Introducing new sources of evidence into the history of reading

Steven Cowan


This paper describes how a brief example of an apparently ‘non-educational’ document, from the year 1792, can be used as part of a discussion about reading practices during that period. One of the threads informing my argument is the idea that if we break away from school and teacher-based sources for our histories of education and learning, we might discover things we were not previously aware of. The view is informed by a perspective that brings to the fore the material contexts in which reading and associated skills such as listening and remembering took place. My historical focus is the period of the early industrial revolution in England when ‘literacy’ rates had started to increase to such an extent that the use of the term ‘mass’ literacy becomes both possible and appropriate.

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