Universiteit Leiden

'Popularising Print Culture in the Netherlands 1870-1970' research project


The nineteenth century saw tremendous technological changes, such as industrialisation and the far-reaching mechanisation of transportation, as well as social change, such as the improvement of working conditions, and the increasing opportunities for personal development and leisure for an ever greater part of the population. That these technological and social developments reinforced each other mutually is nowhere clearer than in the vast changes that occurred in the production, distribution and consumption of printed matter. Better schooling and more leisure time increased the demand for reading matter; the invention of the cylinder steam press, stereotyping, and lithography caused print to become more plentiful as well as cheaper. Increasing demand caused an increase in production, but increased supply, and the need to keep the presses running, in their turn led to the need for a still greater demand.

The expansion of the reading culture that resulted from this dynamic of supply and demand gave rise to fierce disagreement as to the benefits and aims of such an expansion among groups and institutions in society. Variously motivated by christian, socialist or liberal ideals, members of the higher strata strove to improve the masses by guiding and stimulating the new public in its reading habits. Diametrically opposed to such educational motives were the motives of those who had no other interest than the money they could earn from offering entertainment to the people. A third, and increasingly influential, position was taken by those who had long regarded themselves as the comfortable inhabitants of a world of books that had been exclusively theirs, and who were none too keen on the claims of the new readers to participate in this world. Gender divisions cut right across all of these groups.

Each of these positions corresponded to new genres and styles introduced in the book trade. Utilitarian publications of all kinds aimed at improving workers' social conscience; detective novels and ladies’ novelettes aimed at entertainment; a prime motivating force behind what we now call modernism was a concerted effort to keep the common people away from 'high' culture. The question of participation in the book and reading culture gave rise to intense polarisation.

Popularisation was regarded by some as a form of emancipation: raising the 'lower' social strata to 'higher' culture. For others popularisation was a form of vulgarisation: lowering culture to the level of the masses. It was obvious that transmission of knowledge did not entail a transmission of values. It was not until the 1970s that vulgarisation and emancipation achieved a new balance (as evidenced in, for example, in the Dutch Public Libraries Act of 1975, guaranteeing free and subsidised access to books).

In a wider context, the position of the book in society was not only growing more important, it was challenged as well. A spate of new media was beginning to compete with print for news, information and entertainment. First there was the cinema, then radio and finally television. In addition there was the popularity of music, both live and recorded. Yet the book profited from these other media, too: through serialisation of fiction, radio plays, and readings. Often films stimulated public awareness of a book, and could make the difference between commercial success or failure.

The proposed research aims to analyse these cultural tensions. It will be informed by three guiding principles. In the first place, the history of the book needs to placed centrally in this period, in the conviction that the continuous presence of the print medium over a longer period will offer the best opportunity to trace the long-term developments. Secondly, the book and other print media will need to be situated clearly in the panoply of other media as they come on the scene, in the conviction (with D.M. McKenzie) that a history of the book that includes the other media can offer an inclusive and firm material basis for the description of an immaterial development. Thirdly, the proposed research will take the contemporary resistance to the democratisation of the book seriously on its own terms, in the conviction that only such a position can throw light on the social tensions that attended the democratisation process.

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first century we witness another period of tension as the result of accelerated change in media use. Again the discontinuities in our media use bring with them discontinuities in the transmission of cultural values. It is expected that the proposed research, guided by the three principles described above, will bring to light the mechanisms that are at play in the interaction between social change and media change, not just in the period under scrutiny, but also in other similar periods of media change, including our own.




A.H. van der Weel; Tel. 071-5272141; E-mail
Laatste wijziging: 12 Sept 2009