Read, Play, Build: Teaching Sherlock Holmes through Digital Humanities

paper, specified "long paper"
  1. 1. Joanna Elizabeth Swafford

    SUNY New Paltz, University of Virginia

Work text
This plain text was ingested for the purpose of full-text search, not to preserve original formatting or readability. For the most complete copy, refer to the original conference program.

The nineteenth century provides a perfect setting for a digital humanities class as a result of the similarities between the industrial and digital revolutions and between the proliferation of print and periodicals and the rise of blogs and Twitter. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are likewise the perfect subject matter: most of Holmes’s cases revolve around the technology of the day, from cabinet photographs in “A Scandal in Bohemia” to the typewriter in “A Case of Identity.” These connections enable students to learn about an earlier time period and literature while also historicizing their own technological moment. The resurgence in popularity of Holmes adaptations in recent years—Sherlock (BBC), Elementary, and Mr. Holmes, to name just a few—emphasizes these connections and also brings students into the classroom.
“Digital Tools for the 21st Century: Sherlock Holmes’s London” (taught from the Fall of 2014 through the Fall of 2015) is an introductory digital humanities class that uses Holmes stories as a corpus on which to practice a wide variety of basic digital humanities methodologies and tools, including visualizations, digital archives and editions, mapping, and distant reading. “Digital Tools” unites theory and practice with a tripartite structure for each unit, which I have dubbed “Read, Play, Build.” First, students read articles from books and blog posts about the pros and cons of each methodological approach. They then examine current projects to discuss the ways that each enhances scholarly fields and poses new research questions. Each unit concludes with an in-class lab component, in which they build a small project using a well-known tool. For example, in the archives and editions unit, students examine Jerome McGann’s “Radiant Textuality,” discuss the importance of preservation, access, and challenging the canon, examine The Rossetti Archive (and many others), and use the tool Juxta Editions to create their own, fully transcribed digital edition of a Sherlock Holmes story of their choice, using page images of the original printing in The Strand Magazine to learn about XML, basic bibliography, and best editorial practices. Likewise, in the unit on distant reading and topic modeling, they read Franco Moretti’s “The Slaughterhouse of Literature” and Ted Underwood’s blog posts on topic modeling, examine Mining the Dispatch to see that methodology in action, and topic model all 56 Sherlock Holmes short stories and analyze the trends in a blog post.
Although this class uses Holmes stories as base texts, it also situates these stories in their historical and cultural context by examining Victorian digital humanities projects from fields other than English. Students explore the Proceedings of the Old Bailey, a searchable archive of all court records in the Old Bailey from 1674-1913, to learn about crime, class, and the legal system. They also examine the David Livingstone 1871 Field Diary to learn about empire and Charles Booth’s poverty maps from 1898-1899 from the Charles Booth Online Archive to learn about socioeconomic conditions in London and to compare Conan Doyle’s fictional London to the actual city.
This paper will present the class in greater depth and will provide examples of the digital projects students collaboratively created—from contributing to the marginalia project Book Traces to making digital narrative maps of Holmes stories with Mapbox—in order to provide new models for student scholarship and their role in the future of the English departments and the humanities. It will also discuss the importance of the Holmes stories as the corpus for the class, as the character of Holmes himself provides a useful model for a digital humanist, especially when students may be unused to thinking about data in a humanities context, as he combines data science with humanities skills of close reading, archiving, and a love of literature and music.
Teaching Holmes with digital tools lets students build on the traditional humanities skills of close reading, understanding patterns, and using archives, and augments that scholarly toolkit by guiding students to a better understanding of rhetorical patterns and spatial significance, while also teaching them about collaboration, interdisciplinarity, and public humanities. In accordance with its public humanities focus, the course’s materials, including the syllabus and assignments, are publicly available on the class’s website ( By melding research with project-based learning, this course enables students to engage with research and Victorian history more actively than is common at the introductory level.

If this content appears in violation of your intellectual property rights, or you see errors or omissions, please reach out to Scott B. Weingart to discuss removing or amending the materials.

Conference Info


ADHO - 2016
"Digital Identities: the Past and the Future"

Hosted at Jagiellonian University, Pedagogical University of Krakow

Kraków, Poland

July 11, 2016 - July 16, 2016

454 works by 1072 authors indexed

Conference website:

Series: ADHO (11)

Organizers: ADHO