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A Victorian Virtual Community PatrickLeary Despite all ofthe attention lavished on the diverse and intricate world ofVictorian periodicals over the last thirty years, asurveyor ofthis well-tilled field ofscholarly industry will search largely in vain for mention ofone periodical whose very name has passed quietly into the language . Nor is this lacuna at all surprising. Itwould be difficult to imagine a general-interest magazine duller in appearance, or more fussily backward -looking in content, than the nineteenth-centuiyvolumes ofNotes and Queries. At a time when magazine illustration was reaching new heights and serialized novels were fascinating new audiences, the pages of N&Q carried neither pictures nor fiction. No celebrity editors ofthe Dickens orThackeraysort ever adorned its title-pages; no slashing articles on social or literary matters ever gained lasting, or even temporary, fame. Of the few names first associated with the journal—all ofthem male, all belonging to that "fretful and unreasonable race" known as "antiquarians "—none nowstrikes a chord even with most specialists in the period, letalonewidi general readers.1 Its closelyprinted columns, packed with a bewilderingly fragmented array ofminutiae about old manuscripts, obscure incidents, forgotten customs, and local lore, stubbornly resist elegant analysis, or even simple summary. In short, the early volumes of Notes and Queries would appear to offer few enticements to modern scholarly attention. Certainly thoseyellowing mid-Victorian pages seem a most unlikely site at which to locate the makings of a far-reaching revolution intimately connecting that time with the digital wonders of our own. But just there, nevertheless, is precisely where we should look for them. No major historical development has only one point oforigin, vo 1 u m e 2 5 » u m b e r 2(1999) A Victorian Virtual Community ofcourse, and ancestral claims ofa similar kind have recently been advanced byjournalistTom Standage. In his entertaining book, The Victorian Internet, Standage identifies the telegraph as the nineteenth-centuiy precursor oftoday's electronic network, and for some good reasons. Technologically innovative, the telegraph ushered in an era ofalmost instantaneous long-distance communication that came to connect far reaches of the globe, spawned a rush toward large-scale commercial exploitation and rivalry, and captured the public imagination. Conspicuous and exciting as all this was, however, the telegraph alone during its briefreign made up only a small part, and that not the most important, ofwhat has been called the "information revolution" of the nineteenth century, a broader set ofchanges in the way information was gathered, categorized, used, and shared.2 It is in the form of this last activity, the sharing of information, that most ofus in recent years have come to experience the changes the Internet has wrought in our daily lives, and in no form more vivid, particularly for scholars and interested amateurs ofall kinds, than in the irreducibly social one ofthe "virtual community." First in electronic "bulletin boards," and later in newsgroups and e-mail "lists," these imagined communities organized around the exchange of texts have brought together widely dispersed participants into small on-lineworlds structured not only by the technological medium itselfbut by the kinds ofdiscourse taking place within them. Ifwe seekVictorian analogues to this social revolution in the everyday exchange ofinformation, we can find one ready to hand in the rapid and steady success, and the peculiar internal dynamics, of Notes and Queries. Unobtrusively coming into being only a few years after the widely hailed advent ofthe telegraph, N&Q provided access to an unparalleled flow of textual information within a community defined by the terms of that exchange, Just as importantly, it did so at a time when the social as well as technological barriers to such access, though slowly diminishing, remained formidable . Not for nothing did this humbly useful and occasionally contentious periodical, the first written entirely by its own readers, proclaim itself "A Medium of Inter-Communication." It is to the origins and strangely familiar workings ofthat medium and that community that I would like to direct attention in what follows. The central figure in the story ofNdrQ is William John Thorns, Victoria n Review Gil P. Leary a man eveiy bit as bookish and unassuming as the journal he founded in 1849 and continued to preside over for...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 61-79
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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