Dickens goes Digital!

Today I took a break from Shakespeare and shot off to a day of all things digitally Dickens. I know I know it’s not exactly my research area but I am doing a couple of Dickens read-alongs (as if Clarissa wasn’t enough to last me the year), and what better way to spend a day than at a good academic conference. Also, with the interlaced world of digitisation, digital humanities and academia growing ever bigger I thought it was high time I heard what these Dickensians had to say about it. They are, after all, some of the leading academics in this line of research and the implementation of all things digital.

It was a workshop handily titled Digital Dickens and held at a building which inspired both Hitler and Orwell. No not a farm, I know the movie industry might have us believe that very soon animals might outsmart us but they’ve yet to make it yet. Nope, this was in the city: Senate House (and no this post isn’t a quiz on literary links and architecture). It was an excellent day and in the spirit of getting digital here’s a brief blog (limited edition stuff, you never know who’ll pull the plug on WordPress…) on what we got up to. This is part one. Incidentally for more information it’s definitely worth checking out the hashtag for the day #digitaldickens and the brand spanking new Twitter account @DickensDay.

The day kicked off with a lowdown on the latest from Dickens Journal’s Online, this was a virtual affair sent from John Drew (University of Buckingham) the main man behind DJO which has grown rapidly since it’s official launch back in 2012, in fact at some point in March this year it saw it’s 1 millionth hit, pretty impressive and according to DJO’s Facebook page this equates to a circulation of about 42,000 per 24-page number. Roughly what the original enjoyed in a week. Greeted by the music of DJO (no Dickens wasn’t that good a jazz singer, but John did say this caused DJO url complications. Musical competition for Dickens, who’d have thought) we shot through the story of DJO then and now. The beauty of course of DJO is that it’s open access so you too can link your site to this fantastic resource. It also has a handy search function in its bag of tricks, but the digital project continues. The launch was after all only the first step, it now comes with an export to pdf function, sparked two read-along projects, A Tale of Two Cities and No Name. The torch has now been taken on by two new projects, to feature later on (The Drood Inquiry and Our Mutual Friend). These featured blogging, commenting and even – shock horror – reading, as Dickens and then Collins stood in the limelight. But more on read-alongs later. There are also a couple of specific projects linked to the site which the presentation highlighted:

  1. First up a literary journalism competition. Details can be found here.
  2. Second: Your DJO needs YOU. DJO seeks volunteers.

Great you say, but where does this digitising, blogging, read-along-ing, social-media-ing (and any other related th-ing I might have missed) get us? Great the resources and (at least attempts at) conversations are there, but what’s the point. Well, like that well known Shakespeare line (see I did manage to sneak him in) ‘the play’s the thing’; the thing here is public engagement. Interacting with audiences and most importantly getting them excited about literature, getting them talking and using the resources that people have put blood sweat and tears into (and that’s only the tweets..). On a serious note, this theme cropped up throughout the day, a need for an awareness both of the academic and the public interaction with these resources whether that’s an entire digital archive like DJO, an academic read-along blog like No Name, a twitter-heavy read-a-long fuelled project like Our Mutual Friend or an interactive inquiry like Drood. Of course all these projects overlap with the ways they utilise the digital tools at their disposal. But the digital world is constantly shifting and whilst throughout the day there was definitely a sense that the academic world shouldn’t trail behind, there was also awareness that this world can be scary, time consuming and not always produce the results you might hope for. Never mind the audiences you’re trying to reach. Twitter is a classic example of this (from a non-academic moment for a second) you might post a tweet, think you’ve said something hilarious or revolutionary and get no reaction at all, no retweets, favourites you name it the twitter-sphere seem to have ignored you. Sadly the same can be said of digital projects sometimes. There’s a great danger of initiatives (which take years of toil) sitting in a cupboard under the stairs of academia, storing genius somewhere in the ether but only accessed by a select few. It’s a bit like Harry Potter really, the genius is stuck in the world of muggles (no I’m not suggesting there’s no magic in academia, honest) waiting for a letter from Hogwarts to release it and send it flying into the magical world. But like Harry Potter one letter (or in this case one post online, tweet, blog) might not do it. It seems to me that a level of support is needed between academic projects to promote such fantastic initiatives and get them off the ground. What I’m saying is maybe we all need our Hagrid to rescue us, make a big presence and stick us on the map.




I’m sure there’s plenty of Victorianists who dream of a day when they do a Google Doodle for the anniversary of the launch of DJO, The Drood Inquiry or Our Mutual Friend; though this isn’t limited to Victorian scholars by any means. I remember being very excited several weeks ago when Jonathan Bate, one of the biggest cheeses in Shakespeare scholarship, retweeted me and sharing this moment with my flatmate she gave me a look as if to say, “really? How easily excited are you?”

(The tweet in question)

I realise this is no comparison to the thousands of hits these read-along projects have had (apparently The Drood Inquiry has had 4000+ since its launch in April) and the meaningless story of mine that happened to attract the attention of a Shakespeare scholar had no real impact but, it shows in miniature the nature of today’s world, and the struggle everyone experiences to get their voice heard. It also shows one of the great uses of Twitter: you can actively engage with a critic you might have just read in the library (provided of course that they’re an active twitter user). This furthers the possibility of scholarly debate and the social platform produces a discussion much more akin to a conference or seminar than a brief letter of return as a courtesy as you may have got (if you were lucky) back in the ‘olden days’.

Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s great, we have thousands of digitalised Victorian magazines, blogs cataloguing weeks or months of reading 19th century style and even archives of Dickensian impersonators (see Our Mutual Feed for more). But if this content is only staying with a select few then its lifetime is limited. If Harry Potter hadn’t made it to Hogwarts perhaps JK Rowling wouldn’t be raking in the thousands now if she’d just written about a disgruntled young boy of Privet Drive. The magic of the internet is a fantastic platform for digital scholarship but with so much out there there’s a danger of getting lost or being lost.

Reflections on digital projects continued as speaker one of the day, Joanne Shattock (University of Leicester), took the stage. She talked about the practicalities of blogs and who is really reading and commenting on them. Personally speaking I think I’m very much of the camp (perhaps wrongly) that reads but doesn’t comment – a lurker – I think techy people call them especially on the Dickens read-alongs and that’s not because the posts aren’t engaging but really because knowing my knowledge of Dickens is really very limited (having only really started getting excited about his books again through following the recent projects) I’m acutely aware that I don’t want to say a) something blindingly obvious b) stupid or c) irrelevant. When I came home this evening I was discussing this in particular and my Dad suggested that perhaps it might only be academics (and students) who feel like this. He would be happy to comment on something without fear of looking silly or saying something wrong because as he put it, “I’ve nothing to lose”. I think there’s definitely some truth to this, and actually these are exactly the kind of people that blogs want to see comments from: those whose background isn’t intensive academic reading because this makes for much more interesting discussion and also brings fresh views to the table. Also I that this kind of attitude is definitely one that should be adopted by us all (me included) because it’s not about looking silly or feeling a fool it’s about getting stuck into the text and talking about it.

As Joanne highlighted part of the challenge creation of a virtual reading group, on whatever digital platform it’s on, is enabling a good discussion. Project leaders have to find ways to forward rather than close off discussion. It needs to not become an “in-group”. Blogging and commenting by nature removes any sense of professor-student relationship it should be democratic reaching out to a wide demographic from all over the world.

She also suggested that whilst at the moment this is very much a hybrid generation part digital, part analogue, the new generation may be scholars reading entirely online and it’s important to recognise the challenges, benefits, and differences that this brings.

She talked particularly about the No Name and A Tale of Two Cities projects and the way that reading in serial form can sometimes reduce the role of literary criticism  encouraging close reading of a different nature as the traditional footnotes or appendices disappear (only to be replaced by thousands of adverts). But it can also have the reverse effect as readers look at more sources (perhaps on the internet and elsewhere) to glean a better understanding of other crevices of the texts. There is an awareness of how demanding Dickens, in particular, is of his readers. She also discussed hindsight and the benefits and limitations of modern readers.

A comparison of the two read-alongs on statistics alone showed that, as might be expected, Dickens got far more hits than Collins. Dickens fever it seems is set to stay, despite the end of his bicentenary two years ago now, it seems he’s got the Shakespeare factor.

Distinction was made between serial reading monthly and weekly and the different challenges that may pose as well as the extraordinary memory Victorians must have had.But the question was again raised, where are such projects leading us? What is their goal during and post-project? A few answers were suggested by Joanne. The projects can become a teaching tool (but there’s a need for a model to help with this); they help to democratise the academy and encourage book based blogging and talking led but also open allowing for flexibility; can help with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) through provision of resources and training readers to comment on posts – an element which forms a big part of blogs and MOOCs – helping to create “active” readers. But crucially, Joanne noted, some people have a real knack for writing posts that stimulate further discussion and this should be the aim of writers whatever the platform – digital or analogue.

…And in the spirit of serialisation, there endeth part one. The rest of the day’s activity will follow in the next instalment.

Author: Sarah Waters

I recently finished a PhD at Oxford Brookes University and have research interests in early modern drama and its relationship with the present day, the history of emotions, interdisciplinary study - especially the intersection of drama with psychosocial research, as well as children's literature, CS Lewis, and the Inklings. I can usually be found with a book in one hand and a cup of tea in the other, or on my bike heading towards the next manuscript or piece of cake.

6 thoughts on “Dickens goes Digital!”

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