Mining Fiction in the Colonial Southern Hemisphere, 1820-1870

Mining Fiction in the Colonial Southern Hemisphere, 1820-1870

Dr. Susan Leavy

Library catalogues contain a wealth of cultural information, particularly in the nineteenth century when circulating libraries were an important source of popular literature for middle and working-class readers. This case study aims to critically analyse the popular fiction titles listed in the extant library catalogues of commercial circulating libraries in the colonial southern hemisphere from 1820-1870. Notwithstanding pioneering work on colonial library catalogues and book holdings by Webby, Kirsop, and Wevers, this early period of colonial book history is relatively under-studied in comparison to the later nineteenth century, when colonial editions and series were aggressively marketed to colonial audiences by the metropolitan book trade and when local publishers, distributors, booksellers, and markets were more developed (Johansen 2000; Rukavina 2011). If by the end of the nineteenth century, ‘virtually every major British publisher’ had ‘their own Foreign, Colonial, or Imperial Library series’ (Joshi 2002: 94), this was not the case in the early to mid-nineteenth century. Before 1860-1870, the book trade to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Singapore was far more sporadic, and publishers of popular fiction such as Richard Bentley, Henry Colburn, Smith & Elder, and Minerva Press preferred to sell British editions to colonial wholesalers or direct to libraries rather than risk the capital to produce books specifically for colonial markets (Rukavina 2011; Kirsop 2019).

This case study hopes to uncover new insights pertaining to the readership and curation of fiction in commercial circulating libraries in the first three quarters of the nineteenth century. It aims to demonstrate the kind of fiction selected as vendible and appropriate for colonial reading audiences, as well as to consider its provenance, circulation, and distribution. Building on work by Moretti (1999), Joshi, and others, this case study quantitatively analyses the content of catalogues and combines this with a close reading of titles within their social and historical contexts. Texts will be analysed in relation to their popularity across space and time, as well as by publisher, genre, and author attributes, such as gender and nationality. Analysis of the catalogues involves converting them from image to computer readable form using the OCR algorithm Tesseract (Kay, 2007) and selecting those that are classified according to genre. This enables the fiction titles to be extracted and a representative sample of catalogues to be generated by purposively selecting them to ensure a geographical spread across the region and an even time-period. A relational database has been developed with an interactive web-based interface to capture recurring patterns within catalogue listings and facilitate manual annotation. This integration of text analytic methods with interpretative methods has been shown to be central to digital humanities research (Mahlow et al., 2012; Vane, 2018). The approach taken in this case study enables the merging of close reading and the incorporation of specialist knowledge along with the use of text analytic methods.

Works Cited

Johansen, G. A Study of Colonial Editions in Australia, 1843-1972. Wellington: Ellbank Press, 2000.

Joshi, P. In Another Country: Colonialism, Culture, and the English Novel in India. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Kay, A. 2007. Tesseract: An Open-Source Optical Character Recognition Engine. Linux J.July 2007, 159.

Kirsop, W. ‘Selling Books to the Colonials: Advertising and Distributing Bentley Books in Nineteenth-Century Australia’. In Richard Bentley and the British Empire: Imperial and Colonial Publishing Connections. Ed. Mary Jane Edwards. Brighton: EER, 2019, 223-244.

Mahlow, C., Grün, C., Holupirek, A. and Scholl, M.H. ‘A framework for retrieval and annotation in digital humanities using XQuery full text and update in BaseX’. InProceedings of the 2012 ACM Symposium on Document Engineering.ACM: 2012, 195-204.

Moretti, F. Atlas of the European Novel, 1800-1900. London, Verso: 1999.

Rukavina, A. ‘Fabricating a National Canon: The Role of Richard Bentley and George Robertson in Developing and Marketing the Australian Library’. In The Culture of the Publisher’s Series Volume 1: Nationalism and the National Canon. Ed. John Spiers. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, 91-104.

Vane, O. ‘Text Visualisation Tool for Exploring Digitised Historical Documents’. InProceedings of the 19th International ACM SIGACCESS Conference on Computers and Accessibility. ACM, 2018, 153-158.

Susan Leavy is an ERC Postdoctoral Research Analyst at University College Dublin. Her work in digital humanities explores the use of techniques such as artificial intelligence and text mining for literary analysis. She has also published in the area of ethics and artificial intelligence developing interdisciplinary frameworks for algorithmic criticism and methods to prevent gender bias in AI. Susan earned a PhD at Trinity College Dublin where she used machine learning and natural language processing to identify bias in political news. She holds an MSc in Artificial Intelligence, an MPhil in Gender and Women’s studies, and a BA in English Literature and Philosophy. Prior to her doctorate, Susan worked internationally in technology in the investment banking sector overseeing the design and development of trading systems.

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