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IHR Digital History Seminar - 10 November 2015
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’.