Kerstin Rydbeck

Readers´ circles. A Sociological Study of Social Reading and Reading Communities in Contemporary Sweden

In recent years, many new reading groups have started among Swedish readers. Despite this, there is still little research on reading groups, based on Swedish conditions. This sociologically oriented project aims to study the reading group-activities in Sweden today. From an intersectional perspective and linked to practice theory and Habermas s theory of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere the following issues will be focussed:
1. How extensive is the reading group activities in Sweden today and how is the geographic distribution?
2. What patterns can be distinguished in terms of participants gender, educational background and age?
3. How do the reading groups organize their work: how do they select and purchase literature and how do they find information they need?
4. Which different functions do the reading group activities have for the participants?
The project is performed in two steps. The first is broad and based on quantitative surveys. The second is an in-depth, qualitative study of the activities in a small number of groups.
Further, an important objective is to compare the Swedish situation with the development internationally, and to understand it in light of the development over the past decade of the media market. The project includes both independent reading groups and groups organized by public libraries and study organizations.
Final report

The purpose of this research project was to get a good picture of the reading community activities of contemporary Sweden. However, through an on-going project at the Royal Library where the complete Swedish daily press is being digitized in full text, it became possible to find a lot of new information also about the activities during the 19th and 20th century. This meant I was able to provide a much better historical background for the presentation of the contemporary activities, than I expected. It was possible to compare the reading community activities in Sweden over time, in a way that I never thought would be possible when the project started.

The project used both quantitative and qualitative methods. Three surveys were conducted to get hold of the contemporary reading group activities , of which two focussed on social reading in public libraries and bookshops. The third one generated 231 useful answers from different local reading communities in the county of Uppsala, with a lot of information about their activities. 28 of the groups were later selected also for an interview, in some cases in combination with participatory observation of their book discussions.
I studied the annual statistics about the reading group activities linked to the study associations and the public libraries. I also conducted a content analysis of the newspaper material found in the Royal library’s database of Swedish newspapers.
The last six months were primarily focussed on the writing of the book, which will be the final report of this research project. The plan is to have manuscript ready at the end of the coming summer.

Concerning the results of the project, I will focus here on a few results showing the differences between the present situation and the situation some 60–70 years ago.
Although the assumption among the general public today is that there are more reading communities than ever before, the results from the project showed there was an earlier period with even more such activities in Sweden. This period started in the 1930s, and reached its peak in the 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s. Around the turn of the millennium the interest started to increase again.
However, there are some important differences between the two periods. During the first one, the interest for reading communities was connected to the shortage of books for many readers. Books were expensive, and the Swedish public library system was still weak. Consequently, the reason for organizing a reading community was gaining access to more books. The books circulated in the group and the meetings and the social interplay between the members was primarily connected to the exchanging of books. This was a common concept still 20 years ago.
Today we have a very different situation. Book production is higher than ever, books are cheap in Sweden now and very easy to find. In this overload situation a reading community offer some guidance. In most of the contemporary groups the focus is on the meetings and the book discussions, and generally the members all read the same book every time. However, this has been a common model for many decades in the study associations, and when the American media star Oprah Winfrey in the 1990s introduced book discussions in her talk show, she also used this concept. Winfrey has undoubtedly meant a lot for the interest (both in the media and among readers) for reading communities in Sweden during the last two decades.
The general attitude towards reading communities was quite negative during the first period, and it was often emphasized in the press that most of the members were women. Many (mostly male) critics associated reading communities with literature of low quality, and the term “reading group literature” was often used as a derogatory term in literary criticism.
Today the proportion of women in reading communities is even higher, but still the attitude has changed a lot. Not only Oprah Winfrey but also some important Swedish female literary critics have discussed the value of reading communities, being members of groups themselves. A few years ago, a fellow of the Swedish Academy took part in reading group discussions on television, and in an interview another fellow described the internal discussions in the Academy about the candidates for the Nobel Prize in literature, as something very much resembling to a reading group. This would have been impossible just a few decades ago.

In January 2016, I attended a workshop at OsloMet University, about a special method for social reading called Shared Reading (SR), which was developed in Britain by Dr Jane Davis. The purpose of SR is to engage people, who seldom read books and, for various reasons, are socially isolated or suffer from physical or mental health problems. I later went to Liverpool and was trained to be leader of SR groups. In April 2017, I organized a workshop in Uppsala for a group of researchers, public librarians and persons active in study associations, with the aim to introduce SR in Sweden. Some local SR groups have now, in collaboration with Jane Davis and The Reader organization in Liverpool, started to work in Sweden.
The plan is to organize a new research project about social reading, focussing specifically on SR. I received 50,000 SEK from the Swedish library association in November 2017, for the planning of this project and the writing of an application for funding. It will be a sociologically oriented comparative study of the establishment and development of reading communities using SR in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. The project will involve researchers from Uppsala University, Lund University, OsloMet University and Aarhus University, and will also collaborate with the University of Liverpool.

I also take part in the international research project “The ALM-Field, Digitalization and the Public Sphere (ALMPUB)”, lead by OsloMet University and funded by the Research Council of Norway 2016-2019. The project aims at understanding how digitization and globalization affect the role of the ALM-institutions as institutions underpinning the public sphere.
I established contact in 2013 with prof. DeNel Rehberg Sedo, from Mount St Vincent univ. in Halifax, Canada. In February 2017, we started the planning of a research-collaboration, a study investigating the work of Libros para Pueblos. This Mexican non-profit organisation supports more than 70 local community libraries in small villages of Oaxaca, focusing primarily on reading promotion among children. Some results from a preliminary study will be presented at the IGEL-conference in Stavanger, Norway, in July 2018.

I was the chair of the CoLIS9-conference in Uppsala 2016 where I has a poster presentation with some results from the project. I had a paper presentation at the conference ”Reading and Writing from Below: Exploring the Margins of Modernity” in Helsinki 2014. I had a paperpresentation at the national conference of Mimer in 2013 and held a presentation at a symposium oganized by the Swedish Academy in 2013. Jag had a paperpresentation at the conference ”Researching the Reading Experience”, i 2013 vid OsloMet university.
I have discussed results from the project several times in national public library contexts. Media also has presented results from the project, for example the journal of the Swedish Library association. Some results will be be discussed at a library meeting in April 2018, organized by the County Library of Dalarna, and I will attend a panel discussion about social reading and reading communities, organized by the Swedish Arts Council at the book fair in Gothenburg in September 2018.

Publication list

Projektets webbsidor:

Vetenskapliga artiklar och bokkapitel:
Rydbeck, Kerstin (2017), "Att läsa i cirkel : Internationella influenser i folkrörelsernas tidiga bildningsarbete", i: Konstellationer: festskrift till Anna Williams, red: Borg, Hedberg, Karlsson, Määttä & Warnqvist. Möklinta: Gidlunds förlag, s. 255–267. Full text OA i DiVA.

Rydbeck, Kerstin (2016), "Reading Groups in Swedish Public Libraries", in: Plotting the Reading Experience – Theory/Practice/Politics, eds: Oterholm, Skjerdingstad, McKechnie & Rothbauer. Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, p. 233–245. Full text OA i DiVA.

Rydbeck, Kerstin (2016), Sheriffens vänner, befrielsegruppen och det namnlösa sällskapet: om läsargemenskaper i Uppsala idag", i: Spänning och nyfikenhet: festskrift till Johan Svedjedal, red: Furuland, Hedberg, Määttä, Söderlund och Warnqvist. Möklinta: Gidlunds förlag, s. 396–410. Full text OA i DiVA.

Rydbeck, Kerstin (2013), ”Läsargemenskapernas komplexa landskap: om bokcirkelbegreppet och utvecklingen av svensk bokcirkelverksamhet, med speciellt fokus på folkbibliotekens och studieförbundens cirklar”, i: Libraries, black metal and corporate finance: Current research in Nordic Library and Information Science: Selected articles from the 40th anniversary conference of the Swedish School of Library and Information Science, Anders Frenander & Skans Kersti Nilsson (red), s. 112-135. Borås: Högskolan i Borås.

Rydbeck, Kerstin (2012), ”Bokcirklar – en företeelse i tiden”, i: Årsbok om folkbildning 2011: forskning och utveckling, s. 172–193. Stockholm: Föreningen för folkbildningsforskning.

Publicering i läroböcker:
Rydbeck, Kerstin (2013), ”Det sociala läsandet förr och nu”, i: Lärandets mångfald: om vuxenpedagogik och folkbildning, Andreas Fejes (red.), s. 37–54. Lund: Studentlitteratur.

Populärvetenskaplig publicering:
Rydbeck, Kerstin (2013), ”Om bokcirklar och folkbibliotek”, i: Länsnytt: mötesplats för biblioteken i Stockholms län, 2013:2, s. 5-6.

Rydbeck, Kerstin (2012), ”Läsandets cirklar ‒ om ett pågående forskningsprojekt”, i: Är det samma bok vi läst? Om läsecirklars betydelse, Bo Andér m. fl. (red.), s. 131–152. Stockholm: Kata förlag.

Streamat föredrag, publicerat på webben:
Länsbibliotekets "Mötesplats litteratur i Uppsala", tema bokcirklar 30 oktober 2014. Innehåller en presentation av delresultat från analysen av enkätmaterialet i Bokcirkeluppropet i Uppsala län 2013.

Grant administrator
Uppsala University
Reference number
SEK 2,967,000.00
General Literature Studies