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Intellect

BYU professor leads the way in digitizing Victorian era literature

More than 100 students, in a 10-year span, help create the Viki Wiki

In 2004, BYU English professor Leslee Thorne-Murphy spearheaded the Victorian Short Fiction Project , a research venture to get her British literature undergrads more involved in exploring the Victorian literary goldmine stored deep in BYU's special collections library.

Now, 10 years later, the project affectionately known as the Viki Wiki has nearly 200 transcribed stories in an online repository, viewed more than 150,000 times.

A wiki is a website that allows collaborative contributions of content from many users. And thanks to the web-design expertise of Michael Johnson and the BYU Center for Teaching and Learning, it’s been the perfect platform for Thorne-Murphy’s students to make real scholarly contributions to the study of Victorian literature.

“I wanted them to experience the sense of discovery that comes from archival research and to sample literature beyond their anthology,” Thorne-Murphy said.

Above all, she wanted to release her students from the traditional classroom.

Tucked away in the temperature-controlled vaults of BYU’s L. Tom Perry Special Collections Library sits a vast collection of original Victorian-era periodicals, filled with understudied short fiction by the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë and their peers. The periodicals have been indexed and secured thanks to the tireless efforts on special collections curator Maggie Kopp. Thorne-Murphy and her students are driven to get these stories into more hands, but know that passing around 19th century journals won’t do the trick.

As part of Thorne-Murphy’s English 375 class (British Literature from 1832-1900: The Victorian period), students peruse thousands of possible short stories from the periodicals, ultimately choosing whichever one they feel deserves less dust and more attention, ever after affectionately referring to their chosen narrative as “my story.”

With the original story in hand, students pour over the piece, soaking in each detail. The facsimiles are digitized, the text is transcribed, the passages are carefully annotated and the story is given an original introduction. All of it is then uploaded to the wiki where anyone in the world can enjoy both the story and the students’ original research.

“I've always loved Victorian literature and the time period,” said Kaley Clarke, one of the English students working on the project this semester. “The most rewarding part of this project has been the opportunity, and excuse, to spend hours scouring old books and journals and learning more about the literature of the period. It's introduced me to a new way to work with literature.”

As the project has matured, Thorne-Murphy has observed the extent to which her students invest themselves in it.

“I saw how much ownership they took of their projects, and how eager they were to share what they were learning with others,” she said. “I also realized that my students were unearthing texts that I wanted to read, share with other scholars and assign in the future.”

With the number of volumes housed on campus, there is certainly enough material to carry on the project for a very long time.

“I don’t see this project ever finishing,” Thorne-Murphy said.

The Viki Wiki is unique because it’s really the only digital archive of Victorian short fiction in sight. But professor Thorne-Murphy is clear about the project’s real aim.

“The purpose of the project is the students,” she said. “We are training the next generation of digital humanists — people who are trained in the humanities but see the potential of digital technology. The students’ electronic texts reach far beyond the classroom and will reside in a public space after the semester ends. One of the most important legacies we can pass on to our students is an understanding and appreciation of the strengths of both material and electronic texts. They will need to be stewards of both.”

Students complete the class equipped with an arsenal of technological, scholarly skills and an original academic publication on their resumes — often rare for the undergraduate. Thorne-Murphy has had former students gleefully walk back into her office and exclaim about a recent job interview, thrilled that the interviewer took such interest in the Viki Wiki contribution. As one former student put it, “It made me feel like a legitimate scholar.”

The Viki Wiki is a prime example of what's been a focus for BYU's College of Humanities to translate humanities training into professional qualifications . With the support of the Office of Digital Humanities, the project will continue to bring literary gems to light as it nurtures students in bridging the worlds of traditional scholarship and technical innovation.

"Over the last few years digital humanists have begun to worry about how to raise up the next generation of digitally-literate literary researchers," said BYU digital humanities professor Jeremy Browne. "We know that future scholars won't have a problem with the technology, but will they know how to properly integrate the technology with traditional methods of humanities scholarship? Dr. Thorne-Murphy has been working to solve that problem for a decade. The Viki Wiki gives students experience across the whole process from locating and selecting original artifacts, through the digitization process, and into the interpretive activity of criticism."

Writer: Aaron Butler

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