The following article, which discusses RaVoN, NINES, and BRANCH appeared in Critical Quarterly in vol. 55.1 (2013).  I have been given approval to reproduce here the introduction and the section of the article on BRANCH.

BRANCHing Out: Victorian Studies and the Digital Humanities

Dino Franco Felluga

In 2005, I wrote an article for Victorian Studies entitled ‘Addressed to the NINES: The Victorian Archive and the Disappearance of the Book’, in which I discussed the state of the digital humanities in Victorian studies.[1]  At the time, the World Wide Web, as we know it now, was only a decade old and I pointed out that the impact of technological innovation is particularly difficult to determine early in a given technology’s adoption.[2]  Not only can we not foresee how new technologies will affect the development of the innovation but our tendency is also to rely on old formal structures to help us to make sense of the new.  Such skeuomorphs—as I called those formal structures, following N. Katherine Hayles—keep us from fully exploring the potential (or even the logical fruition) of the innovation.[3]  The archaic, skeuomorphic language we use to make sense of the computer and the Internet cannot but delimit our understanding of the new medium—from Web ‘pages’ and ‘bookmarks’ to ‘windows’, ‘folders’, and ‘trash’.

Eight years have passed, and I think we may be in a better place now to assess where we are going and how the digital humanities will continue to impact Victorian studies in the years ahead.  Developments since 2005 have completely transformed how we understand the Internet and in ways that would have been exceptionally difficult for most of us to anticipate: Twitter was launched July 2006; Facebook opened its service to all comers in September 2006; the iPhone went on sale for the first time on June 29, 2007; the iPad appeared in the spring of 2010.  With each innovation and with the wholesale expansion and upgrading of the data networks supporting these innovations, what had been possible but not yet fully realised in the mass adoption of the Internet became clearer: immediate access to information; social networking; mobile computing; metadata and database-driven retrieval of information; and the reduction of that information into small, highly organised bits. All of these changes have, not surprisingly, impacted the digital humanities’ approach to Victorian studies.

In the meantime, various developments impacting humanities education broadly and Victorian studies specifically have continued to make themselves felt in dramatic and often painful ways: the corporatisation of the university; the reduction of funding for the humanities, especially in Great Britain and the United States; and ever greater pressures on academic presses to stay in the black. Victorian studies have been beset from two sides at once, in other words: the digital humanities are transforming how we research and publish while institutional changes (government funding, university ethos, publication dynamics) are impacting what and how we can publish.

Because of these inexorable changes, there is no way that Victorian studies will continue with business as usual, precisely because business has intruded: corporatisation is transforming the university, profit margins are dictating what scholarly presses can publish, and commercial entities have been quick to capitalise on the Internet by selling back to our cash-strapped libraries our own knowledge in the form of password-protected online databases (from, for example, Gale Cengage, ProQuest, InteLex, SpringerLink, and Elsevier). If we do nothing, others will decide—have already decided—what we as Victorian scholars are allowed to research and publish. It is time for Victorian studies to resist the skeuomorphic drag of the old and familiar in favor of new forms of scholarship and publication that make the most of new technologies while safeguarding what we most value in our work.

In this article, I will illustrate how the digital humanities, as the field pertains to Victorian studies, have been evolving from an early, skeuomorphic approach to the Internet; how new technologies offer us a potential escape from the current constraints on our research and publishing, while offering new approaches to Victorian studies; and how institutional structures need to evolve to allow for effective change. There have been a number of articles on Victorian studies and the digital humanities of late.[4] The usual tack is to provide a listing of the best sites or advice on how to use extant tools, with the goal of informing readers about what’s out there. This article plots a different course and tells a different tale, one that is at once unabashedly personal and expansively utopian.

Web 1.0

[In this section, I discuss RaVoN and early efforts in the digital humanities as examples of the skeuomorph. I also lay out some of the problems facing Victorian studies given the current constraints on the publishing industry and the difficulties many scholars in the United States have in getting access to commercial databases.]

Web 2.0

[In this section, I discuss NINES as one effort to move beyond skeuomorphic structures. I mention a NINES-inspired effort by the North American Victorian Studies Association to convince the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to fix the problem of access to commercial databases by helping to set up a mechanism by which scholars can gain access to the databases through their scholarly societies. The initiative now continues, led by the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS).]

Web iOS

Inspired by NINES, I have recently embarked on my own editing project called BRANCH: Britain, Representation, and Nineteenth-Century History, 1775-1925 at branchcollective.org. I think that BRANCH is a good example of the possibilities for Victorian studies opened up by the digital humanities after the investments and tool creation of the last ten years. Created with just $14,000, it showcases the new possibilities of what we might term the plug-and-play future, where already existing software tools can be made easily available for new digital ventures at little cost. Using only free, open-source tools (WordPress at wordpress.org and the Mellon-funded SIMILE timeline at simile-widgets.org), BRANCH seeks to push the bounds of scholarly endeavor while staying true to our scholarly values, and all without investment from either a commercial provider or even a scholarly press.

Open-source and free-culture initiatives are significant for the digital humanities and Victorian studies specifically not just because they provide tools that can then be used by others for new purposes but also because they work to counter the phenomenon of the ‘deep web,’ the large body of scholarly knowledge we have created and hidden behind various roadblocks. Most of the work that humanities scholars are doing now is either stored in university libraries (in books and journals published by university presses) or disseminated through password-protected online venues marketed to those libraries, the ‘deep web.’ BRANCH joins the other free-culture sites aggregated by NINES, not to mention all the other free-culture Victorian sites outside NINES’ orbit, in the effort to open our work to a completely new audience, thus reclaiming the cultural authority of our expertise. At a time when humanities scholarship is threatened by budget cuts and widely attacked as irrelevant, we must counter by showing off the wealth of our knowledge base in forms that are rigorous while universally, creatively, and easily accessible. And, of course, the digital humanities offer the most logical mechanisms for achieving that goal.

I started BRANCH because I felt there was a real need for a free, expansive, searchable, reliable, peer-reviewed, easy-to-use resource for the study of nineteenth-century history and culture, one that went significantly beyond what one can find at Wikipedia. I wanted a free-culture resource that would at once excite scholars looking for smart articles about the nineteenth century; aid teachers looking for material that can explain to their students various aspects of nineteenth-century history and culture; encourage students to learn more about the period; and showcase to a non-academic audience what we do as scholars. I also wanted to see if scholars would consider experimenting with the very form of the scholarly essay. BRANCH does not have the same limitations as a journal or book publication, so I proposed to contributors that they could submit articles of any length (1,000 words minimum) on any event of interest from across the time period 1775-1925. I challenged contributors to limit their discussions to events that could then be plotted onto a timeline, although I also encouraged contributors to offer up ‘events’ that test the very definition of the term. I also wanted contributors to experiment with various methodological approaches to history, temporality, diachrony, and occurrence.

My hope was that BRANCH would not be a simple, chronological list of events explained exclusively in positivist fashion (though I also invited positivist approaches). In fact, I was hoping that a few events and figures would be represented by more than one contributor, thus allowing articles to ‘branch’ out in different interpretative directions on the same topic. I wanted BRANCH to represent history the way scholars tend to approach it, which is to say with an eye to interpretation, including critiques of the very notion of diachrony or of any ex post facto interpretation of an event. Indeed, I hoped that some contributors would metacritically address our debt to the nineteenth century for even thinking of history in these ways. ‘Representation’ was an important part of the acronym, since it not only invited links to cultural artifacts but also underscored the ideological nature of our understanding of history. I also wanted BRANCH to start a dialogue among the disciplines, so I have tried hard to attract historians and art historians, as well as literature professors.

The result will be a compilation of over 300 articles from some of the best critics writing on the period today. While only 77 articles have been published at the time that I write this essay, the rest will appear slowly but surely through 2015. Article topics range from high politics and military history (for example, Elaine Hadley on the Ballot Act or Stefanie Markovits and Lara Kriegel on the Crimean War) to ‘low’ or quotidian histories (for example, Brenda Assael and Judith Walkowitz on restaurant culture). Methodological approaches to the exercise range from traditional New Historicist or Cultural Critical takes on a variety of events (for example, James Chandler on the Peterloo Massacre) to alternative ways of approaching history (for example, Catherine Gallagher’s history of counter-factual histories or Marjorie Levinson on ‘conjuncture’ in historical understanding). Even among the 77 articles already published, the approach to ‘event’ varies in productive ways. Garrett Stewart for example is officially discussing 1896 and the first film showings in Great Britain but his entry in fact underscores the longue durée nature of technological development. As he writes, ‘Here and before, then, the real thrust of this entry has not just been to point forward and back by turns from an 1896 flashpoint in representational history. Rather, it has been to follow out the increasingly prominent feedback loop between media in the circuits of interdisciplinary thinking.’[5] Martin Meisel in his article on the age of the earth (and its projected demise) opens chronology out to the start and end of all things in the universe, which of course has great bearing on how the Victorians understood themselves in the present as agents in history. Anne Mellor, by contrast, works outward from the 1792 publication of Wollstonecraft’s Vindication to explore the ripples of influence that lead eventually to the feminist movements of the twentieth century, while Nadja Durbach looks closely at one year, 1847, and one cultural phenomenon, the freak show, to tease out how these shows ‘helped to educate the public about their place in the hierarchy of classes, races, civilizations, and nations that was so crucial to the nineteenth-century worldview.’[6]

BRANCH offers users an innovative approach to history itself, suggesting that any given bit of historical information can branch outward in often surprising directions. Rather than provide a linear timeline of history from the perspective of the victors, I wish to provide a history that comes closer to what Walter Benjamin famously termed jetztzeit or ‘the time of the now,’ an impacted history that explores the messy uncertainties and possibilities of any given historical moment (or of our interpretative understanding of those moments).[7]

BRANCH is being created by and for scholars, with the goal of providing students and non-academics a smarter, more detailed understanding of the period we know so well. I want also to test to what extent it is possible now to rethink our approach to scholarly publication itself through the tools made available by the digital humanities. All the material in BRANCH has been peer reviewed by two specialists in the field and then copy-edited before publication, including a proofing stage, all without support from any university press or commercial provider. I used $7,000 from a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada grant awarded to Michael Eberle-Sinatra for RaVoN plus some funds I had at my disposal in my department and some additional funds generously given to me by the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Purdue University, $14,000 in all.[8] I point out these small funding details to illustrate just how possible it is now for Victorian scholars to create new digital initiatives with funds that are conceivably within our reach.

Having created the site, a proof of concept, I am now in a position to seek more significant funding from institutional bodies like the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Council of Learned Societies. My hope in seeking funding is to explore the possibilities for nineteenth-century studies in the next great revolution in the understanding of the Internet and the dissemination of knowledge: mobile computing. The iOS app interface I hope to create will allow users more dynamically to explore the various dates and events addressed by scholars across the BRANCH timeline, offering that knowledge in a portable, easily accessible, and attractive interface that students and scholars alike can employ. The iOS software will, of course, be made freely available so other scholars can pursue this avenue for the dissemination of chronology-based teaching and scholarship. As with the first tools created using Web 2.0 innovations, it will take money to build the first open-source tools for the new medium of mobile computing, and it is in our own best interest, I would argue, to support such open-source initiatives.

Continuing Challenges

[I finish here by laying out the problems that continue to face the digital humanities, particularly an archaic tenure, promotion, and merit system that has trouble evaluating work in the digital humanities, a situation that is most grave for junior scholars seeking tenure.][9]


[1] Dino Franco Felluga, ‘Addressed to the NINES: The Victorian Archive and the Disappearance of the Book’, Victorian Studies, 48 (2006), 305-19

[2] As I explain below, the Internet and the World Wide Web existed before 1995 but either that year or 1996 is usually given the as the first year of the mass-market viability of the medium.

[3] N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999). ‘Skeuomorph’ is a concept borrowed from archaeological anthropology and used by Hayles in How We Became Posthuman to make sense of the persistence of old formal structures. As she writes, ‘A skeuomorph is a design feature that is no longer functional in itself but that refers back to a feature that was functional at an earlier time’. The skeuomorph calls into play ‘a psychodynamic that finds the new more acceptable when it recalls the old that it is in the process of displacing and finds the traditional more comfortable when it is presented in a context that reminds us we can escape from it into the new’ (17).

[4] See, for example, Andrew Stauffer, ‘Digital Scholarly Resources for the Study of Victorian Literature and Culture’, Victorian Literature and Culture, 39 (2011), 293-303; Patrick Leary, ‘Googling the Victorians’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 10 (2005), 72-86; Chris Willis, ‘“Out flew the web and floated wide”: An Overview of Uses of the Internet for Victorian Research’, Journal of Victorian Culture (2002), 297-310; a special issue of the Journal of Victorian Culture on ‘Digital Research and Victorian Culture’, 13 (2008); a Victorian Studies forum on ‘Evidence and Interpretation in the Digital Age’, 54 (2011); and the forthcoming special issue of Victorian Review, 38 (2012) dedicated to the topic.

[5] Garrett Stewart, ‘Curtain Up on Victorian Popular Cinema; Or, The Critical Theater of the Animatograph’, BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History, ed. Dino Franco Felluga, accessed October 15, 2012.

[6] Nadja Durbach, ‘On the Emergence of the Freak Show in Britain’, BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History, ed. Dino Franco Felluga, accessed October 15, 2012.

[7] Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 253-7, especially page 263.

[8] BRANCH will eventually be interlinked with RaVoN, with articles appearing a second time in the journal. After RDF encoding, BRANCH articles will then be aggregated by NINES.

[9] My sincere gratitude goes out to Elaine Freedgood, Pamela K. Gilbert, Linda K. Hughes, Andrew Stauffer, Garrett Stewart, and Dana Wheeles for their comments on an early script of this article. My gratitude also goes to Purdue’s Department of English, Purdue’s College of Liberal Arts, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for helping to fund this work and to the Center for Undergraduate Instructional Excellence of Purdue’s College of Liberal Arts for providing me with a semester away from my teaching so I could pursue the BRANCH project.