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Interview with Adrian Wisnicki: Victorian Studies in the Digital Age

Entretien avec Adrian Wisnicki : les études victoriennes à l’ère du numérique
Laurence Roussillon-Constanty

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Laurence Roussillon-Constanty: How did you start working on digital humanities projects?

Adrian Wisnicki: It was a process involving several steps. While I was pursuing my Ph.D. at the City University of New York in the early 2000s, I had no interest in technology. In fact, I might have been described as a technophobe. In developing my dissertation in Victorian Studies, I used novels and short stories, consulted literary and historical criticism, and wrote by hand. I avoided computers whenever I could. It was a very old-school process!

After I completed my Ph.D. and my wife completed her J.D., she received a Fulbright scholarship to carry out work in Botswana for a year; I traveled with her. At that point, neither she nor I knew anything about Africa, had limited knowledge of colonial history, and, in my case, no knowledge at all about African literatures and cultures. However, we decided to live in Botswana with the idea of going wholly outside our comfort zone and enlarging our frame of reference. It definitely worked! For instance, among the many benefits of living in Botswana was that I read quite a bit of African literature during my year there and became very interested in colonial history.

As a result, once we returned I began to explore how I might combine my new found interest with my expertise in Victorian Studies. The result was a monograph that I began around 2005 and that I would eventually publish as Fieldwork of Empire (Routledge, 2019). For this monograph, I began to examine British expeditionary literature and to consider how the literature developed in response to and as a result of—often in ways not realized by the British authors themselves—various African cultural, political, and economic forces and material practices. In taking up this work, I soon learned about the significance of archival sources like manuscripts and hand-drawn maps, which often provided the best unedited record of intercultural encounters and experiences in a colonial context.

At that time, my wife and I were living in Britain so I had access to a wide range of primary documents. Round about 2009, I was working on the monograph’s fourth chapter, which would focus on the economic history of a small village in the Congo, Nyangwe. This village, my monograph would later argue, would become crucial to the development of British imperial discourse about ‘the dark continent’. To carry out research for the relevant chapter, I needed access to a manuscript by David Livingstone. He wrote this manuscript under circumstances when he was without paper and ink, so he improvised by writing orthogonally over newspaper text with ink that he sourced from a local berry. The expedient might have worked well at the time, in 1871, but after 140 years Livingstone’s ink had faded, the newspaper ink remained dark, and so it was impossible to read the full manuscript with the naked eye.

I, however, needed to consult this manuscript because of the unique data it contained, so I reached out to a friend from graduate school with digital humanities (DH) expertise, Kathy Harris, and she in turn advised me to reach out to various listservs. This produced several responses, including one from the team of imaging scientists responsible for recovering the text of the Archimedes Palimpsest, a medieval document containing lost works by Archimedes and others under its main text. The connection with this team eventually led to my first DH project—the Livingstone Spectral Imaging Project. This project eventually recovered the full text of the Livingstone manuscript I wanted to consult, gave me excellent first-hand experience in running a DH project, and surprisingly generated a lot of interest from scholars and the public.

The rest is history, so to speak, but one of the most important outcomes of this process was that I discovered that I, in fact, loved working with technology—I was not a technophobe at all, in fact!—and I loved collaborating, as it amplified anything I could do myself. So I became a digital humanist, and I’ve never looked back.

LRC: One of the most fundamental elements of Livingstone Online is that it is collaborative. Could you expand on the various collaborative aspects of the project and how it led to other DH projects?

AW: The Livingstone Spectral Imaging Project was very limited in scope and focused on a few manuscripts by Livingstone and on applying an advanced imaging technology called multispectral imaging to these manuscripts. While I was working on this in the late 2000s and early 2010s, I continued to work on my monograph, albeit slowly. It soon also became clear that I would need to consult other manuscripts by David Livingstone.

I did a basic online search and came across a project called Livingstone Online, which focused on Livingstone’s letters and which was run by a professor emeritus based in London, Chris Lawrence. In other words, just by chance there was already another digital project on Livingstone, and it was run from the same city in which I was living at the time. The director was just a Tube ride away. I reached out to Chris, we arranged to meet, and we hit it off really well.

A good part of this was due to the fact that he was so open-minded. He was an established professor running a funded project from the Wellcome Trust Center for the History of Medicine, the premier institution of its kind at the time. In contrast, I was no one: an early-career scholar with a few publications to my name and no permanent position, but moving between various temporary or honorary positions at a few UK institutions. None of this mattered to Chris. He respected me as a scholar and an intellectual, and that was that! Eventually he invited me onto the Livingstone Online project and, in due course, stepped back from it and handed it over to me, so I became its director around 2013.

As a result, within a few years of becoming interested in DH (about 2009), I was running my own full-scale project Livingstone Online. Concurrently, I discovered not only my interest in collaboration, which I’ve already mentioned, but also that I intuitively understood the methodology behind writing successful grants and that these grants could lead to further collaboration. It was win-win.

By this time, I’d also moved back to the United States and in 2013 took up a tenure-track position at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). UNL is known for its DH scholarship and in fact hired me in DH, not Victorian Studies. When I took up the position, I brought with me two significant grants from the US National Endowment for the Humanities that I’d recently won. One of these was for the Livingstone Spectral Imaging Project, the other for Livingstone Online. So my first few years at UNL saw me involved in major concurrent Livingstone initiatives.

It’s hard to say how it happened because a lot of things were happening very fast for me in that period, but in developing these projects I established contact with a wide range of collaborators. The collaborators became involved in these funded projects, but also in some other unfunded ones on Livingstone that I started or helped start around this time. The result was that I ended up running five distinct Livingstone DH projects concurrently during most of the 2010s. There was some collaborator overlap between the projects, but each also had a distinct set of objectives. One focused on using spectral imaging on a specific Livingstone diary; another focused on an edition of Livingstone’s final manuscripts (2000+ pages); yet another on building partnerships with archives in South Africa, and so on.

So I was working with a lot of people! They came from all walks of relevant professional life: literary critics and historians, program managers, data managers, archivists, librarians, computer programmers, imaging scientists, and more. They also represented the full academic hierarchy. Some were very senior or more advanced specialists, others very early career scholars, and also graduate students.

Everyone had a commitment to our shared projects, and through this work it also emerged that I had a talent for bringing people together and running many things at once. As a result, the 2010s ended with me finally completing that monograph I’d started in 2005—I got a bit sidetracked by all the DH projects!—and with me and my collaborators releasing a series of five distinct major peer-reviewed digital publications through Livingstone Online. The near concurrent conclusion of all these projects, all of which ended in something like the span of two years, and my desire to move onto different kinds of work given how comprehensively we’d studied Livingstone’s output led to the end of my work on Livingstone. Through this work, which had lasted some 10 years altogether, I’d developed an extensive professional network of contacts, and I’d developed the ethical principles by which I now guide all my scholarship.

These experiences, contacts, and principles have thus become the basis of my subsequent work, which includes two new collaborative ventures, One More Voice and Undisciplining the Victorian Classroom, plus my involvement in a third, COVE, which is run by Dino Felluga.

LRC: In a sense, could we say that One More Voice is about decentering archival studies?

AW: Yes, that’s correct. One More Voice is the project I began right after completing my main work on Livingstone Online. However, I’d been thinking about a project like One More Voice as far back as 2007 or 2008.

It was during that early period when I first really began to dig into archival materials related to British exploration and travel and first began to be aware of these complexities inherent in the materials related to authorship. Nominally British individuals had authored these materials and were credited as the authors on the bylines, in card catalogues, and elsewhere. But over time I started to find that the question of authorship was quite complicated. Works attributed to British exploration and travel writers were often more like multi-authored documents created in collaboration with local informants and interlocutors. Rarely, however, did these contributors receive appropriate credit or were they even named.

The initial awareness arose in relation to research for my monograph Fieldwork of Empire in the late 2000s, but my understanding of this issue deepened as I turned my focus to Livingstone Online in the 2010s. Livingstone Online is an immense project. Altogether it collects some of 15,000 images, the vast majority of them of manuscript images. So this project gave me the opportunity to reflect in depth on the issue of authorship and, more generally, on the composition process of archival exploration and travel documents. In this regard, I was particularly attracted to Livingstone’s field diaries and other notebooks in which he recorded his immediate impressions as he traveled. These, I found, contained the most heterogeneous information and best showed how heavily Livingstone’s travels relied on gathering information from those he met along the way.

So when the Livingstone Online projects and Fieldwork of Empire came to a conclusion, I was eager to turn my attention to One More Voice. In particular, the project offered the chance to think through the complexities of authorship in the archival texts I’d encountered. Yes, the texts did contain an array of voices, but it was also important to remember that the voices were mediated by the British authors, like Livingstone, who documented or otherwise recorded them in the manuscripts. Thus, the voices could not be read at face value because significant questions of mediation, representation, agency, and authenticity would always be there. For me the challenge became working with these voices, in an intentional and ethically responsible manner, in spite of the limitations posed by the source texts. This became the basis for developing One More Voice.

However, since One More Voice emerged from the ten-year wake of Livingstone Online, disentangling the former from the latter—in both concept and practice—took some time. Some steps were very easy and obvious. Despite its many successes, Livingstone Online posed considerable near and long-term challenges in terms of project development and sustainability. For example, although I became more and more proficient in understanding the coding of Livingstone Online over time, I always needed to rely on external programmers to do the heavy lifting. This, in turn, required funding them which, in turn, required consistently getting grants to get that funding. Likewise, all told the site had a footprint of nearly two terabytes, a point that posed long-term hosting issues as it was very expensive to host such a project and required a continuous outlay of funding. This issue was only resolved in 2020 when one of our contributors, Justin Livingstone, used his own project funds to buy a server for us.

So with One More Voice, I made some very strategic decisions to get around such issues. First, I determined to do all the coding myself. I thus built the entire One More Voice site from absolute scratch using HTML, CSS, and a touch of Javascript. Only in very rare instances did I reach to more experienced programmers with help resolving specific issues. My decision to build the site myself meant that the One More Voice did not have all the technological affordances of Livingstone Online, but meant that site development would not rely on anyone but me and, as a result, that the site could be developed and maintained easily. Since I was only using such basic technologies, it also meant that I could easily train other scholars to help develop the site.

I also decided that One More Voice would not be an image or text repository. We would, instead, draw on sites like the Internet Archive and Hathi Trust for our longer texts like books. We would draw on existing open-access repositories wherever possible to get our images, rather than trying to arrange for digitization. We would also only use images at the sizes needed to display them properly on the online, but we would not be a formal repository for such images. These decisions, among others, reduced the overall footprint of the site to a few hundred megabytes, meaning that it could be easily hosted online for free, ported between different hosts if needed, and/or even stored on a small flash drive.

These decisions, which I made when I was starting up One More Voice, were still cosmetic. The decisions avoided some of the most difficult issues of development and maintenance associated with Livingstone Online. What took a longer time and required more critical reflection was a shift in the overall mission of One More Voice. Initially, the project started as an archive, with the goal of collecting ever more of the materials of the individuals we published, ‘racialized creators in British imperial and colonial archives’, in digital facsimile editions. These editions would consist completely of code—first XML, then transformed into HTML—and use the digital to approximate the materials features of the original documents. So each document that we published took considerable time to encode and was itself a kind of craftwork.

However, my collaborators and I also recognized a kind of infinite openendedness to this new project—that there would always be one more voice to add, hence the name of the site. This recognition became the kernel of the subsequent direction of the site, as did my involvement with Undisciplining the Victorian Classroom, which started just a few months after the launch of One More Voice. In short, I came to realize and formally acknowledged, first, that the project would always be incomplete and, second, that it would be a mistake to develop yet another archival project like Livingstone Online because of the association of such digital archives with the colonial archives that helped enable colonialism.

There was not one specific moment when this happened, but within a year or so of its launch One More Voice ceased to be an archival project, first in concept, then in practice. Instead, the focus shifted to promoting critical engagement—especially critical engagement rooted in racial and social justice—with the primary materials that we documented and identified on the site. So, yes, One More Voice might be said to be decentering archival studies in this regard.

LRC: In many of your public talks, you emphasized how your DH projects aimed at a kind of structural intervention in the Academy to change the conditions of the Academy for the better. Could you give a concrete example of that?

AW: Sure, I’d be happy to do that. Undisciplining the Victorian Classroom is the perfect example. This project, in contrast to every other DH project on which I’ve ever worked, focuses on pedagogy not research and, in the words of its home page ‘reimagines how to teach Victorian Studies through a positive, race-conscious lens’. It also advocates for engaging with a variety of disciplines as part of this endeavor such as African, Asian, Indigenous, and Critical Ethnic Studies, and it seeks to provide support for some of the most vulnerable and/or underserved populations in the academy. These include faculty of color, graduate students, contingent faculty, and women.

The project is also very different from every other project on which I’ve worked because of the way it developed and because of its explicit activist focus. The project started in 2020. As we all know, 2020 was unlike any other year in recent history. The year began with the pandemic, which resulted in various forms of lockdown across the world. The year also witnessed the brutal murder of George Floyd, which led to widespread international protests centered on promoting racial justice. These things happened quickly, in the span of a few months, and were transformative for global society.

The developments, especially the latter, also led to an intense soul searching in various disciplines and fields regarding the whiteness and white supremacist ideas that structured practice and knowledge in these areas. In our own field of Victorian Studies, the summer of 2020 also saw the publication of the landmark essay called ‘Undisciplining Victorian Studies’ by Ronjaunee Chatterjee, Alicia Mireles Christoff, and Amy R. Wong. This essay took Victorian Studies to task for its whiteness and called for a significant restructuring of the field due to its inherently racist practices. Coming as it did in the summer of 2020 meant that the essay appeared at a very timely moment, in a way that spoke directly to the national and international events that we were all witnessing. For me and for the colleagues in the field with whom I eventually founded Undisciplining the Victorian Classroom the essay also served as a call to arms, as a motivating agent to develop a DH project that would put into practice the transformative concepts advanced by the essay.

As a result, within a few weeks of the essay’s publication I and three other Victorianists—Pearl Chaozon Bauer, Sophia Hsu, and Ryan Fong—started in on weekly or biweekly meetings during which we decided to make an intervention and took up intense discussion on what form our intervention would take. We were not in a hurry because we wanted to do our work well and because we wanted our work to have a deep and lasting impact in the field, not be another flash in the pan. Our discussions lasted into the fall and eventually resulted in a simple initial iteration of the Undisciplining the Victorian Classroom site, at first not more than a single webpage with our basic mission. We also put out a call for collaborators with whom we might develop critical materials for the site and, as a result, soon each of the four of us was leading one such group. We had a goal of releasing a formal set of materials by the spring of 2021.

We also made an unusual move, one that ended up distinguishing us from many other ventures of a similar nature then launching in our field and other fields. We decided we would focus on teaching, not research, and that our site publications would center on the materials created by teachers such as lesson plans and syllabi, not the standard journal- or edited book-type publications. Teaching, we recognized, was the place where some of the most amazing scholarship in our field was happening, but it was not an area that was receiving due recognition because of the academy’s fetishization of research. Not by coincidence at many many academic institutions across the US and elsewhere this supposedly secondary but ultimately foundational teaching scholarship was also being developed most heavily by the populations we most wanted to support: faculty of color, graduate students, contingent faculty, and women.

As a result, we realized that our best opportunity for structural intervention in the spirit of our goals was by, first, affirming teaching in our field by creating a space for peer-reviewed publication of teaching materials; second, by recognizing it as a site of disciplinary transformation; and, third, by seeking to elevate and provide community and support for those populations on whom the teaching burden fell most heavily in the academy.

Of course, it took a lot of effort to establish this project, to fully articulate these ideas through ongoing consensus—everything was not fully worked out at one go as it now seems!—and to realize our ideas in practice. But the initial founders and I proved very committed to our goals and developed a very vibrant way of working together, initially with one another and eventually with all our collaborators and contributors. Our initial batch of materials was published to a very positive reception in the field and led to a variety of opportunities, such as a forum in Victorian Studies through which we created a chance to publish for ten scholar-teachers of colors whose voices might otherwise not be heard in this way because of structural inequalities of the field of Victorian Studies. Part of this had to do with the passion and care which we brought to our work, but a key part of it also had to do with the humanity with which we treated our contributors, whether it be by things like instituting flexible deadlines, using open peer review, or providing support via mentorship.

So ultimately the structural intervention of this project inheres in many of its dimensions, from the materials it publishes, to the individuals it seeks to support, to the work it does in valorizing pedagogical practice.

LRC: From the Victorian Web (G. Landow) to the Rossetti Archive and NINES (J. McGann), Victorian Studies has a long history of using technology to offer innovative approaches to the field. Do you consider your DH projects as in a way, inheriting from these pioneering projects? If so, in what fashion? If not, in what way are they distinct?

AW: The history of my relationship with DH is a bit of an unusual one. As I noted earlier, I started out as a technophobe and got involved with DH first only when it was only absolutely essential to reading a specific archival text. However, there’s more to it. Early in my career as a scholar I was no less than twice in locations where groundbreaking DH work was happening and/or surrounded by people that would later become very prominent leaders in DH scholarship.

In the first case, it was during my M.A. when I was at the University of Virginia (UVa) in the late 1990s. From friends and classmates, I heard about all kinds of DH things going on on campus. UVa faculty included individuals who are now distinguished digital humanists like Jerome McGann and Alison Booth. My classmates were people like Bethany Nowviskie and Stephen Ramsay, who later also became distinguished digital humanists. (Just by sheer chance, Steve Ramsay is now also colleague at UNL.) Yet during my whole time at UVa I had zero interest in DH. It just wasn’t my thing.

It was a similar situation in the early 2000s when I was pursuing my Ph.D. at the City University of New York (CUNY). The CUNY graduate student who called me to tell me I’d gotten into the program, and whom I subsequently went on to consider as a kind of big brother in the program, was Matt Gold. Matt, of course, went on to become a prominent digital humanist, launched the highly influential Debates in the Digital Humanities edited book series, and is now former president of both the flagship US-based DH organization and the international one. Yet in looking back to my graduate years at CUNY, I can’t remember ever discussing anything digital with Matt, not once! Same with Kathy Harris, now another prominent digital humanist. Kathy was one of the first friends I made at CUNY as a graduate student and, of course, it was thanks to her later that I got involved in DH later on (as I mentioned earlier). But DH was a topic we never discussed other in the context of her own work—her Ph.D. involved a digital component, that was very unusual at the time, and it was a challenging thing to do.

So it can seem a bit like DH was my destiny in spite of everything! However, because of this, my own DH foundations in nineteenth-century British Studies were not related to key work by people like George Landow and Jerome McGann. Rather I cut my teeth in DH by working with the people involved in the Archimedes Palimpsest Project—three US-based scientists (Roger L. Easton, Jr. Keith Knox, Bill Christens-Barry), a program manager who had previously worked in the US government (Mike Toth), and a data manager (Doug Emery). James Cummings, a scholar-programmer then at Oxford, was also fundamental in this for me, although he wasn’t formally part of the Archimedes team. All of these people were incredibly generous. It’s fair to say I knew nothing about DH, so they really taught me everything I knew at that stage!

As a result, I started with a technology that Victorianists hadn’t used—multispectral imaging—in fact, my first Livingstone project was the first project to apply this technology to a nineteenth-century British manuscript. Also the Archimedes Project was heavily grounded in archival studies thanks to its close connections with archives such as the Library of Congress. To this mix, I brought my own connections with archives like the National Library of Scotland, the David Livingstone Centre near Glasgow, the Special Collections of SOAS, and the Royal Geographical Society. So my DH work started with a prominent archival focus, and, as a result, key concerns of mine have always been things like documentation, data management, preservation standards, and long-term sustainability—elements foundational to archival DH work, even if One More Voice has since turned away from an archival focus.

A final component in this mix of establishing me as a digital humanist was my interest in African Studies, which was quite pronounced and central when I was starting out in DH in the late 2000s and early 2010s. A lot of the kind of questions I had as a scholar turned on the influence of specific African and Arab communities, especially from East and Central Africa, on British expeditionary literature. So my research centered on how we might recover otherwise unavailable data about these communities from the manuscripts of well-known British ‘explorers’ like David Livingstone, Richard Burton, Henry Morton Stanley, and so forth. This put me at odds with a lot of work ongoing in Nineteenth-Century British Studies which centered on the top-down production of imperial discourse as a phenomenon.

In terms of someone like Livingstone, the work also gave me a very different focus from other scholarship on Livingstone, of which there is a lot. Livingstone is an iconic figure in British and especially Scottish culture, so during the main phase of my work on Livingstone Online people who interacted with me about the project—both scholars and members of the public—had a lot of questions and discussion points about Livingstone’s biography, how he rose to prominence, and so forth. This was not my area of expertise and, unfortunately, was just not an area in which I had interest as a scholar.

Rather than Livingstone the man, I was instead interested in Livingstone’s manuscripts as textual and material objects and about the first-hand and unique illumination that these manuscripts could provide about diverse African societies and nineteenth-century intercultural encounters. As a result, Livingstone Online under my directorship—in many many ways—worked hard to decenter Livingstone and center the many contexts, especially in Africa, in which Livingstone worked. This included recovering the history of many African and Arab individuals who might otherwise be forgotten and, more generally, foregrounding questions of ethnicity and race that remain central to my scholarship today, albeit in very different forms now.

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Laurence Roussillon-Constanty, « Interview with Adrian Wisnicki: Victorian Studies in the Digital Age »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 99 Printemps | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2024, consulté le 15 juin 2024. URL :

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