies where the role of the researcher is discussed, for example, when evaluating cultural policy projects aimed at children that are often seen as inherently good (Stavrum 2013), and when studying hierarchies between different cultural practices (Røyseng and Stavrum, 2020).
On the other hand, the construction of reading as something bad or evil becomes visible in legal trials against books or other reading materials that are deemed as harmful for individuals or groups of readers. Such reading materials can include themes that are identified as blasphemous, politically dangerous, or immoral. Sex, violence and drugs are common ingredients in reading materials that have been perceived as dangerous for the reader over the past few decades (Erlanson et al., 2020). Certain genres such as pornographic novels (Arnberg, 2020) and certain types of media such as comic books (Arnberg, 2013; Lindsköld, 2020) have been gaining attention from the judiciary as well as in political debate. Although not labelled as censorship, there are still tools in democracies for curbing the production and distribution of culture that is seen as bad or even dangerous (Hylland, 2020). Interest groups and private companies can also influence reading policy when they lobby against certain authors or genres or affect the production and distribution of certain publishing companies (Johansson, 2020; Lindsköld, 2020). As an area of research, critical studies of reading makes visible the broad variety of prohibitions relating to reading materials and reading practices that stretch beyond government censorship.
5. Investigating contemporary and historical reading practices
There have been several research efforts to map and analyse reading as a social and historical practice in disciplines such as book history and the sociology of literature. As an area of research, critical studies of reading is inspired by seminal works of book historians and literature sociologists such as Roger Chartier (1994) and Robert Darnton (2014), as well as Lars Furuland (1991) and Ronny Ambjörnsson (2017), who have shed light on historical reading practices and understandings of reading and their relations to contemporary reading practices. For example, the case studies that make up A History of Reading in the West , edited by Roger Chartier and Guglielmo Cavallo (1999) remind us of the social dimensions of reading and how historically reading has taken place through various forms of vocalisation and reading aloud. Although reading today is often portrayed and idealised as a solitary and silent practice, reading aloud and reading together are also present in contemporary reading activities (see Rydbeck, 2017), not least when it comes to children's reading activities (see Hedemark, 2017). Also, Egil Johansson (2009) shows how Sweden and Finland have a longstanding and unique tradition of practising social reading through the study of the Catechism in households from as early as the late 1600s.
Examples of studies of historical reading practices, conducted by library and information science scholars include Johansson’s (2020) study of how immoral reading was perceived to affect the reader according to prominent conservative public educators in Sweden during the early 1900s, Savolainen’s (2020) study of how public libraries and librarians both hindered and aided children’s reading in Finland in the mid-1900s, and Dolatkhah’s (2011) study of where, what, when and how children in Sweden read in the early 1900s. Furthermore, Lundh et al. (2018) highlight similarities between informational reading practices in Swedish primary schools in the 1960s and reading practices in contemporary primary schools and discuss the importance of seeing contemporary reading practices in relation to historical reading practices.
Thus, the approach to reading as an object of study in critical studies of reading includes an understanding of contemporary reading activities and reading practices as being related to historical reading practices. While some reading practices might appear as novel, they are also part of the constantly evolving history of reading. This also relates to the understanding of reading activities and reading practices as intertwined, as will be discussed next.
6. Understanding the interplay between reading practices and reading activities
Research in the area of critical studies of reading seeks to understand how reading is made possible. As in the social sciences and the humanities in general, an important question for this type of research is how the relationship between broader societal and historical understandings – or discourses – of reading relates to local reading activities, that is, situations in which reading takes place. In this area of research, this question is not about either/or – it is not argued that reading is best understood by studying discourses only or local activities only. Instead, reading is seen as being made possible through the interplay between reading practices and reading activities (see Lundh and Dolatkhah, 2016; Pawley, 2009).
While it might be difficult and perhaps even counterproductive to attempt to study reading practices and reading activities simultaneously, it is possible to study one of these, while seeing it as related to the other. For example, Kann-Rasmussen and Balling (2015) and Hedemark and Lindsköld (2021) discuss the potential consequences of discourses of readers on actual readers. Focusing on the US context, Christine Pawley (e.g. 2001; 2010) studied situated reading activities while at the same time seeing these activities as tied into socio- political and historical circumstances, an approach employed also by Dolatkhah and Lundh (2016) who analysed video recorded reading activities in Swedish primary classrooms in the 1960s in relation to “the [Swedish] political project of comprehensive school” (p. 844). This sensitivity to other units of analysis is also an antidote to methodological purism, as will be discussed in the final subsection below.
7. Drawing on methodological pluralism
As an area of research, critical studies of reading is not about working with a specific methodology or applying, developing, or refining a specific method. Rather, creating better understandings of reading as a societal practice and as a situated activity requires several types of methodologies and methods, focusing on different units of analysis. As can be noted from the studies referred to above, reading practices and reading activities can be studied critically with a basis in different methodologies, using a variety of methods such as discourse analysis and policy analysis (e.g. Hedemark, 2020 ; Lindsköld et al., 2020 ; Lundh, 2022 ), ethnography (Street 1984), quantitative analysis (e.g. Berglund 2021; Dolatkhah and Lundh, 2016 ; Harpur and Loudoun, 2011 ; Tattersall Wallin and Nolin, 2020 ), and historical approaches (e.g. Andersson, 2020 ; Dolatkhah, 2011 ; Pawley, 2001 ; 2010 ; Savolainen, 2020 ). Thus, what these studies have in common is the attempt to take sides with the reader, the understanding of reading practices and activities as situated, and a non-evaluative approach, rather than a unified methodological point of departure.
As an area of research, critical studies of reading, with its interest in empirically investigating – but not evaluating – current and historical reading activities and reading practices, offers possibilities to critically examine normative assumptions of what reading is and should be. While this area of research is not the only possible approach to reading research within library and information science, we argue that it is an approach that is typical for research in library and information science. Library and information science, with (some of) its roots in librarianship and documentation, has a long tradition of conducting studies of readers and reading practices in order to be able to serve the readers better, rather than in order to assess readers and what, when, and how they read. Thus, as a field of research, critical studies of reading is a continuation of this tradition due to its focus on highlighting the importance of reading as an object of study and the importance of creating nuanced, empirically, theoretically, and historically grounded descriptions of reading and readers.
However, there are several challenges for this newly consolidated field of research within the discipline of library and information science, and in relation to other disciplines as well as wider societal trends. The role and place of reading research within the discipline of library and information science is – perhaps somewhat surprisingly to outsiders – not obvious. One reason for this is the prominent position that the concept of information has within the discipline and how activities that involve reading are studied as information activities rather than reading activities (see Frohmann, 2004; Lundh and Dolatkhah, 2016 ; Pawley, 2009 ). As a field of research, critical studies of reading reinforces reading as an object of study, where reading activities and reading practices are put to the fore and are theorised and studied empirically without having to conceptualise such activities or practices in terms of information.
Another challenge is the relationship between the relatively small discipline of library and information science and other disciplines – such as educational science, literary studies, psychology, and neuroscience – where reading is studied, for example, as the goal of instruction, as literary reception, or as a discrete, individual, and cognitive skill. In comparison to reading research in other disciplines, library and information science reading research might appear underdeveloped and with limited influence on reading research in general. However, we consider that the consolidated features presented in this paper signal the emergence of a newly established library and information science research area.
To refrain from evaluating reading practices and readers is yet another challenge, not least given demands from various stakeholders that reading research should assess reading activities and develop “best practice”, and the view that specific forms of reading are necessary for, for example, economic growth, democracy, and national prosperity (see Lindsköld et al., 2020). In such an environment, the value of reading research that is not seen as immediately applicable might not be obvious. However, as an area of research, critical studies of reading can function as a theoretical foundation that can help curtail the urge to evaluate reading practices and readers and instead argue for the critical examination of, for example, assessment regimes, alarmism, and deficit models. By consolidating the field of critical studies of reading, we have illustrated how reading activities and reading practices can be explored and investigated in ways that can make us understand current debates in their historical contexts and thereby create possibilities for reflection for, for example, professionals and policy makers in the field of reading.
This paper was written within the project The Making of the Reading Citizen: Public Debate and Policy 1945–2017, funded by the Swedish Research Council 2018–2020, ref 2017– 01542. The authors would like to thank Christine Yates for her help with the English editing of the manuscript and Mats Dolatkhah for helpful suggestions.
About the authors
Anna Lundh, PhD, is Associate Professor at the Swedish School of Library and Information Science, 501 90 Borås, Sweden, and an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at Curtin University, Perth, Australia. Her research interests include contemporary and historical reading practices in educational contexts; reading by listening; and discourses about reading and literacy. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Åse Hedemark, PhD, is Associate Professor in Information studies, at the Department of Archival Studies, Information Studies, and Museum & Heritage Studies, Uppsala University, Box 625, 751 26 Uppsala. She has conducted several studies analysing the public image of public libraries using discourse analysis. Her current research interest includes children´s contemporary and historical literacy practices in relation to cultural institutions such as public libraries. She can be contacted at email@example.com
Linnéa Lindsköld, PhD, is Associate Professor in Library and Information Science, and director of the Centre for Cultural Policy Research, at the Swedish School of Library and Information Science, 501 90 Borås, Sweden. Her research interests include the aesthetic of cultural policy, the politics of reading and the function of literature in the welfare state. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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