Tuesday 10 November 2015 – Bob Nicholson – Remixing Digital Archives: The Victorian Meme Machine

Slide Show


History has not been kind to Victorian jokes. While the great works of nineteenth-century art and literature have been preserved and celebrated by successive generations, even the period’s most popular gags have largely been forgotten. In the popular imagination, the Victorians have long been regarded as terminally humourless; a straitlaced society who, in the words of their queen, were famously “not amused” And yet, millions of jokes were written during the nineteenth century. They were printed in books and newspapers, performed in theatres and music halls, and re-told in pubs, offices, taxicabs, schoolrooms and kitchens throughout the land. Like many other forms of ephemeral popular culture, the majority of these jokes were never recorded and have now been forgotten.

But all is not lost. Millions of puns, gags, and comic sketches have been preserved – often by accident – in archives of nineteenth-century print culture. Some appear in dedicated joke books and comic periodicals, but most have survived as stowaways in the margins of other texts. They are scattered throughout thousands of Victorian books, newspapers, magazines, and periodicals. While some were organised into clearly demarcated collections, others were used more haphazardly as column fillers or sprinkled randomly among other tit-bits of news and entertainment. Until recently, the only way to locate these scattered fragments amidst the ‘vast terra incognita’ of Victorian print culture was to identify a promising host-text and then browse through it manually. The digitisation of Victorian print culture has opened up new possibilities for this kind of research. However, as this talk will argue, the structure of digital archives means that jokes are still buried among millions of pages of other content. In order to make these, and other marginalised texts, more visible, we need to rethink the organisation of our digital collections and open up their contents to creative forms of archival ‘remixing’.

In 2014, Bob Nicholson (Edge Hill University) teamed up with the British Library Labs on a project that aims to find and revive thousands of forgotten Victorian jokes. Their ‘Victorian Meme Machine’ automatically converts old jokes into images and posts them on social media using a ‘Mechanical Comedian’ (@VictorianHumour). In this presentation, Bob will report on the progress of the project and outline his plans for a new transcription platform designed around the principles of ‘meaningful gamifaction’. 

Convenor’s Response: Are we at tension with the show?

By James Baker

11 November 2015

The convenors of the IHR Digital History seminar invite historians to speak as part of our programme because we believe that their work is good. It isn’t about the name, the reputation, the institution, or the funding, but the expected product, a research paper that displays all the qualities of good history: thorough research, the confidence to cut through complexity, innovation within a field or sub-field. In short, it isn’t about the show.

Bob Nicholson’s talk on Victorian humour, the nature of the archive, and harnessing creativity to generate structured data about the historical phenomena we care about was undoubtedly good history. It was, in fact, splendid history, the consequence on much meditation on and around a kernel of an idea: that humour was an important part of Victorian social capital and that building an archive of a million Victorian jokes might drive home, both in and outside the academe, that ‘we are not amused‘ should not cloud our judgement of the millions of Englishmen and women who lived, worked, and laughed for the better part a century. The talk was also the nearest a Digital History seminar has – and likely will come – to a TED Talk. It was a show, replete with jokes read from a contemporary pocket book deftly lifted from a jacket pocket, 1970s sitcom-esque revivals of Victorian mother-in-law jokes, and slides that moved and adapted to stress the point at hand: pages that turned, a teapot that rattled, photographs of library shelves that were visually manipulated, scans of newspaper pages that were colour coded by content type.

This is no criticism. Rather what struck me whilst watching Bob ‘perform’ was that digital history is often at pains to get away from the show. Drop the flashy data viz we/I say, and show us the data. Stop colour coding your spreadsheets we/I say, and build that data into your tabular schema. Move away from Word-like platforms we/I say, and embrace the interoperability and preservation virtues of plain text. Perhaps this channels our/my angst about being seen as the flashy digital kids, the disruptors that ‘win’ by shiny rather than substance. Or perhaps this channels our/my observation of mistakes made when an emphasis on visual comprehension in data presentation has reaped short term gain but caused long term pain.

For digital historians are prominent in cajoling ourselves and encouraging others to think about the machine readability of the things we create. In many cases our future selves will be thankful of our present – apparent – extremis. But the digital also offers us an opportunity to communicate visually in striking ways. Consider from previous seminars a graph, created in a standard office suite, that pinpointed, to striking effect, the impact of plague on the Venetian music publishing trade; or Ancient Rome, rebuilt, navigable, and available to cast shadows upon, to trace sight lines through, and to experience in terms of scale and architectural gravitas. And from Bob’s talk, consider somewhere around the mid-point of his presentation how colour coding a Victorian newspaper page by content type underscored the variety of the Victorian newspaper page, the range of independent texts – recipes, letters, reviews, gossip, fiction, poetry, jokes – united by the newspaper as technology.

Are our own values as digital historians then at tension with the visual possibilities digital technologies afford us? Could our careful, considered practice inhibit our ability to communicate? Are we at tension with the show? Perhaps, but I hope not irreconcilably. Because History with a capital H is a narrative discipline. We historians perform in our work quite unlike our colleagues in the sciences, social sciences, and even some areas of the digital humanities, for although both structured and methodologically sound our work also aims to convince by telling stories. And if digital historians were to abandon that performative quality in favour of machine readable dogma we’d begin to distance ourselves from the rest of the discipline, from the people we don’t want to perceive us as outsiders (from the people we’d rather like to remove ‘Digital’ from our job titles one day). It is, after all, about the quality of the work. And if good work comes with a splash of well meant and well judged show at the expense of a few sub-disciplinary principles, then from the evidence of this talk that is far from a bad thing.

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