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Reading in Europe—Challenges and lessons learned from the case studies of the READ-IT project



This article reflects on the challenges of combining humanistic and computational research perspectives within the framework of a multicultural and multilingual Digital Humanities project. It analyses the approach of Reading Europe Advanced Data Investigation Tool, a European project funded by JPI-CH, to the framing of its case studies within a wider perspective of interdisciplinary collaboration between humanities, digital humanities, and data science scholars. The analysis of sources ranging chronologically from the 18th century to the present and technologically from manuscript diaries to social media defines a new framework for the history of reading focused on the centrality of the human experience of the reader, and on the evolution of the medium through which reading is conducted. The interdisciplinary collaboration of the project develops a shared laboratory space where practices, languages, and research cultures converge to address both microscope and macroscope questions on the history of reading.
Reading in Europe—Challenges and lessons learned
from the case studies of the READ-IT project
Francesca Benatti
* , Franc¸ois Vignale
, Alessio Antonini
, Edmund King
English and Creative Writing, The Open University, UK
University Library, Le Mans Universite´, France
Knowledge Media Institute, The Open University, UK
*Correspondence: Francesca Benatti, English and Creative Writing, The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA, UK.
This article reflects on the challenges of combining humanistic and computational research perspectives within the framework of a
multicultural and multilingual Digital Humanities project. It analyses the approach of Reading Europe Advanced Data Investigation
Tool, a European project funded by JPI-CH, to the framing of its case studies within a wider perspective of interdisciplinary collabora-
tion between humanities, digital humanities, and data science scholars. The analysis of sources ranging chronologically from the
18th century to the present and technologically from manuscript diaries to social media defines a new framework for the history of
reading focused on the centrality of the human experience of the reader, and on the evolution of the medium through which reading
is conducted. The interdisciplinary collaboration of the project develops a shared laboratory space where practices, languages, and
research cultures converge to address both microscope and macroscope questions on the history of reading.
1 Introduction
The importance of books and reading is unquestion-
able in modern society, but unaddressed questions still
remain. Up to now, scholars have studied the circula-
tion of books and the ideas they convey, identified the
factors that facilitate or impede the reception of such
ideas in different cultural groups, but have not yet
succeeded in delineating the impact of reading on the
history and society of Europe. Knowledge has signifi-
cantly increased over the last 40 years regarding what,
where, and when people read, with focus shifting from
implied or model readers to historical and empirical
evidence of reading practices (Iser, 1974;Eco, 1979;
Murray, 2018;Fuller and Rehberg Sedo, 2019;
Ouvry-Vial, 2019;Price, 2019). Nevertheless, two ma-
jor questions remain unanswered: why and how do
people read? The increasing availability of digitized
historical sources and the proliferation of born-digital
media are multiplying the sources of possible evidence,
though issues are emerging about the ownership and
reliability of such large-scale datasets (Rowberry,
2019). New challenges are opening up that can only
be addressed through collaboration between the
disciplines of the Humanities, Digital Humanities, and
Data Science.
Up to now, we have lacked a systematic and inte-
grative approach and the tools to study the experi-
ence of reading, the effects on readers and their lives,
the outcomes of reading, and what affects the reading
experience of the general public within this new
research paradigm. Furthermore, there are still gaps
between in-depth studies and computational studies,
the conceptualizations of reading in different disciplines,
and the interrelation between the results of micro-scale
disciplinary and macroscopic scale interdisciplinary
studies (Hitchcock, 2014).
In this scenario, the questions of why and how peo-
ple read should be instantiated into a set of operational
challenges bridging disciplines, studies of different
sources, and studies at different geographical and en-
quiry scales:
a) What kind of transaction exists between a reader
and a text?
b) What role does the environment play in this
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Digital Scholarship in the Humanities,2022, 00, 1–5
Short Paper
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c) Have emotions related to reading changed
throughout time and space in Europe?
d) Is it possible to sketch out the portrait of some-
thing resembling the ‘European reader’?
The Reading Europe Advanced Data Investigation
Tool (READ-IT)
project addressed these questions
through a unique large-scale, user-friendly, open access,
semantically enriched investigation tool to identify and
share groundbreaking evidence about 18th–21st century
Cultural Heritage of reading in Europe. It was a three-
year (2018–21) transnational, interdisciplinary R&D
project funded by the Joint Programming Initiative for
Cultural Heritage. READ-IT consists of a robust consor-
tium of five academic partners from four European
countries (Institute of Czech Literature, Academy of
Sciences, Prague; The Open University, UK, including
the SME IN2; Utrecht University-DH Lab, Netherlands;
CNRS-IRISA, Rennes and Le Mans Universite´-3LAM,
Within the work plan of READ-IT, the collection of
case studies was the first significant milestone. Use
cases collected in READ-IT are challenging the previ-
ous approaches adopted in projects such as the UK-
Reading Experience Database (UK RED, 1996–2018),
the ANR-funded ‘Reading in Europe: Contemporary
Issues in Historical and Comparative Perspectives’
project (2014–17),
and the Listening Experience
Database project (2012 to present)
by going beyond
the current state of the art of use cases and by requiring
a significantly deeper analysis of sources.
The interdisciplinary collaboration between digital
humanists, human and social sciences scholars, and
computer scientists investigated innovative ways of
gathering new resources through crowdsourcing and
web-crawling as well as linking and reusing pre-existing
datasets. READ-IT thus aims to ensure the sustainable
and reusable aggregation of qualitative data, allowing
an in-depth analysis of the Cultural Heritage of reading.
Case studies occupy a central place in the definition
of the READ-IT data model and tools, guiding the
identification of common issues, dimensions of analy-
sis, and sources for validating and testing both the con-
ceptual framework and the database. Case studies also
configure a common research agenda for a multidisci-
plinary community of researchers on reading, built
combining different approaches and sources spanning
from social media, students’ diaries, and letters, from
the 18th century up to today, in Czech, French,
German, Italian, and Dutch. Current case studies in-
clude: ‘Digital Reading Experiences Through Social
Media’, ‘Self-reflection’, ‘The places where we read’,
‘Reading in school diaries’, ‘Multilingual reading and
sources’, ‘Reading and the reception of Romanticism’,
and ‘Reading and censorship’ (Vignale et al., 2019).
The set of case studies encompasses a rich ‘human
archive’ in multiple media and languages depicting a
transaction between reading subjects and reading mate-
rials from the 18th century to the present, including
web scraping and social media crowdsourced evidence
of reading experiences. In this regard, the case studies
define a significant corpus of approaches and questions
concerning the phenomenon of reading. Specifically,
the significance of the case studies depends on the
breadth of periods and locations and most importantly
to the different perspectives concerning situations of
reading, lasting emotions and memories, immediate
responses, or changes in readers’ habits.
This article presents and discusses the outcomes of
the interdisciplinary collaboration and knowledge crea-
tion arising from the READ-IT case studies. It high-
lights the lesson learned from collecting, discussing,
and addressing this variety of sources, research ques-
tions, and methods, the development of interoperabil-
ity and the bridging of people, disciplines, and results.
2 Discussion
The outcome of READ-IT is not a database of reading
experiences, but a toolbox that can be adopted in a
wide range of studies and that can support interopera-
bility of research data to facilitate collaborations. The
information value of the corpora of case studies derives
from the opportunity to address a complex system of
needs concerning different research questions, sources,
and activities through a dialogue between the
Information and Communications Technology (ICT)
and Digital Humanities (DH) scholars who created the
underlying data model and the Humanities and Social
Sciences (HSS) researchers who adopted it (Flanders,
The analysis of the case studies followed three main
directions: (a) research questions and focus (i.e. the
aspects of reading that are the subject of the research),
(b) the type of source of reading experience and the
scale of the study (i.e. depth and quantity), (c) research
practices and interoperability of data (i.e. expected gen-
erated data, competency questions, and issues related
to the reuse of data outside the specific case study). The
analysis of the case studies produced a set of require-
ments that were used in the development of a data
model (Antonini et al., 2019) and a Reading
Experience Ontology (Vignale et al., 2020;Antonini
et al., 2021). The resulting model shifted the focus be-
yond the factual aspects of experience that were
addressed in previous projects (who, where, when, and
what), to the phenomenological aspects of reading,
such as the reader’s state of mind (habits, aims, emo-
tions, and achievements) and the articulation of
2F. Benatti et al.
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reading in terms of sessions and key turning points
The outcome of the analysis and of iterative engage-
ment with research partners highlighted a number of
major issues as a direct result of the integrative ap-
proach to the READ-IT case studies:
‘The centrality of the human experience’ emerging
from the corpora of case studies and leading towards the
new approach based on a phenomenological analysis of
reading. This change of focus directed the modelling
efforts in a new direction: from collaborative analysis of
sources and contextual factual information of reading to-
wards a phenomenology of the human reading experi-
ence. The emphasis on the human aspects of the
experience highlighted, for instance, the importance of
addressing reading as a diachronic process structured in
interconnected phases and dependent on changes affect-
ing reader, medium, and society (Antonini et al.,2019).
‘The challenge of legacy data and the human legacy
of projects’ emerging from the need to incorporate data
collected by the UK RED project, highlighting the need
to define a strategy based on the restoration or repur-
posing of legacy data (Antonini et al., 2020).
‘The role of the medium’ requiring broadening the
scope of READ-IT from reading printed books to address-
ing new media. Firstly, this change opened up a question
about which medium qualifies an experience as reading
(e.g. is experiencing audiobooks or reading aloud still
reading?). Secondly, it developed a reflection on how me-
dium technologies ‘mediate’ the reader/author relation-
ship, providing a variety of new configurations (e.g.
interactive media, collective augmentation of text, and
profile-based recommendations). In this frame, the me-
dium as a technology acquires a central role in the modali-
ties and effects of reading and challenges the duality of
relation reader/author (e.g. does automatic tagging and
interlinking of contents qualify as an authorial contribu-
tion?). This strand of research has produced so far a study
on social media ‘stalking’ (Antonini et al., 2019), a frame-
work of technology-driven re-mediation of the author–
reader relation (Antonini and Brooker, 2020), and a com-
prehensive study of the lifecycle and socio-technological
ecosystem of webcomics (Antonini et al., 2020).
‘Design of tools for multidisciplinarity’ requiring the def-
inition of a meta-language of reading (Antonini and Lupi,
2019), a novel approach to an agile ontology development
(Antonini et al., 2021), a contribution ecosystem including
paper postcards, a digital contribution portal
and a chat-
an ontology design pattern for experiential studies,
and an annotation tool for textual sources.
‘Integrating the READ-IT data model in existing
standards’ for cultural heritage and web contents such
as CIDOC CRM requiring a re-engineering of the
model under the light of the different ontological
framework of CIDOC CRM.
3 Conclusions
Reading is an immaterial activity that leaves only indi-
rect traces, which are difficult to retrieve. Nonetheless,
the fast-paced transformation of book technologies is
configuring reading as the central activity in the new
open digital culture (Ouvry-Vial, 2019). READ-IT is
advancing research on the history and current practices
of reading by developing a framework that allows
scholars to address both ‘macroscope’ and ‘micro-
scope’ questions (Hitchcock, 2014).
In the realization of this vision, the main challenge is
how to extract evidence from historical sources so that it
can be interpreted by multidisciplinary researchers both at
scale and in detail (Gibbs and Cohen, 2011;Towheed
et al., 2015). The work conducted within READ-IT is
moving beyond the development of specific case studies to
the reconfiguration of the project as a laboratory to re-
think, revise, and improve research on reading. The inter-
disciplinary collaboration powering READ-IT is a source
of innovation, outcomes, and opportunities for unveiling
new issues in a constant dialogue between the formal, de-
terministic, repeatable, disambiguated system required by
computation and the probabilistic, unresolvable relation
with cultural artefacts, objects, and conditions that are the
foundation of humanistic methods (Drucker, 2019).
Further research in READ-IT focused on issues
emerging from the project, including:
‘Integrating multilingual DH studies’ by connecting
the language-agnostic ontology with language-
specific NLP resources (Bienvenu et al., 2021).
‘Furthering the conceptualization of the state of
mind of the reader’, which is one of the major inno-
vations and central issues of the project (Antonini
et al., 2020).
‘Using the READ-IT model’ through the annotation
tools, which are being tested through in-depth anno-
tation campaigns in several languages and through
research creating multi-lingual and diachronic glos-
saries of reading concepts (Vignale et al.,2021).
‘Connecting reading with other aesthetic experien-
ces’ by finding a common ground between READ-IT
and conceptualizations developed by other projects
on experiencing music and art, to be investigated in
a follow-on project.
‘Engaging the general public’ through the long-term in-
frastructure created by the project (contribution portal,
postcards, and chatbot), and through events such as
European Researchers’ Night
and the Being Human
to reach a variety of user communities.
A final take-away from the READ-IT project is a
clear need for cross-disciplinary collaboration to ad-
dress the challenges of the project, which are neither
Case studies of the READ-IT project 3
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strictly within the field of HSS nor ICT. The current
scale of Humanities research on reading is based
largely on small teams collaborating occasionally with
ICT research. In order to develop further, Digital
Humanities approaches to the history of reading re-
quire systematic, sustained dialogue, resources, and
commitment to transform the personal efforts of single
individuals into a research community. READ-IT has
developed a shared laboratory space where researchers
can experience the tangible results produced by an
ideal balance of competencies and a shared Digital
Humanities agenda.
This work was partially supported by the Reading
Europe—Advanced Data Investigation Tool (READ-
IT), which is funded by the Joint Programming
Initiative Cultural Heritage (JPI CH) project under the
European Union Horizon 2020 Research and
Innovation programme [grant agreement No. 699523].
This research work has also been partially funded by
the Agence Nationale de la Recherche [ANR-17-JPCH-
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Large scale cultural heritage datasets and computational methods for the Humanities research framework are the two pillars of Digital Humanities (DH), a research field aiming to expand Humanities studies beyond specific sources and periods to address macro-scale research questions on broad human phenomena. In this regard, the development of machine-readable semantically enriched data models based on a cross-disciplinary “language” of phenomena is critical for achieving the interoperability of research data. This paper reports on, documents, and discusses the development of a model for the study of reading experiences as part of the EU JPI-CH project Reading Europe Advanced Data Investigation Tool (READ-IT). Through the discussion of the READ-IT ontology of reading experience, this contribution will highlight and address three challenges emerging from the development of a conceptual model for the support of research on cultural heritage. Firstly, this contribution addresses modelling for multi-disciplinary research. Secondly, this work describes the development of an ontology of reading experience, under the light of the experience of previous projects, and of ongoing and future research developments. Lastly, this contribution addresses the validation of a conceptual model in the context of ongoing research, the lack of a consolidated set of theories and of a consensus of domain experts.
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