Introducing… the Victorian Meme Machine!

What would it take to make a Victorian joke funny again?
Nothing short of a miracle, you might think. After all, there are few things worse than a worn-out joke. Some provoke a laugh, and the best are retold to friends, but even the most delectable gags are soon discarded. While the great works of Victorian art and literature have been preserved and celebrated by successive generations, even the period’s most popular jokes have now been lost or forgotten.

Fortunately, thousands of these endangered jests have been preserved within the British Library’s digital collections. I applied to this year’s British Library Labs Competition because I wanted to find these forgotten gags and bring them back to life. Over the next couple of months we’re going to be working together on a new digital project – the ‘Victorian Meme Machine’ [VMM].

The VMM will create an extensive database of Victorian jokes that will be available for use by both researchers and members of the public. It will analyse jokes and semi-automatically pair them with an appropriate image (or series of images) drawn from the British Library’s digital collections and other participating archives. Users will be able to re-generate the pairings until they discover a […]

Nineteenth-Century Nuts: The Anatomy of a Victorian Lad’s Mag (Part 1)

Nineteenth-Century Nuts
The Anatomy of a Victorian Lad’s Mag

It’s all gone tits up. Nuts, the beleaguered lads’ mag, has finally cracked under the twin pressures of outrage (from those who didn’t read it) and indifference (from those who once did). As a Guardian-reading feminist I should probably be quite glad to see it go, but the historian in me feels a pang of sadness. I work on the history of popular newspapers and magazines, so whenever a long-running publication closes its doors I feel compelled to mourn its passing. Even when the odious News of the World went to joing the great newsagent in the sky I couldn’t bring myself to celebrate the death of a 160 year old publication, no matter how toxic it had become. Nuts doesn’t have anything like this kind of history, but its death still feels like the end of an era. Front magazine closed its doors in February, the company behind Penthouse filed for bankruptcy last Autumn, and the circulation figures of most other men’s magazines are in freefall. Now that one of the genre’s flagship publications has sunk, titles like Zoo, FHM and Loaded seem sure to follow. For better or worse, the lad’s mag is on its last legs.

I was seventeen when Nuts was launched, […]

Talk: Digital Detectives – Bridging the Gap Between the Archive and the Classroom

About 5 years ago, when I first started teaching, I led a small seminar group of 1st year history students. In the final class of the year we had a chat about how things had been going – whether they’d enjoyed their first year at university; if there was anything that they’d been struggling with; how their experiences compared to what they’d expected a history degree would be like. They were mostly fairly positive, in a shrugging, non-committal kind of way. However, after a bit of prodding one of the students said something interesting – something that has stuck with me ever since. “No offence”, he said –never a particularly promising start to a sentence – “but I’ve been a bit disappointed. I thought I was coming to university to learn about history, but all we do is talk about historians.”
This complaint – “I want to learn about history, not historians” – has stuck with me for two reasons. Firstly, I didn’t do a particularly good job of responding to him at the time. It was one of those questions that just caught me a bit off guard, like the time a student put his hand up in the […]

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