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April 7, 2008 | by  | in Opinion |
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Victorian Theses

Susann Liebich is a PhD student in the History programme. Her thesis is a study on reading culture in Australia, Canada and New Zealand from 1890 to the 1930s. She is looking for general trends over this period, and differences and similarities between the different nations she is studying.

Although her research is still at an early stage, she has noticed a trend away from British authors, who she has found were read almost exclusively in the early part of her studied period, towards local authors as time passed and the British colonies developed more of a national identity.

She has found that readers, particularly in New Zealand, may have made a particular effort to read British authors and English literature in order to maintain a sense of ‘belonging’ to their perceived homeland in Britain.

Liebich’s research so far has been primarily focused on New Zealand, but she expects to find a similar trend in Australia, but that Canada may be slightly different, due to its proximity to the United States and the influence of American culture. She is interested to see what effect the changes in the United States may have had upon Canadian reading habits, in comparison to Britain.

On the other hand, she has considered the possibility that there may in fact be more similarities between New Zealand and Canada than New Zealand and Australia. Both Canada and New Zealand responded much more strongly to the “call for war” as she described it, and that this may reflect greater loyalty to the Empire, which may be also be apparent in the reading habits of the population.

Current historiography suggests that Australia and New Zealand developed their ‘national literature’, or ‘national culture’ in the 1920s and 1930s. Liebich is keen to find out if that is really the case, or if in fact the developments started much earlier.

Liebich concedes this presents methodological problems. One of the difficulties she has encountered with her research is the unavailability of sources. “It’s one of those topics where everyone has something to say … but at the same time it’s not so straightforward to find out. It’s a bit tricky to find sources.” So far she has focused on case studies, the most important of which was a chance find at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

“One person kept a diary for over 40 years, from the mid 80s to 1932. He … wrote down almost every day what he’s been reading and how it’s affected him. I think I will have a number of case studies that I’m aware might not be representative of the whole country, but will help me paint a nuanced picture of one particular reading experience.”

Other sources include newspaper reviews, which will give an indication of how popular a particular title may have been, and records of publishers in Britain of the number of copies of particular titles that were sent to the colonies. “But the weird thing in the history of reading is the [difficulty] is to find sources. Even if people have bought the book, it doesn’t mean they have read it, so there are all these further issues,” she explains. She has made contact with other scholars in New Zealand who have worked upon similar topics, hoping that they can introduce her to more case studies like the diary.

Liebich plans on travelling to England for two months to further her research there, and will be speaking at two seminars, including an international conference at Oxford University. She will be presenting two papers, one on the “case study of a middle-class New Zealander and his reading habits”, and another on a reading group amusingly named the “National Home Reading Union” that was present throughout the British Empire, which had a branch in New Zealand. The group was very interested in self-improvement, education, and the betterment of society, and published a magazine every month suggesting to subscribers not only what they should read, but what questions they should ask while reading and how they should understand the text.

Liebich is originally from Germany, where she holds an MA in book culture from the University of Leipzig. She originally came to New Zealand as a backpacker, but decided to stay, completing a BA (Hons) in History at Victoria to refresh herself and acquaint herself with New Zealand history. Given the comparative lack of depth in the study of New Zealand history compared to German history, she decided that she would prefer to complete her PhD here, where she can focus on topics that have not before been studied. “There are still so many things that need to be researched here,” she explains.

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