Victoria Research Web
[This essay first appeared in the Victorians Institute Journal Volume 23 (1995)]

BABBAGE'S CHILDREN

Victorian Studies Resources on the Internet

The Victorians themselves, one likes to think, would have delighted in many aspects of the Internet: it is technologically ingenious, can be used to gather enough facts and figures to warm even a Gradgrind's heart, and is so readily accessible as to count as that beloved Victorian thing, a "cheap luxury." Once the sole province of scientists and programmers, the 'Net has of course exploded into popular consciousness over the past few years; at the same time, it has become more and more hospitable to students and scholars in all parts of the humanities, and Victorianists have not been slow to venture into cyberspace. Many of even the most Luddite among us have succumbed to the lure of e-mail, routinely dashing off notes to friends and colleagues and peeking into our electronic mailboxes with compulsive regularity. Still others have taken up residence in one or more of the virtual communities offered by electronic discussion groups, downloaded documents here and there, or even put in some time hopping from link to link on the World Wide Web.

Even so, not a few scholars, after several brief, expectant forays, have concluded that the 'Net is simply an overhyped playground for the idle, and that "listservs" and "home pages" and all the rest offer little more than distracting chatter and flashy pictures. Anyone who has ever felt overwhelmed with listserv e-mail or lost amid the thousands of criss-crossing pathways on the Web can sympathize with these impatient dismissals. But precisely because of its vastness and accessibility, the 'Net is increasingly becoming the repository of choice for an enormous variety of materials of practical usefulness for researchers, teachers, and students. As a way of connecting scholars with one another and allowing them to share information and ideas quickly and cheaply, it represents a resource that none of us can afford to ignore.

Fair enough--but, after all, the proof is in the pudding. What exactly does the 'Net have to offer to busy, working Victorianists? And how can they find what they need there without wasting a lot of valuable time in the process? Consider this scenario. It is late at night, the library is closed, and you're stuck on a particularly abstruse reference in a chapter of a little-known Victorian novel that your class has read for tomorrow. It seems to have something to do with a Nonconformist religious sect, and you're pretty sure you saw a similar reference in a Dickens novel, though heaven only knows which one. As long as the computer's on anyway, you fire up your modem and log into your university account. Within a few minutes, you've dashed off a concise statement of your puzzlement to a couple of listservs to see if it rings a bell with any of the 1500 other Victorianists there. Meanwhile, you activate your Web browser, call up electonic versions of the most likely Dickens novels available, and tell the browser to search for the phrase; there it is, in Great Expectations! Unluckily, the context doesn't tell you much, and you'd like to give your class a bit of background on Dissenters, something clear and concise. A few keystrokes later, you've downloaded an outline summary on Victorian Dissent by a leading scholar that just fits the bill, and rounded up some suggested readings from an online library catalogue. All of this has taken about half an hour. The next morning, logging in from the office, you find that a listserv colleague in Britain has taken a moment out of her afternoon to tell you about her forthcoming article on precisely these kinds of allusions in the Victorian novel.

Not all quests for answers on the 'Net have such happy endings, of course, but a surprising number do. Whether you are planning a research trip, preparing an annotated edition, assembling a lecture, compiling a bibliography, or simply pursuing a wisp of an idea for a conference paper, knowing how and where to look in cyberspace can save you many hours. Fortunately, even if you haven't found time until now to look into that e-mail account the university set up for you, learning how to find your way around the Internet isn't difficult, and needn't be time-consuming. The most efficient way by far is to get someone knowledgeable to sit next to you at a terminal and walk you through the basics, beginning with how to send, read, save, and delete electronic mail. Different universities use different mail systems, and half an hour spent online with a colleague or a consultant from the computer center is worth any number of hours spent poring over booklets or manuals. The next step--learning how to locate, download, and print materials from across the 'Net using tools like Gopher, FTP, and a Web browser--is in most cases actually easier, in terms of the number of commands involved, than learning the quirks of a mail system. The best resource for learning to access scholarly information on the 'Net is your local reference librarian; university librarians have been on the front lines of the information revolution in the academy and know better than anyone how to help scholars find and retrieve the materials they need.

Those materials run the gamut from electronic texts to journal indices to syllabi to conference notices to research guides, and more are being made available with every month that goes by. And too, if you have materials of your own that you would like to share with other scholars in your field of interest, there are many ways to do so. With access to an e-mail account and a Web browser, through either a university or one of the many commercial online services, the Internet world is your oyster. Still, it helps to know in advance where some of the pearls are.

Listservs: Victorianists Meet in Cyberspace

Listservs--or "lists," for short--are no more than a way of distributing e-mail from each member of a group to all the others. In fact, "listserv" is really a proprietary name for a particular brand of software for doing just that; like many successful brand names it has come to stand for any kind of e-mail discussion group. (Other programs are "majordomo" and "listproc," but they all do about the same thing.) To subscribe to a list, you simply send an e-mail message to the listserv address--usually "listserv@something.edu"--of the form SUBSCRIBE [listname] [your name]. After that, anything you send to the posting address-- [listname]@something.edu--will be distributed to every other subscriber, and you'll begin to see messages from those subscribers popping up in your electronic mailbox.

There are many scholarly listservs on the 'Net and each is a little virtual community to itself. Like any communities, they vary widely in character. Some are as small as a seminar class, while others may have hundreds or even thousands of members. Some are "moderated," meaning the person in charge--the "listowner"--screens all the messages; others are bounded only by their members' sense of propriety. A listserv may function simply as a bulletin board for the occasional notice, or it may be a forum for lively discussions that send dozens of messages a day streaming into your mailbox. In any case, it costs nothing to join a list for awhile and see how you like it; you can always suspend your list-mail during busy periods, opt for a daily all-in-one digest of the postings, or unsubscribe.

Victorianists have a number of lists to choose from. The largest of these, based at Indiana University in Bloomington, is called VICTORIA; determinedly interdisciplinary, VICTORIA features announcements, queries, and discussions concerning all aspects of scholarly work on nineteenth-century British society and culture. Lists have sprung up devoted to individual writers like Dickens (DICKNS-L) and Trollope (TROLLOPE), to Romantic literature (NASSR-L), and to the Northeast Victorian Studies Association (NVSA-L); we can expect to see other Victorian lists emerge in the near future that focus on special interests or societies. Lists of a broader scope can also be useful places to connect with scholars involved in Victorian projects; these include a general British history list (H-ALBION), lists for women's studies (WMST-L) and women's history (H-WOMEN), and one for the history of authorship, reading, and publishing (SHARP-L).

At their best, these lists function as informal, ongoing conferences, enabling Victorianists from around the world to exchange ideas and information about research, events, and teaching methods. Research queries and responses form the staple of most such lists, and while many queries may be rather narrow in scope, they often lead to fascinating exchanges about wider issues in Victorian culture. For this reason, some scholars have successfully experimented with using listservs in the classroom, enlivening class discussion by giving students the opportunity to listen in on what the professionals are talking about among themselves. Lists also often provide the most up-to-date information about conferences and calls for papers, newly published books in the field, and grant opportunities, as well as about such mundane but essential matters as archive locations, library borrowing policies, useful textbooks and anthologies, and places to stay on research trips.

Because all posted messages to a list are archived in weekly or monthly "logs," usually stored on a computer at the listowner's university, these accumulated records represent a formidable resource in themselves. Subscribers who want to find out what has been said about a particular subject--the 1834 Poor Law, say, or the poetry of Felicia Hemans--can search for and retrieve these discussions by sending certain search commands to the "listserv@something" address, which will then forward the results back as e-mail. While on any list there will always be a certain proportion of postings that don't interest you (hence the necessity of learning all about how to delete incoming mail) scholarly lists can be a marvelous way of meeting and keeping in touch with Victorianist colleagues.

The World Wide Web: Household Hypertext

With all that has been written over the past year about the World Wide Web, anyone who has yet to have a look could be forgiven for feeling a bit confused about just what it is, exactly. People often refer to the Web as if it were a place or network entirely different from the Internet. But even though it is inescapably convenient to speak of this or that as being "on the Web," the truth is that the Web is a "place" only in a Pickwickian sense. Perhaps the most useful way to think of it is as a way of organizing, presenting, and choosing among documents on the Internet--a handy, visually-oriented interface for the 'Net akin to the interface that Microsoft Windows or the Macintosh operating system provides for your desktop computer environment.

Before the Web came along, locating and retrieving documents on the 'Net involved tools like Gopher and FTP (File Transfer Protocol), and the documents themselves could only be viewed as lines and blocks of text. Gopher and FTP are still with us, but using the Web as an interface makes it possible to move quickly between documents and parts of documents and, with a graphical browser, to view texts that integrate images and sounds. The ability to "link" texts together in a nonlinear way is what is meant by "hypertext," a system of authoring and reading about which a number of literary scholars, like George Landow and Richard Lanham, have written learned and imaginative analyses. For immediate practical purposes, however, it simply means that when you look at a document with your "Web browser" (about which, more in a moment), certain words are highlighted or underlined; when you move your cursor to one of them and click the mouse button (or press the enter key), another document appears. To recall our late-night search, for instance, you might be looking at a document about Victorian religion that mentions Dissent in passing; if the word "Dissent" is highlighted, you could click on it to call up a document that focuses on that topic.

A Web "page" is a document that has been coded so that, when you view it using a Web "browser," certain words or images can function in this way as links to other documents. (The invisible codes themselves are called HTML, for HyperText Markup Language.) The browser is a piece of software that reads these codes. Most university systems have at least one kind of Web browser available for their users, and most commercial Internet gateways are hastening to provide them, as well. The simplest and most ubiquitous browser at universities is called Lynx; though Lynx cannot display pictures, it is very fast and easy to use. Since most scholars probing the 'Net simply want to find textual information in a hurry, Lynx's "non-graphical" nature is not much of a limitation; if you can dial into your e-mail account from home, chances are that you can use Lynx from home, too, without any special connections or other software, and you don't need a powerful computer for it to run efficiently. However, as more and more Web pages make use of, or even require, an ability to view pictures, sooner or later you'll want to learn how to use one of the "graphical browsers." At the moment (October 1995), the most popular and versatile graphical browser by far is Netscape, though others include Mosaic and the Internet Explorer bundled with Microsoft Windows '95. Once again, a visit with a consultant from your local computer center can help you to get a graphical browser up and running from your home or office, while the reference librarian can be a goldmine of information about how to use it to find scholarly material on the 'Net.

Victorianists have a wealth of such material to choose from, with more being added all the time. One of the most efficient ways to locate Web-pages of interest is to visit "meta-pages" that collect links to many of the more popular and helpful sites around the 'Net for scholars in the humanities. Alan Liu's Voice of the Shuttle; pages, Jack Lynch's guide to "literary research tools,"; and the home page of the Institute for Historical Research in London are all excellent places to begin your explorations, while the relevant sections of the indispensible Yahoo page at Stanford will likewise start you off in a number of promising directions. If you are in search of something specific that doesn't turn up on these, an online search engine like WebCrawler or Lycos will scan the Internet for Web pages containing any word or phrase you specify. Once having located a helpful page or document, you can use the browser's "bookmark" feature to record its address (called a "URL," for Uniform Resource Locator) so that you can quickly return to it at a future session. As few of us enjoy actually reading a lengthy text on a computer screen, it comes as a relief to find that most documents can be downloaded to your local terminal and printed out for closer inspection later; moreover, all browsers include a feature that allows you to search for any string of characters within any page or document you come across.

Among the most helpful resources that you can tap into using the Web are library catalogues from around the world, including a great many in Britain. Links to these, too, have been gathered together, by the Research Libraries Group and others, making it simple to search several catalogues in a hurry. As you explore, you will find that certain databases are available only to paying subscribers or to members of the home university; some of the most generally useful of these resources, like the British Library General Catalogue, are available for purchase on CD-ROM, and your own library may have them. Yet it is surprising how much is freely available. More specialized databases that describe collections of particular interest to Victorianists are making their appearance in publicly accessible form; an index to the Lilly Library's collection of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century chapbooks, for example, can now be searched online, as can Alexis Weedon's guide to the archives of Victorian publishers and Michael Hancher's index to the holdings of nineteenth-century periodicals at the University of Minnesota. (Links to these will be found on the SHARP web page.) Back-issues of the journal Nineteenth-Century Literature can be searched and articles downloaded, and we can hope to see other journals following suit in the near future.

The production of electronic texts, or "e-texts," is fast becoming a cottage industry at several universities, and many of the results of that industry are available via the Web in a variety of forms. Many are in plain-text (ASCII) format, though increasing numbers are being encoded to allow links to annotations and images. The scholarly uses to which such texts can be put is a fascinating subject in itself, usefully summarized by Eric Johnson in his "Electronic Texts and Their Use for Literary Research" and his thoughtful review of the Oxford Electronic Text Library version of the R. W. Chapman edition of Jane Austen's complete works. Electronic versions of a host of nineteenth-century texts can be found at several sites; these include not only full texts of several of the canonical novels and a wide selection of poetry, but works by J. S. Mill, Charles Darwin, and other Victorian sages, as well. The most sophisticated experiment at creating a multimedia "hypertext archive" devoted to one figure is undoubtedly Jerome McGann's D. G. Rossetti Project at the University of Virginia, whose Electronic Text Center has collected the works of many other Victorians and Romantics, many of them illustrated or annotated. Work has also begun at creating e- texts of the works of lesser-known writers and putting them on the Web; the Victorian Women Writers Project, for example, aims to make available a number of such texts not easily found elsewhere. Some scholars have created entire pages devoted to individual writers such as Austen, Coleridge, and Carroll, while the Dickens Project page now under construction will offer resources of interest to Dickensians.

Historians of Victorian society and culture will find a variety of guides to archival and library research on the 'Net. The "information sheets" put together by the National Register of Archives in the U.K. are especially useful, providing British archive locations and reference bibliographies on historical topics ranging from women to crime to newspapers. Similarly, the Public Record Office offers guides for researchers wanting to explore those of its holdings relating to historical and genealogical sources for nineteenth-century Britain. The Institute for Historical Research has created IHR-INFO to make available not only a catalogue of its library and news of activities at the Institute, but links to other resources for historians in Britain and abroad. Among IHR-INFO's most helpful materials are an online listing of recent dissertations completed and in progress at U.K. universities and draft e-text versions of the Royal Historical Society's annual bibliography of books and articles in British history, organized by period and subject. Links to many of these materials, as well to the literary research resources mentioned above, will shortly be gathered together in one place as the Victoria Research Web (VRW), affiliated with the VICTORIA listserv.

Finally, all Victorianists have reason to be grateful to George Landow of Brown University for putting together a splendid collection of teaching materials in the form of The Victorian Web. A pioneer in the use of hypertext as a tool for teaching Victorian literature, Professor Landow has transferred many of his capsule summaries of Victorian events, movements, and themes from their original Storyspace environment to the Web, while enlisting the aid of other scholars to create a growing online textbook/encyclopedia of Victorian culture. The Victorian Web now includes critical and biographical materials on a score of Victorian literary figures, as well as an extensive set of fully hypertext-linked documents on topics ranging from Victorian social reform to the growth of empire to (you guessed it) Victorian Dissent and other aspects of religion in England.

One reason that the Web has grown so rapidly in the past year or two is that it is as much an author's as a reader's medium. Creating Web pages of your own is surprisingly easy, as suggested in the title of one popular primer, Laura Lemay's Teach Yourself Web Publishing with HTML in a Week (Sams Publishing, 1995). If you can use a word-processor, you can become a Web author. A "home page" on your university's server provides a versatile medium for sharing your work and interests with a wider audience; not a few graduate students and professors have published hypertext versions of their vitae, such that, by clicking on a title in their list of articles and conference papers, the reader can call up the full texts themselves. Similarly, a Web page that includes a syllabus for a course with class readings linked to the sections can offer a marvelous interactive supplement to the usual course-packet. As more scholars in Victorian Studies make the leap from exploring to building the Web, we can expect to see a proliferation of links to both scholarly monographs and teaching materials.

This short survey has been able to offer little more than a snapshot of some of the more useful tools and materials currently available on the Internet to teachers and researchers in Victorian Studies, but part of the fun of roaming the hidden byways of the online world is in discovering new things on one's own. The 'Net is a shifting, volatile environment in which resources appear, vanish, merge, and mutate with startling rapidity, while sudden advances in computing technology open up opportunities that were undreamt of only a short time before. Nevertheless, it is clearly here to stay, and scholars in the humanities are busily adding to its marvels with every passing month. To be sure, not all is sweetness and light and much remains to be done, but the possibilites are undeniably exciting. If the resources now in cyberspace are not yet as broad or as deep as they might be--if there is still too much chaff on listservs, too many links to nowhere on the Web, too few reliable e-texts, peer-reviewed online journals, imaginative exhibits, and searchable public databases--then the challenge for all Victorianists who venture onto the 'Net is to become more actively involved in calling for and helping to create the Victorian Studies resources we need the most. Meanwhile, there is much to explore.

Patrick Leary

Indiana University

pleary@indiana.edu