About Reading Chicago Reading

Who reads? What do they read? How do they read? These are questions essential to the study of literacy, yet fine-grained answers to these questions are difficult to come by, as noted in To Read or Not To Read, a 2007 report from the NEA. Our project “Reading Chicago Reading” represents a rare opportunity to seek empirical answers to these questions within a large metropolitan area, with a wide variety of texts, and across a great diversity of readers. 

“Reading Chicago Reading” is a digital humanities project that takes as its starting point the popular and much-imitated “One Book, One Chicago” (OBOC) program operated by the Chicago Public Library (CPL) since 2001. Each year (originally every six months), the library chooses one book around which to organize city-wide events, discussions, and other programming. For our purposes, the OBOC program acts as a natural experiment. The 25 different books that have been chosen since the program’s inception can be thought of as probes into the reading behavior of the city. The dependent variables of interest are, of course, the patterns of reading behavior that these probes elicit. We make use of scholarship in the history and sociology of reading as an interpretive baseline representing the standard approach. But our study, by bringing together Computer Science and Humanities research methods, promises new kinds of insight and new forms of quantifiable data.

Our research innovation is to combine data from texts, community demographics, circulation records, and social media that can yield predictions about who might be interested in a given book and why and that can help library staff visualize and anticipate the impact of book choices and event scheduling.

With this data, we will be able to see, across the OBOC texts, which works were checked out and for how long, at which branch, and via what media. Through analysis of these numerical data sets in conversation with core digital humanities practices of text analysis and critical history of media, we seek to model the response of the library’s patrons to literary works more generally, looking at how features of texts lead to varying levels of reading interests as expressed in their library circulation.

While the “One Book One Chicago” program forms an excellent starting point for our project’s methodology, we expect that our models and techniques can and will be applied to library holdings more generally. The goal is to create a set of tools available to digital humanities scholars and public librarians that can ultimately make reading behavior comprehensible at large scale, and library services more responsive and more useful to library patrons.