Discovering the British Library’s Discovering Literature

By Susan Cook

Susan Cook is Assistant Professor of English at Southern New Hampshire University, where she teaches nineteenth- and twentieth-century British literature. She writes about Victorian literature and visual culture. Follow Susan @Susan_E_Cook.

This spring the British Library launched Discovering Literature, a project designed to bring together on the web digitizations from original manuscripts, first editions, and contemporaneous contextual materials, along with critical articles, documentary films, and teaching materials designed specifically for the site.  The project will eventually cover representative library holdings spanning Beowulf to the present but luckily for nineteenth-century scholars the first phase of the project includes Romantic and Victorian literature.

The organization of the site is intuitive, with material divided into sections titled “Authors,” “Works,” “Themes,” “Articles,” “Videos,” “Collection items,” and “Teaching resources.”  As one might expect, many materials are cross-listed—articles and contextual materials, for instance, appear often as “Related articles” or “Related collection items” on a given literary work’s page.

The site is polished and the digitizations are beautiful.  The stated goal of the project is “to enhance the study and enjoyment of English literature,” and given the project’s current organization and collection of materials it is easy to say that this goal will be accomplished.

This is an exciting and ambitious project and it will surely be of enormous value not only to those students discovering literature for the first time but also to teachers who wish to provide their classes with a more immersive literary experience as well as scholars seeking to supplement research trips and explore new topics.

It is at the same time important to note Discovering Literature’s limitations.  While many shorter literary works, contextual articles, and illustrations are digitized in their entirety, many other works are only partially available online.  For instance, the first edition of Bleak House is digitized only in part.  I am currently working with my university’s librarian to establish a small special collection of nineteenth-century literary and contemporaneous contextual materials.  Our resources are limited, so we are focusing the collection around Bleak House and other printed historical documents from the early 1850s.  I was therefore particularly curious to see how Discovering Literature presented this novel.

A digitization of fifteen images (24 pages) of Bleak House is organized under “Collection items”. The pages include the frontispiece, Chapter I, Chapter XLVI, and the illustrations “Tom all alone’s” and “Shadow.”  Some of the pages are out of order, which was a bit confusing to me initially.  The digitization appears with a brief descriptive article introducing the novel, summarizing its status as “perhaps the first detective novel in English,” and describing its serial publication.  “Related articles” listed below include “Victorian readers” by Kate Flint, “The creation of the police and the rise of detective fiction” by Judith Flanders, and “Orphans in fiction” by John Mullan.  “Related collection items” include a penny dreadful titled The Boy Detective, Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy, a review of Jude from The Morning Post, and Jessica’s First Prayer, a “popular 19th century children’s book.”  Unsurprisingly, Charles Dickens is listed under “Related people.”  While the digitization is presented in a way that suggests it is making Bleak House and its context available to students and scholars, the novel is presented only in part and accompanied by relatively few contextualizing materials.  A reader’s experience of Bleak House is thus partial and framed very specifically through Victorian readership, detective fiction, orphans, children and morality, and Jude the Obscure.

Discovering Literature accomplishes its aim of contextualizing literary works by showing readers what they looked like in their original, printed (and in some cases manuscript) editions and supplying additional contemporaneous and modern materials to enrich the experience.  The teaching materials are geared towards GCSE and A Level / high school students.  In a university setting one might ask students to analyze the way the materials are presented and the articles written to construct narratives for us—narratives we might learn from, narratives we might at times question, and narratives we might contribute to in the form of our own research.  The value of Discovering Literature is in the connections it suggests and the potential critical readings of connections it facilitates for visitors to the site.


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