Digitizing the Humanities

PROVO, Utah (April 4, 2013)—What does the technology of the Digital Humanities and Victorian literature have in common? A lot more than you might think, thanks to the collaboration of Brigham Young University English professor Leslee Thorne-Murphy and students who have created an online repository of Victorian short fiction.

About ten years ago, Thorne-Murphy wanted to spend more time researching the archives in BYU’s L. Tom Perry Special Collections Library; however, with teaching and other academic projects, she had difficulty finding the time.

She decided to implement her own research interests in the framework of her Victorian-literature class. Thorne-Murphy designed a research project requiring students to go to Special Collections, select a journal published in the Victorian era, find a piece of short fiction within the journal, prepare an annotated transcription of the text, and complete several additional class activities and assignments.

At first, students handed in paper copies of their work, but Thorne-Murphy didn’t find the final result ideal, because she couldn’t use the findings in future classes. So she, with the help of Michael Johnson and his team at BYU’s Center for Teaching and Learning, came up with the Victorian Short Fiction Project, dubbed the “Viki Wiki,” – a digital collection of short fiction put together by students at BYU.

“The journals held in Special Collections contain ample fictional material to keep students busy for many years to come. Thanks to the forward-thinking curators who purchased the original Victoriana collection and Maggie Kopp – current Rare Books Curator – we have a substantial collection that will continue to grow,” said Thorne-Murphy.

Each online short story has a complete transcription of the text, with footnotes and an introduction, and a link to a PDF copy of the actual journal pages. The Viki Wiki also contains an introduction to each journal and a table of contents for each issue the students examined – all items uploaded by students.

One of the great things about this project, Thorne-Murphy said, is that it “demands collaboration. Few humanities projects require collaboration. I love this project because it gets the students working together in class.”

Several students who have worked on the Viki Wiki shared their experiences. Brittany Strobelt, who transcribed and annotated “The Old Gentlemen” from The Keepsake, said, “I enjoyed exploring Special Collections, holding the actual book and finding a piece of literature that no one has really studied before.”

Ian McCarthy said that as a fan of Dickens, he was “excited to look at his actual works and study some stories that haven’t really been studied before.”

Each of the students shared how the project benefitted them as scholars and researchers. Shane Peterson added that one of the major assignments was to take the short story they discovered and compare it to literature they studied in class.

Jeremy Browne, an assistant research professor for Digital Humanities who currently oversees the maintenance of the site, said this project “is an inspiration for what students can do.”

Not only does the project give students a chance to become involved in the researching process, but it allows their work to reach beyond BYU to benefit the entire online population.

Thorne-Murphy said that the online site has now been accessed over 140,000 times. Using the example of one story in the collection, Thorne-Murphy said, “This page has been accessed over 1,500 times. It’s a success when these students have over a thousand people looking at their academic work.”

She plans to take this project to the next level and is preparing for the site to meet the Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship (NINES) requirements for professional online scholarship. She also hopes to start an associated online journal for students to submit essays written about the stories.

Matt Wickman, director of the BYU Humanities Center, said, “What I love about this project is that it does a lot of things at once. It’s a research project and a public humanities project.”

For more information about the Victorian Short Fiction Project, visit the collection’s website.

Stephanie Bahr Bentley BA English 14