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Sunday, 10 February 2013

Project getting out more

In the past couple of weeks I managed to get to two excellent seminars at the Institute of Historical Research.

I don't think I've ever been to the Sport and Leisure History seminar before, but was tempted by Michelle Johansen's 'Good Feeling and Brotherliness: Leisure, the Suburbs and the Society of Public Librarians in London, 1895-193', which turned out to be extremely interesting and evoked a lot of fascinating questions. The cultural place of the oft-stigmatised 'suburbs' is surely overdue for historical re-evaluation, and the public librarians discussed by Johansen were pivotal figures in creating vibrant cultures of leisure and recreation both in the areas in which they were librarians and in their professional association. Their class origins were also fascinating: the kind of lower-class self-improvers for whom public libraries were intended, though with what appears to have been a significant degree of status anxiety, such as tweaking their family backgrounds a notch or two higher on the social scale.  A downside to this group, however, was that they had all achieved the pinnacle of their profession (i.e. head of a London or metropolitan borough library service) at relatively young ages (late 20s/30s) and basically had nowhere further to go - it was not a jumping-off point for other areas of librarianship - so they tended to stay there blocking opportunities for more recent incomers to the profession. I also had a slight cavil with the notion that public library users were either recreational readers or earnest self-improvers - I think it probable that those are two reasons for using libraries that could have been combined at different times and in varying proportions in the same individual.

I have more often been to the Life-cycles seminar in which last week there was a riveting paper by Hilary Marland (even though I missed the beginning due to a confusion over rooms in Senate House and nearly ended up at the Latin-American seminar by mistake), 'Managing Health, Managing Behaviour: Health and Girlhood in Britain, 1874-1920', which brought a good deal of nuance and complexity to ideas around girlhood, exercise, and health at a time of rapid social change and new roles for women. She demonstrated that while there was a good deal of concern expressed about the dangers of new forms of sport being indulged in by the adolescent girl there was also a new paradigm of the fit and healthy young female body being contrasted to the fainting wan mid-Victorian specimen and fitting in to the wider fin de siecle anxieties about national fitness. 

I thought that I had, regretfully, due to work commitments, had to miss a paper on Anna Freud's war nurseries and their influence in the Psychoanalysis and History series, but in fact that is not happening until next month.


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