The latest issue of the Journal of Victorian Culture is particularly rich in references to RED. Indeed, as part of the issue’s Digital Forum, there’s a substantial review of the site by Matthew Bradley. Bradley remarks that
the catholicity of the task is staggering, and the enormous achievement of the RED team and their volunteers in creating such a valuable resource is beyond doubt. The high standard of its qualitative data is clear, and the scholarly care in its records self-evident.
However, he also points out one of the problems involved with the project: the topic is so vast (practically limitless, in fact, given what it is possible for a small team of people to achieve in a limited space of time) that it risks being dictated to by the research interests of particular contributors or the breezes of academic fashion. (Bradley archly compares it to “charting a 1:1 map of the world.”) He also notes that,
despite the site’s insistence that RED ‘has no literary bias’, it is noticeable that these types of non-bibliocentric searches can produce very variable results … A search in the category ‘tickets’, produces nothing, for instance, even without entering any period limit.
This is a valid point, and it does indicate the extent to which book history remains wedded to the codex as the principal form and site of evidence. Happening upon the traces of reading is still very much an exercise in serendipity—you simply don’t know what you will find when you look at the margins of a used book for the first time, or turn to the end papers of an old diary. The trick lies in knowing to look there in the first place, and expanding one’s vision outwards, into areas one might not have thought of looking in.
While RED may never be the comprehensive database that would allow us to make rigorously statistical arguments for reading habits in given places or time periods, it can function as a source of compelling examples. The more entries that go in it, the more it can approach the ideal, but it can never hope to be a comprehensive database of every archive, every annotated page, every diary manuscript, in the British World, 1450–1945, much and all as we may want it to!
Also included are two articles by academics closely involved with RED. Shaf Towheed provides a stimulating think-piece on the promises and pitfalls that the mass-digitization of texts holds out for historians of nineteenth-century reading. While Google Books and other large-scale projects may seem to promise a “total archive” of textual evidence lies within reach,
twenty-first-century readers must contend with the vagaries of optical character recognition, the bottleneck of data download restrictions, and the unwieldiness of graphically intensive web-pages.
The digital library is not a straightforward facsimile of the physical libraries it draws upon, and it cannot simply substitute for them. As Towheed notes, this makes the current trend towards restricting access to already-digitized texts for reasons of preservation, or, worse, discarding certain print holdings altogether, extremely concerning. There are basic problems of access, usability, and legibility—not to mention the worrying class distinction that the “digital divide” threatens to inscribe—that must be addressed before the online archive can begin to function in any way as effectively as the existing print archive can. What the digital archive does better of course, is searchability—allowing readers to gain quick access to a wide variety of materials and comparing them on a macro level. Towheed worries, though, that archivists, librarians who look to the internet to reduce pressure on physical archives may be writing themselves out of history. A generation that has no experience working with physical documents—no sense of the materiality of the archive—may not see their inherent value and why anyone would want to pay for their upkeep. Our current desire for speed, convenience, and portability, in other words, may end up costing us large parts of the literary-historical record.
Finally, Rosalind Crone shows what dedicated research using physical archives can reveal about levels of literacy in the nineteenth century. She has examined the administrative records of prisons in three English counties, looking for notes on prisoner literacy. She has then subjected these to quantitative analysis, showing how the digital can mesh with traditional humanities research to generate new ways of seeing the data. Her research indicates that literacy was a highly variegated phenomenon in the nineteenth century, with large gradations of proficiency due to the chaotic and happenstance nature of working-class education during the period. Hopefully, her research will alert other historians of reading to the rich data that exist in prison records, something that is applicable to time periods and geographic locations outside Victorian Britain.