- Digital Transformations
Victorian studies are not what they were. Gone are the days of the lone scholar poring over dusty old books in the archive. S/he has been replaced by the project team; the dilapidated books by the high resolution digital image; and the archive by a suite of computer terminals. At least this is how the story goes. But it is just a story, tinged with nostalgia for a past, where the process of research was uncomplicated and user-friendly, and suspicion of the future, where scholarship is guided by technological advancements. Perhaps it is only fitting that the progress, and threat, of the digital archive should be debated in a Roundtable where the participants come together virtually, where the contributions have been sent as e-mail attachments, and where even the trace of writing, the seeming guarantor of presence, is a collection of pixels. This is the reality (or should that be hyperrreality?) of new technologies. The reality is also that these technologies have the potential to transform Victorian studies and the way we work within the field. These transformations have begun, but they still have a long way to go. The Journal of Victorian Culture, in its very concern with this topic in this special issue, signals and participates in these changes.
It might seem that the emergence of digitization has made redundant the figure of the lone scholar, but this is to ignore those resources based around research specialisms that are being developed by committed individuals. These tools, often initially constructed for teaching purposes, have a wider application among Victorianists (Martin Hewitt's Victorian Manchester site is just one example.1) It is increasingly the case, though, that larger scale digital and database projects are, by necessity, the product of collaborative, sometimes interdisciplinary, teams and require financial support to develop and maintain. From my own experience directing the Database of Mid Victorian Wood-Engraved Illustration (DMVI),2 it seems that collaborative projects can actually complement independent research, allowing not just for the collection of relevant data, but also for the establishment of a network in which to discuss ideas. Moreover, the funded project is fast becoming one of the most common routes into an academic job. In an environment where the number of postdoctoral scholarships are limited and students are pressurised into building up publication records even while working on their PhDs, digital projects provide research associates with a range of skills and experiences, from the collection and cataloguing of material, the possibility of part-time [End Page 101] teaching and publishing opportunities, to a recognised ability to work independently and within a group.
The reliance on a few funding bodies to support digital projects presents its own problems, however. In the UK these projects usually run for the duration of three or, at most, five years with no guarantee of future funding to extend or develop the archives. It is for this reason that DMVI, which was framed as a pilot project, includes illustrations from a single year. Limited timescales and budgets mean that many projects are unable to reach their full potential and sometimes have to curb the data the resource contains or the related activities of the project. There is also the concomitant problem of the sustainability and maintenance of these archives. What happens to them when the project comes to an end? Will even newer technologies render many of them redundant? Perhaps it is safer to stick to books.
But sticking to books sidelines the enormous impact on and implications for Victorian studies that digitization offers. Far from demolishing the space of the archive, digitization makes accessible more archives than ever before, many of which have been largely unknown and under-used. DMVI drew upon the wonderful collection of periodical illustrations of the 1860s and 70 s in the School of Art Museum and Gallery in Aberystwyth, the boxes of which had probably not been opened for decades. (In fact, this collection had spent a large part of the twentieth century bricked up behind a wall.)
In its capacity to make materials available to the researcher, digitization is recognised primarily as an enhancement tool, but with the added...