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Defining Digital Dickens

Written by Pete Orford, a lecturer in the English department at the University of Buckingham and the man behind the amazing digital Dickens' project, The Drood Inquiry.  

In November 2015, as part of the Being Human festival, the University of Buckingham ran four workshops across the UK with the title of ‘Defining Digital Dickens’. Alliteration aside, what does it actually mean? We have been using the phrase Digital Dickens for a while now as an offshoot of Digital Humanities and essentially as a one-size fits all label to anything involving a) Dickens and b) the internet. But in reality the recent growth of Dickens projects online has been an organic and evolving one in which those behind the scenes have been learning as much as those in front.

The great watershed in Digital Dickens of recent times is the behemoth of Dickens Journals Online, the brainchild of John Drew to digitise all of Household Words and All the Year Round – not to mention the almanac too – and allow users to easily search through some 20-odd years’ worth of weekly serials edited by Dickens and featuring some of the most prominent Victorian writers (Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell, Edward Bulwer-Lytton) side-by-side with one-hit wonders and voluntary contributors.

The true genius of the project was John’s insistence that the site should be open-access, which is both admirable and a decision fraught with funding and resource issues, one of which became particularly apparent when the early transcripts came through. In order to make the original text searchable, it is necessary to create a written transcript of the journals, generated via a computer scanning the pages and recognising the symbols, which leads to numerous errors.

John wanted these errors to be cleaned up, which would mean a human eye reading each transcript side by side with the original: 20 years of journals, 52 issues per year, 32 pages per issue…it would require an enormous team. John had two: Hazel Mackenzie and Ben Winyard. So he put out a call for help to see if anyone would be willing to do it free of charge. Astonishingly, 1000 people responded to the call, many of whom would complain – yes, complain – that they weren’t given enough work to do.

It was an unexpected and overwhelming moment of genuine public engagement; the wider world freely involving themselves in an academic project and giving as much as, if not more than, they were receiving; the result being that – breaking with the most revered of all academic traditions - the website was actually ready to launch on time for the Dickens Bicentenary in 2012. A collective cheer was raised: Hoorah! A tremendous accomplishment had been achieved. Then silence falls, and a quiet voice in the crowd asks ‘Now what?’ To borrow terminology from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, DJO marked the end of phase one, and phase two has been dealing with that post-DJO world in which a Digital Dickensian community has been found and recognised, and material placed out there for them to use, and now all of us – academics and non-academics – are trying to work out what to do with that.

The first stage was a reading project held in 2012, run by academics from Buckingham and Leicester. A weekly blog was posted and people were invited to read A Tale of Two Cities in its original weekly instalments using the DJO website (this is the point at which I also got involved, first as an independent blogger and then as part of the central team). The site dickensataleoftwocities had followers across Europe and America, not to mention a group in Japan, and the project worked as a steep learning curve in stepping away from the classroom and into public discussion.

Early explorations of literary technique, Victorian serial publishing and queer theory were soon countered by, and often overcome, with more pressing and lively debates such as ‘Lucy Manette – love her or hate her?’ The academic tone quickly dropped to a more human voice, as we stopped teaching and started talking, and in the process found time to enjoy the book as much as illuminating it.

We followed this up with a second reading group in 2013 on Wilkie Collin’s No Name ­ – also serialised and available on DJO, but far less familiar to many than A Tale of Two Cities and its infamous ending, and thus allowing for a more genuine reading experience of thrills and discovery. Whether it was the lack of Dickens’ name, or a handy Collin bicentenary, the second project, though doing well, didn’t get quite the same number of hits and views as the first.

At this point two simultaneous projects emerged, both returning to Dickens. I initiated The Drood Inquiry which, like DJO, offered the original published part of The Mystery of Edwin Drood as digital scans, along with a more interactive element in which visitors could investigate the mystery, meet characters, learn about key objects/clues, read the popular theories and then vote for their own opinion of how the story ends. I also asked Alys Jones to illustrate the site, including comic strip summaries of the monthly parts; I wanted it to be a visual experience, not just text on a page but something that felt like it could only be done digitally.

While I ran a reading group of the monthly parts, my co-blogger Ben Winyard was setting up another reading group of Our Mutual Friend as part of Birkbeck’s 'Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth-Century' . While setting this up, a parallel Twitter project was suggested, where contributors could tweet the monthly parts from the perspectives of the characters themselves.



So now we are three years on from the DJO launch with four reading projects born out of it. We did not sit down in 2012 and map this out; rather each new project has evolved out of the last one, and been the result of trial and error as we tried to figure out what works for public engagement on the web.

A year ago I was invited to talk at a one-day workshop at Birkbeck on Digital Dickens, which I was delighted to do, as I was looking forward to meeting experts in the field who could give me advice. Once I arrived it soon became apparent that the other speakers had all had the same ideas as me, which was then followed by the realisation that we were the experts. As old as the internet is (and it is really no longer such a recent thing as we would like to think), we are still in new territory with academic projects online, mapping it out as we go and establishing paths for others to follow.

This is of course both thrilling and terrifying. The point of running these four workshops for Being Human was to take stock of what has happened so far and see what can be learned. Do these projects only work for prominent authors like Dickens, or can we use this to celebrate obscurer writers (those whom academic publishers run fleeing from)? How does digitising Dickens feed into a new awareness of Dickens as a serial novelist? Does a reading group, or twitter adaptation, offer any potential for learning or is it just for fun; and in the latter case is that necessarily a bad thing? I hope to be able to offer some answers to these.

For now though, consider this moment of reflection as the close of phase two; in consolidating our ideas of what precisely Digital Dickens is, we will be laying the groundwork for an entirely new phase of Dickens online.