- Searching Questions:Digital Research and Victorian Culture
This is the first time that Journal of Victorian Culture has committed itself to a special issue – an issue within an issue, really – and in doing so the journal signals its intention to act as a forum for digital research on the nineteenth century and for discussion of its relationship with traditional scholarship. The Roundtable brings together four leading practitioners in the field to consider the opportunities and challenges afforded by the new media for all Victorianists: (Jerome McGann, NINES [Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-century Electronic Scholarship]; Richard Pearson, The Victorian Plays Project: Lacy's Acting Edition of Victorian Plays; James Mussell, Nineteenth-Century Series Edition [ncse]; and Julia Thomas, Database of Mid-Victorian Wood Engraved Illustration [DMVI]). All contend that the new technologies offer much more than resource enhancement and advanced search tools, for the construction and editing of web-based archives and e-texts compel us to reconsider how visual and print mediums work in their own right. By anticipating how users might search their electronic archives, all have been forced to ask searching questions about how we understand Victorian culture itself. The potential of the new media to open up new questions about reading is exemplified by Matt Rubery's opening article of this issue which uses digital audio books to rethink the experience of reading in the Victorian age and in our own. The potential of the digitally re-mastered moving visual image to reshape our scholarly landscape is explored in Juliet John's concluding review of Dickens Before Sound (DVD Collection, British Film Institute).
All the contributors to the Roundtable report common concerns: the dangers of working in a fast-moving world where technologies can quickly become outdated and without commonly agreed protocols; the uncertainties of funding and long-term sustainability; issues of intellectual property and ownership; anxieties about career development and peer review in an academic environment still wedded to the book monograph and journal article. These are all matters that need to be addressed by the academic community as a whole. [End Page 56] As part of seeking to integrate the new research technologies within the traditional journal format, in this issue we begin a regular review slot for digital and online resources with surveys of Darwin Online and the Database of Mid-Victorian Wood-Engraved Illustration. This dedicated section reflects our recognition that digital projects require a different kind of evaluation than the traditional book review; one that acknowledges the collaborative, open-ended, on-going and interactive nature of the digital project and that can offer feedback about the future development of the resource.
All the roundtable participants comment on the difficulties of second-guessing how users will search and utilise their archive. It is precisely their commitment to making their projects accessible and attractive to students and scholars from a wide range of disciplines that has driven their careful attention to conceptual and methodological issues. Ultimately, those issues and questions need to be taken up by the users, working not only in web environments, but in the classroom, in essays and articles, in academic conferences. As a minimum, we all need to be scrupulous in acknowledging our use of online sources by citing URLs. For our part, the Journal of Victorian Culture welcomes submissions that make extensive use of born-digital material to investigate nineteenth-century culture; that critically reflect on the relationship between digital learning, and traditional forms of scholarship, research, and teaching; and that investigate the development and reception of information technology and archives in the Victorian period and our own. And, given the Victorian fascination with invention, it is only appropriate that our interaction with digital technology should be playful and creative. [End Page 57]