Institutions of Literature: Networks

The SouthHem team recently participated in a two-day workshop on the subject, “Institutions as Networks” held by the AHRC-funded ‘Institutions of Literature, 1700-1900’ research network. The diverse range of papers and the productive closing roundtable raised numerous questions of pertinence to the SouthHem research project:


A central task of the workshop was to establish a working definition of the word, “institution”, specifically in relation to networks. When, for example, does a network become an institution? Does it depend on physical structures or other forms of durability? During the roundtable, a useful conception of institutions was formulated as such: institutions make a claim for a particular value system and are therefore always open to suspicion and can be criticised for not living up to the standards they have created for themselves to be judged against. Implicit in this definition is the role narrative plays in institutional history – the manner in which an institution publicises its value system and how that narrative is documented and survives. An institution needs to create a record for its self-identification. This raises important questions for scholars working on institutional history: can we, for example, trust the narrative produced by the institutions themselves? Who produced the records and reports of the institutes that we often rely so heavily on?

In my work on mechanics’ institutes in the Colony of Victoria, I frequently have to rely on newspaper reports of the institutes’ activities because so little archival material has survived. As many of the proprietors of the local newspapers were often members of the institutions, however, I have to approach celebratory reports of the institutes with a healthy dose of scepticism. Where do we turn to for verification of an institutional narrative, if only one source exists?

When examining book-holdings we also need to be mindful of the contingency and accident that often shapes a collection and be careful not to attach meanings to a collection that they don’t necessarily have. This is not to forget, however, that books themselves can become a networked object – should we consider intertextuality as a form of networking?


The problems raised by institutional narratives leads to the theme of loss that was touched upon over the two days. Judith Thompson noted the significance of orality to many of these institutions and the difficulty of including and analysing events we have evidence happened but don’t necessarily know the details of. This is especially true of lectures, popular readings, conversaziones, soirées etc., but can equally apply to lost or damaged archival material that becomes indecipherable. Can we discuss loss in a way that is productive for our analysis of literary institutions and networks? How do we map a network of loss? Do we need to consider ‘trace’ as useful metaphor through which to explore lost narratives?


Water-damaged record of a letter from the Ballaarat Mechanics’ Institute

Recovering lost narratives:

A concern that was repeatedly raised over the two days was the absence of women in the histories of institutions and the need to re-examine the role they played. Nathan Garvey’s pie-chart demonstrated the perfect exclusion of women from the Australian Subscription Library, for example, but there are many instances of women actively participating in various institutions even if they weren’t allowed full membership. This often involves looking beyond the (male-dominated) narratives provided by the institutions to ‘peripheral accounts’ in diaries, letters and newspapers.

Nathan Garvey’s illustration of the gender demographics of the Australian Subscription Library, 1828

A similarly often forgotten strand of institutional history is the economics of the institutions. How much did they cost to manage? Who paid for the buildings? Who were the patrons? Who was excluded by the cost of subscription? Porscha Fermanis’s research on the founding proprietors of, and subscribers to, the Singapore Library confirmed Stephen Colcough’s view that institutions such as subscription libraries tended to widen reading among the upper social classes rather than spreading it among the working classes or indigenous peoples. At the same time, her paper noted the extent to which the Singapore Free Schools and the Singapore Library were funded via donations from indigenous elites and merchants in India and China.

Productive disruption:

Jon Klancher’s paper, “Lecturing Networks and the Royal Institution” highlighted the role disruption and antagonism can play in institutions. Can disruption be as productive as collaboration? How is disruption transformative? What about institutional inertia? In response to these questions, Jon Mee pointed to the role institutional loyalty can play in transforming institutions, especially during moments of conflict.

Lara Atkin’s analyses of the newspaper as an institution shows how South African settlers used writing to disrupt accepted representations of colonial life in South Africa emanating from London. These periodical interjections by South African settlers helped transform the political debates about South Africa occurring in the metropole.

John Gardner’s paper on the Andersonian and Glasgow Mechanics’ Institutes showed how new institutions could emerge from within old institutions as members (in this case the workers) became dissatisfied with the management of the original institution. A productive disruption indeed.

Disciplinary demarcation:

In her paper, “Charles Lamb and the British Museum as an Institution of Literature,” Gillian Russell explored the emerging infrastructure of literary sociability and the changes in the perceptions of reading created by libraries such as the British Museum’s. Referring to Leigh Hunt’s description of the British Museum Library as full of the “jarrings between privacy and publicity,” her paper traced the transformation from reading as a form of “anti-work” to a form of profession as research. This tension between the “amateur” and the “professional” reader raises unique possibilities for reassessing the role associational life played in the formation of disciplines.

Many binaries were identified during the workshop, questioning the Habermasian idea of the public sphere. Klancher’s discussion of lecture networks emphasised the binaries of provincial versus metropolitan and itinerant versus established lecturers. The closing roundtable pointed to the binary of oral culture versus print media and the contrast between independent institutions and those that are corporate or state-run.

The difference between strong and weak ties within and between networks and the roles they play in sustaining and/or changing networks were also remarked upon. Strong ties (such as family and class) centre networks, whereas weak ties can diffuse ideas and people between networks. These binaries can provide a useful means of exploring the temporal aspects of institutions and the durability of particular networks over time.


The SouthHem team would again like to thank Jon Mee, Matthew Sangster and Jenny Buckley for the invitation to participate, and the other wonderful speakers and audience that created such a fruitful two days of discussion.



Sarah Comyn is a postdoctoral fellow with the ERC-funded project, SouthHem. Her research interests are in Romanticism; Victorian literature; and the transhistorical relationships between political economy and literature. She is currently researching the cultural and literary history of the Mechanics’ Institute during the gold rush in colonial Victoria (Australia) as part of her postdoctoral fellowship at University College Dublin.

Banner image provided courtesy of the State Library of Victoria.

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