Shh! Encounters in the Unquiet Library

This Sadler Seminar Series will examine what we call the 'unquiet library'.

Series convenor

Bridget Bennett (English & History & Leeds Library).

Project overview

While libraries are places of sanctuary and quiet repose for their readers, and repositories for archives books, they also nurture radical exchanges and loud dissent. 

Taking its cue from the 250th anniversary of the Leeds Library, this seminar series is led by three main themes to focus its enquiries:

  • Libraries and their readers
  • The Archive and the Library
  • The Activist in and out of the Library. 

Members of the Leeds Library have participated in a range of political and civic campaigns throughout its distinguished history. Edward Baines, Editor of the Leeds Mercury, after whom a wing of the Brotherton Library is named, was a significant C19th anti-slavery campaigner. He campaigned for the abolition of slavery in the United States with another library member, Wilson Armistead, whose former home is now a University Hall of Residence. 

Other celebrated library users, who we might point to as exemplifying the imperatives we consider, include an exiled Karl Marx, whose quiet hours working in the Reading Room of the British Library produced seminal books that led to noisy global impact. 

Celebrated libraries include the People's Library of Occupy Wall Street, established in Zuccotti Park, NYC, in 2011 and flourishing until it was destroyed in a raid on 15 November 2011. 

At its core, then, 'The Unquiet Library' is engaged with exploring the paradox by which the library, traditionally a peaceful site of silent work, is also a productively noisy place of disturbance that is often under threat of destruction. 

We have a particular interest in examining connections between library members and what they read, discuss and produce, both in libraries, and as a consequence of active library membership. 

We argue that dissident or dissenting reading practices can be nurtured in unquiet libraries and can make positive contributions to society in times of peace and of crisis. We ask how they can be better nurtured to provide models for our current period. We will also focus attention on libraries, texts, and archives as physical sites of local encounter, with global possibilities. 


Wednesday, 15 November between 1-2pm - Libraries and their readers: reading group

Wednesday, 29 November between 1-2.30pm - Libraries and their readers: reading group

Further dates TBC.

The series will be comprised of two reading group events and two work in progress seminars per theme and a final workshop. 

September-December: Libraries and their readers

We examine the library as a site of personal transformation for readers. We reflect on the way that libraries are critical to the way that engaged citizenship is produced and nourished. 

In addition, we reflect upon reading itself as a powerful act by a focus on what we call dissenting reading. We ask who, and what, is in the library as well as who, and what, is not there. 

Readings: Thomas Augst and Wayne Wiegand (eds), 'The Library as an Agency of Culture'; Chris Baggs, ‘Radical reading? Working-class libraries in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries’; Librarian Is My Occupation: A History of the People’s Library of Occupy Wall StreetInformed Agitation(Introduction).

January-March: Archives and the Library

We next turn to the archive. 

The dual and somewhat narrow OED definition of the word archive as a 'place in which public records or other important historical documents are kept' and a 'historical record or document so preserved' suggests the possibility of meaningful interdisciplinary investigation into what is included, and left out, of this description. 

Thinking across disciplines, methods and objects we seek further to refine and to unsettle the idea of the archive. 

We propose that the archive is contested and subject to flux rather than a stable construct with static meanings. Our principle research questions are first, what kind of a space constitutes an archive and second, what does it mean to conduct archival research?

April-June: The Activist in and out of the Library

Finally, we turn our focus specifically to the model offered by what we call ‘dissenting reading practices’ which focus on personal growth and resilience as methods of developing rich modes of independent thought, underwritten by truth and social justice. 

Readings: Jane Gallop, 'The Historicization of Literary Studies and the Fate of Close Reading' (2007)

A concluding workshop will be held in Leeds Library. Details TBC.